A PointTwo air vest modelled without body protector
Inflatable air vests for horse riders have been on the market for several years. As with many innovations they are expensive and have already been subject to refinement and variation.
What they can and can't do
Their effectiveness requires successful inflation. This depends on several factors such as a speed of inflation against time to impact. This is now very quick and unlikely to be an issue when the rider falls alone or is flung during a horse fall. However, manufacturers have worked to faster inflation times to maximise the likelihood of full inflation before impact in horse and rider falls. Air vests will not work without attaching the lanyard or without a full gas canister in place.
The aim of air vests is to to dissipate the force of impact in a fall and also reduce compression. They cover or shield to varying extent the chest including the ribs, thoracolumbar spine and upper abdomen. They appear to offer protection against fractured ribs and the risk of these damaging underlying organs; also against blunt injury to liver and spleen. Manufacturers claim added support and reduced 'shear' forces to the thoracolumbar spine.
It is important to remember that air vests do not provide protection against many of the most serious types of injury to horse riders. A large proportion of these are head injuries. It is also very unlikely that air vests protect against commoner patterns of spinal injury. The 'jockey style' cervical spine injury results from hyper flexion of the neck and 'dressage' style thoracolumbar spinal injury results from an axial load when landing on one's seat. Air vests should offer protection against direct impact to the back of the pelvis; there may be some partial protection from the side depending on the type of fall. Many pelvic fractures result from forces transmitted up the legs.
What evidence exists in their favour?
Air vests are still a relatively new innovation in riding, not much independent information is available, there are some differences between the models available and the significance of this is not clear.
The concept of air vests is very attractive but at this stage it is not possible to say that they reduce the risk of injury or by how much without qualification. They are a great idea and they probably improve safety but we don’t yet know for sure. Of course we don’t necessarily need to know for sure in order to be convinced as individuals that we should wear an air vest. The same observations might have been made about the level of proof and parachutes when they were first introduced. The argument for air vests is not so clear because fortunately many riders have survived many bad falls without wearing air vests; the same could not be said of airmen without parachutes. Safety in equestrian sport has benefitted from the cumulative effect of stepwise improvements such as fence design, body protectors and now – possibly - air vests. Away from higher risk sports, it is likely that air vests will be worn increasingly by riders in situations under which they would not now wear a body protector. In terms of scale, their impact on safety may be greatest here but perhaps even harder to quantify.
The evidence in favour of air vests comes from two broad sources: test data and anecdote. The manufacturers have encouraging test data from independent test organisations. The tests involved measure forces and dissipation of these by air vests. They also measure functional factors such as speed of inflation. There is a growing number of favourable reports from riders who have experienced bad falls in recent years. A scientific approach would throw a rider off a horse with an air vest and then repeat the experiment without one. We are unlikely to obtain this level of proof! Over time we must hope that we will see a reduction in the rate of serious injury resulting from falls. British Eventing (BE) have been collecting some information on air vests as part of their dataset on all falls at BE competitions and this may yet provide some useful evidence. There is no doubt that more riders are wearing air vests in eventing (41% of all fallers wore an air vest in 2010/2011 BE season, this figure rose to 47% of all fallers in 2011/2012; air vests deployed in 94% of these falls - courtesy of BE)
As it happens air vest manufacturers have used different testing authorities so the testing process is not an easy point of comparison (Hit-Air the facts, Point Two Research and Development). The link to safety research on the Helite website currently displays the Transport Research Laboratory 2010 assessment of the Point Two for whom they manufactured. Different companies have patented some aspects of their products which will almost certainly maintain significant distinctions between them.
Currently, the manufacturers of most air vests worn by riders in the UK are Point Two, Hit-Air and Helite. Unlike riding hats and body protectors there is no common industry standard for their manufacture although we understand this is currently being worked on by the manufacturers and BETA.
How have air vests developed?
All three companies have evolved differently. Hit-Air originally developed its technology for motorcycling and has adapted its products for horse riding. Point Two initially developed air vests for riders but now it too produces air vests for motorcyclists. Helite manufactured components for Point Two but now markets air vests with its own brand; it has an online shop but Treehouse Sporting Colours are the exclusive agent for Helite in the UK. Point Two have now taken control of the manufacture of their component parts. The track record, usage and endorsements claimed by Helite and Point Two up until recently has been largely shared. Moreover, the Treehouse 'original' air vest has been referred to by some retail sites as 'used to be' the Point Two 'Pro-Air' which, whilst not entirely inaccurate, is likely to add confusion about the provenance of these air vests.
One goal for manufacturers is to reduce the time taken for full inflation of the air vest. This was 0.25 seconds for the early Point Two vests. This is very quick but although current quoted inflation times still vary between the manufacturers they are closer to 0.1 seconds now.
Sometimes riders and horses fall together and the rider may not leave the saddle sufficiently to apply force to the lanyard that activates the air vest until relatively late in the fall. These ‘rotational’ falls, such as when the horse and rider somersault together, are the most dangerous in terms of rider fatalities.
General points about air vests:
- Provide dynamic protection: protection against impact is increased only for the period of inflation
- Inflation is triggered by the rider coming out of the saddle thereby applying sufficient force to a lanyard attaching the air vest to the saddle
- Tests suggest significantly improved protection against impact over the upper body, spine and back of the pelvis compared to body protectors alone
- Both manufacturers highlight neck support which they hope reduces the risk of hyperextending the neck - we are not aware if this has been subject to testing - note comments on spinal injuries above
- Protection against angular objects may be incomplete due to the positioning of the inflatable parts of the vest; sharp objects may perforate or puncture
- Must be worn with an approved body protector for racing and eventing - for reasons above they provide complimentary protection
- Can be worn alone as protective equipment at any other time - less bulky and probably more comfortable than body protectors
- Gas canisters must be replaced after deployment; significant cost; accidental deployment common (such as dismounting without undoing lanyard)
- Manufacturers' canisters must be used – alternatives will render equipment useless and potentially dangerous
- Regular servicing recommended by manufacturers
- Trial deployment recommended before purchase - it's important to know what to expect
- Be aware that the noise of inflation sounds explosive and may spook horses
Some points to consider when making a choice of air vest:
- Manufacturers’ websites – they carry information about the testing data for their products
- Time to full inflation and how this is measured
- Distribution of air bags within the vest: chest, sides, spine, pelvis and neck. Are the differences between products significant?
- Pattern of inflation. How significant is ‘outward’ inflation? How does gas get from the canister to the furthest part of the air bag?
- Talk to company personnel about specifics - whereas the endorsements are easy to access on websites and YouTube
- Variants of the products exist - such as body protector + air vest combination, hi-viz versions for road users, 'blouson' versions and so forth