For thousands of riders every year, their ride ends up with a trip to the emergency room. We look at helmets, safety vests and stirrups – how they protect, and how effective they are.We never plan to get injured when we saddle up our horses. Yet for thousands of riders every year, their ride ends up with a trip to the emergency room.
Kenda Lubeck, Farm Safety Coordinator for Alberta Agriculture and Forestry, and a former eventer who now focuses on dressage, says to make riding safer, no matter what discipline you ride, we should first be looking at safe environments and appropriate training for both horse and rider. Personal protective equipment – helmets, body protectors, and so on – are really the final step on the list of safety precautions, says Lubeck. Regardless, we all want to be sure we’re investing in the safest safety equipment.
Helmets – Protecting the MelonWhich helmet is the safest? That’s not a question with a clear answer. Jenny Beverage of Troxel Helmets explains: “Tell me all the parameters of your fall and impact, and I’ll target a helmet for you.” In other words, if you could predict exactly how you’d fall – the speed, the distance, the part of your head that would hit the ground first, and the surface you’d land on – you could create the perfect helmet. But with so many unpredictable factors involved, helmets are designed to provide a broad range of protection.
Individual companies do research for their own products. Beverage says, “Troxel has an aggressive research program, especially related to the newest traumatic brain injury (TBI) and related insights from scientists. For example, we are learning more about rotational impacts and low-velocity impacts and TBIs.”
Out of this research, new design elements for helmets may emerge, and if they prove successful the ASTM (American Society for Testing Materials) may add them to their own requirements. Through this process, Lubeck says, helmets overall become safer. Research on head trauma in other sports such as football, hockey, and cycling is also fed into equestrian helmet design and testing.
Are the more expensive helmets better than the cheaper ones? No, according to research by the Equestrian Medical Safety Association (EMSA). While all approved helmets meet the minimum standards, the EMSA found that, based on limited data, the least expensive helmets actually tested the best.
The more expensive helmets do have some advantages – more features (such as vents for cooling), a variety of stylish designs and fabrics, and even bling. Ultimately, the safest helmet is the one the rider wears – and that means whenever someone is working around horses. A 2014 study conducted in Kentucky found that head trauma frequency was equal between mounted and unmounted equestrians. Two of the three deaths in their study were due to severe head injury from a kick. The researchers recommend riders should wear helmets when working around horses as well as when riding. As well, a 2005 study found that about 30% of the horseback riding-related injuries that require emergency room visits are caused by a person being kicked by a horse.
Fit impacts the effectiveness of a helmet. It should fit snugly (but not tightly) around the entire skull and sit just above the eyebrows. If wiggled, the skin around the forehead should move with the helmet. The straps, when done up, should allow conversation but tug if the mouth is opened wide.
Beverage says, “The number one issue is feeling good about your helmet and being comfortable in it. Ask yourself: is your helmet comfortable in hot weather? Does it fit your style of riding? Does it fit the varied ways you wear your hair? Is it comfortable for your full range of riding activities?” A style or design that fits your personality also makes it more likely that you’ll wear the helmet. For younger riders whose heads are still growing, or those who frequently change their hair styles, a helmet with an adjustable fit system may be a safer choice, she adds.
The EMSA notes that helmets should be replaced according to manufacturer specifications, which can range from every three to eight years. However, since helmet foam is made for one-time use, if a helmet has been in a crash or dropped onto a hard surface it is no longer as protective even if it shows no visible damage and should be replaced.
The main purpose of a safety vest is to reduce soft tissue injury in the unfortunate chance you are to suffer an unplanned, involuntary dismount. Modern safety vests do not claim to be life-saving devices, but they will help soften the blow upon landing or if a hoof were to glance off your chest.
Several international standards have been developed to test the effectiveness of equestrian safety vests. In such testing, the vests will be placed on a sensor, and quantifiable force applied. The reading on the sensor will show how much impact the foam material absorbed. In addition, these standards have specific regulations for the vests’ fastening systems, shape, and design.
If you purchase an accredited vest (BETA, ASTM, SEI), you can be assured that its design and materials have met or surpassed a certain standard of safety. However, that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily better than an untested vest.
Popular vests in Eventing (in alphabetical order):
Airowear’s design is similar to Charles Owen, using large pieces of shock-absorbing foam. These vests are slightly more flexible, as they are supple without needing warm-up time. Airowear vests meet the BETA 2009 standard and are offered in a wide variety of gender-specific sizes. This vest may be a little pricier, but you have an excellent chance of finding a good fit.
Charles Owen offers a durable safety vest that meets the ASTM standard as well as BETA 2009. This vest is made in a “turtle shell” style from perforated Gelfoam panels that conform to your shape when warmed by body heat. The advantage to this design is that the large pieces of foam are very effective at absorbing and dispersing impact, offering a high level of protection. The downside is that it is bulkier and less comfortable than the segmented style of Tipperary vests.
Intec is not trying to revolutionize the safety vest market. Instead they have seen what riders like, copied it, and offered it at a lower price. Intec has two designs; the FlexRider Cushioned riding vest, and the FlexRider Crusader riding vest. The Cushioned riding vest is a knock-off of the traditional Tipperary Eventer style vest, with a front zipper, side laces, and flexible segmented foam blocks. This vest is NOT tested to any sort of standard, and the company is very upfront with that. The Crusader riding vest is ASTM-approved and similar to the Airowear type vest. It has a front covered zipper with adjustable velcro sides and shoulders. Its outer shell is removable for washing. Both Intec vests are available at about half the cost of their name-brand counterparts.
Kanteq vests are designed with women in mind using a revolutionary foam material in large, well-shaped panels. This “KNOX” foam material has been independently tested and shown to provide up to 20% more shock absorption and dissipation than traditional PVC nitrile foam used in many other safety vests. Kanteq vests are on the more expensive side, but are BETA-approved and offer something unique to the market.
If you go to any horse trial in North America this weekend, chances are you will see a hundred Tipperary Eventer vests. Many riders have long trusted these vests, from beginner novice up to the Olympics. Riders like them because they are lightweight and highly flexible, allowing for uninhibited movement. The downside is that the traditional Tipperary Eventer vest is not approved by a big regulatory agency; it is widely assumed that the side laces along with the fabric covered gaps between foam panels won’t pass safety tests due to the remote possibility of a puncture. Still…thousands of eventers wear their Tipperary vests with comfortable confidence.
If you like the Tipperary fit and style, but want something approved, check out the ASTM-certified Pro 3015 Tipperary vest. The company took their popular model and updated it to meet current standards. It’s more expensive and possibly a less flexible than the original Eventer model, but it is a nice addition to their product line, with extra peace of mind.
This vest isn’t terribly popular and in fact it’s officially discontinued. But, there are limited number of them still available in tack stores and could be an option if the size is right for you. The EXO was a revolutionary design consisting of a high-tech magnesium alloy frame encompassing your upper body. It is BETA-approved. This vest is the ONLY model capable of protecting riders from some crushing injuries– think of it as a rider’s roll cage. The downside of the EXO is it is heavier, bulky, and you are essentially locked into it– it takes an allen key to undo the shoulder bolts (key included). Its rigidity makes for a very protective garment, but can be difficult to fit a variety of sizes. The EXO is also significantly pricier than other vests, at close to $600 USD. However, if you compare it to the cost of an air vest (example: Point Two ProAir retails for $675 USD), the price doesn’t seem so bad.
It would be nice to see some international cooperation in safety standards and some published independent comparison testing among brands.
Until then, it’s up to you to decide what vest to wear on cross-country. While British Eventing rules mandate that a BETA-approved vest must be worn, current USEA rules only “recommend” ASTM certification. Equine Canada rules are very slack only stating, “A body protective vest must be worn. An inflatable vest is permitted only if worn over the body protective vest.” (section D114.2 Dress – Cross Country test).
Choose the best vest you can afford that enables you to ride comfortably and confidently. You need to be confident about the vest’s ability to protect you, and confident in your ability to perform.
Be realistic and understand that in certain situations a vest is not going to save you from injury or death. Eventing can be dangerous; it is up to you to be informed about the equipment you choose.
Know the rules about body protectors in your national federation
For example, here are the Canadian, American and British Eventing requirements:
BETA (British Equestrian Trade Association): Is not simply a testing agency, it’s a trade organization that has other requirements of its members.
– Phoenix Performance Products – Tipperary Eventer Pro – 3015
– Superhouse Limited – USG SHBP-002