Ledyard Equestrian clinic riders and my regular clients know how passionate I am about equestrian safety-especially when it comes to my daughter Kaydy. (Bubble wrap, please!) Thankfully, she is very good with everything Dad says as far as doing the right things around the horses to stay safe. I am also happy to share that she has been wearing a safety vest regularly for the last two years and a lot of my regular clients are doing the same. While safety vests have been the norm in racing and eventing for years, they are just starting to gain ground in the hunter, hunter seat equitation and show jumping world.
The vest seems like a logical, straightforward way to be safer in a sport that is one of the most dangerous in the world. However, as with any relatively new technology there is some confusion and even pushback regarding efficacy and necessity. I have had conversations with some great horseman that have brought up some fair points, both for and against the use of protective body wear when working around horses. Fortunately for the advancement of the widespread use of the equipment, the ‘against’ argument so far has been exclusively situational. I hope to answer some of the critical questions you may have here in this article, in an effort to get more people thinking “pro-vest”.
Here I am working "Tyger" in a "Pessoa" rig. I have a protective vest on underneath my coat in case of a kick.
Types of Vests
Equestrian safety vests break down into two categories; impact absorption and airbag style.
Impact covers just that - hooves come flying, you land on a rock, you get stepped on, etc. These vests are designed to distribute that impact to minimize damage to the wearer. I wear one of these in certain situations; when I lunge a horse, teach a horse to load on a trailer and in the colder weather when I train. Besides the protection they offer, they help keep you warm! That said, there is an argument against only using an impact vest. They don't provide stabilization of the head, neck and spine in an accident, and that is something equestrians have got to consider when they are mounted.
Airbag style or "Air Vests" are completely different than impact vests. While they are much lighter and a far more comfortable choice in warm weather, they won't help keep you safe when working horses on the ground. They are only effective in the event of a fall from a horse. A cord attached to the saddle (see below), pulls a cannister that inflates the vest prior to impact. The critical difference here is the protection offered. The air vests are designed to stabilize the head, neck, and spine while also offering impact protection when hitting the ground. I typically use an air vest when I am jumping, on the trail or on a very green or spooky horse.
The air cannister attached to the saddle.
Reality and Arguments
This all sounds straightforward, right? Use an impact vest for work on the ground and an air vest when mounted. Well, it’s not quite that simple. There are several factors that need to be considered.
The pushback I receive from my daughter as well as others usually comes in hot weather. She wears an impact vest and they can get very hot in warmer weather, to the point of sacrificing the quality of the riding experience and also putting the rider at risk of being physically compromised by excessive heat. The lighter, more comfortable air vests require the user to be of a certain minimum weight, which she hadn't met until recently. She will move on to an air vest this year, but for some the air vest can be cost-prohibitive or at least cost-intimidating. I know that I am going to be very, very thoughful about which brand we decide to purchase for her.
This forces conversations that lead to compromises in the warmer weather, such as wearing the vest only in a "higher risk" situation like when we jump or when we are out on the trail. I understand it, but I don't necessarily like this mentality, because it can give the impression to a young rider that nothing can really happen to you when riding a horse on the flat, and we all know too well is not true. While jumping and galloping definitely poses more risk, all riding can be dangerous. That said, I do allow for flexibility to a given situation and even embrace it.
Kaydy on "Starbucks" wearing her impact-absorption style vest.
Judges Don't Care-Or Do They?
One argument against vests I have heard is that a judge may not like the rider as much if they are wearing a vest. In the equitation divisions, riders and trainers are concerned that they obscure the outline of the rider and therefore should not be used. I have been fortunate enough to judge horse shows for over twenty years, and I can assure you that I don't care one bit if you come into the ring with a safety vest. The majority of judges I talk with agree on the subject. Yes - even in the equitation. If you are still unsure, there are different styles of vests available that are less "noticeable" and fit the rider in a more complimentary way. No matter which way you go, though, please know that the vast majority of judges I have spoke with are behind the vest movement. Anything to make our sport safer is something great professionals care deeply about. I recently judged a hunter derby where I saw several air vests worn by professionals and amateurs and they looked great! The latest technology offered by some companies has them fitting so they are barely noticed over a show coat. However...
I heard a great point that came from another professional regarding flat classes and air vests. He argued that when a vest deploys, a "pop" sound occurs because of the cannister, which could spook the horse that the rider is on and potentially others around it. This is a fair point, so it brings us back to “situational” use. Perhaps riders could take it off it for the flat class and use it only for jumping. To go one step further on his point, what about on trails? Could the noise create a threat to spooky horses and make what could have been a benign fall turn into something bigger than it should be?
This is me and my Thoroughbred horse, "Cruiser" at a show in Vermont in the early part of the century. Note the "protective headgear".
Are We There Yet?
I am from the era where a "helmet" was nothing but a shell, and it was not always mandatory. I still have the helmet; no strap, nothing on the inside - just a shell. Somehow, I actually felt protected with it on! Now I wouldn't dare ride without a helmet that is “approved”, preferably with the "MIPS" system and a buckle securely fastened. I sense this goes for the majority of people today who ride hunters and jumpers.
We are definitely not to the point of "mandatory" with the vests. I will still shed it on the hot days or sometimes leave it off when jumping "low” jumps on a horse I know well. Although even as I write this, I don’t like how it sounds. From a safety perspective and as an example to other riders, I need to be more consistent with it - just as I had to learn to be more consistent with the use of the helmet. I do believe that use of the safety vest for riders is worth the effort, and I look forward to the technology improving for both fit and for the sound issue. I also have a hopeful vision that the efficacy gets proven to the point that they do become mandatory in competition. Anything that makes the sport safer, I believe makes it better. I will continue to stand behind their use both as a trainer and judge - and as a father. (It sure beats the bubble wrap!)
I would love to hear what you think about the use of equestrian safety vests. Please comment below or send me an email directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Shane Ledyard is a professional horseman from Bucks County, PA. He is a United States Equestrian Federation 'r' judge, trainer & coach as well as the author of the Amazon best-selling "Horse Gone Silent" trilogy. When not with the horses, he is a camping and baseball enthusiast. You can reach him at www.LedyardEquestrian.com and you can also follow him @ledyardequestrian and @horsegonesilent.
Shane Ledyard and Cynthia Weber's showhunter, "Boardwalk Empire".