With life-ending injuries at stake each time a rider steps their foot in the irons, a common question asked is, ‘How can we make this sport safer?’ Over the last year, equestrians have seen a surge of support for airbag safety vests in the show ring. While safety vests are not a new phenomenon in the sport, commonly worn by eventing athletes, the recent innovation of inflatable vests has sparked a global discussion in the show jumping industry.
Since the inception of equestrian sports, many different safety measures have been adopted as the sport evolves. Hardshell body protectors were officially made mandatory for eventing competitors by the United States Equestrian Federation (USEF) and the United States Eventing Association (USEA) in 1996. Helmets have also gone through their share of improvements over the years, with regulations in place by the United States Pony Club (USPC) in 1983 requiring all mounted riders to wear a helmet. Today, helmets must also adhere to specific safety standards in order to be considered adequate for the show ring. In the United States, ASTM International, a global standards development organization, writes the safety standards for helmets, and an independent laboratory called the Safety Equipment Institute (SEI) ensures standards are met. The United States Equestrian Federation (USEF) and various other governing bodies and associations require ASTM/SEI certification. The first ASTM/SEI certified helmet was developed in 1990.
Safety is key for equestrians as accidents can happen to even the most successful athletes. Most notably, Irish Olympic show jumping athlete Kevin Babington suffered a catastrophic fall at the 2019 Hampton Classic Horse Show resulting in a spinal cord injury (SCI) that left him paralyzed from the chest down. The equestrian community rallied together to support the Babington family, including the creation of the Kevin Babington Foundation, an effort to both raise funds towards Babington’s recovery as well as promote safety education for all riders.
Babington’s daughter, Gwyneth Babington, is a junior athlete competing in the equitation, hunter and show jumping divisions. Her perspective on safety in the sport has changed drastically since her father’s accident, and she has since been vocal about her support of airbag safety vests.
Gwyneth explained, “My dad has been very clear, as well as every other SCI survivor I’ve spoken to about this —they believe a vest could have helped. I think everyone should be looking at it like this: for every little kid in your barn, or every junior rider or amateur looking up to you, even your friends, they are going to follow in your footsteps if you wear the vest. It needs to be a personal responsibility to protect the safety of other people and not just a personal choice for yourself. Nothing helps more than seeing professionals you look up to wearing them.”
Though not universally mandated in the sport, safety vests are not a new concept. The earliest variation of the airbag vest can be dated back to the 1970’s, though they are only recently growing in popularity due to advances in technology. According to a study by BMJ Open Sport Exercise Medicine in 2018, wearing an airbag vest can reduce the risk of injury by 56%. Thanks to improvements in design and an increased demand, many companies have developed inflatable vests that are comfortable, lightweight and breathable to ensure athletes are not restricted while they are riding.
Martin Fuchs is currently ranked World No. 2 on the Longines FEI World Ranking list and has been wearing his Freejump Airbag jacket for the last year. Fuchs made his debut in the safety vest at the 2019 Rolex Grand Prix at CHIO Aachen in Germany. Fuchs also makes an effort to wear his vest while he schools horses at home and travels with his vest as he rides unfamiliar sales horses.
Fuchs commented, “Safety first – I think it’s very important! It’s such a small thing to add and it can play such a big factor in your safety. I think it’s silly not to ride with the vest, and I hope, for the next generation, we can show them it’s normal and cool to wear an airbag. ”
In addition to Fuchs, many other international show jumping athletes have recently embraced the airbag technology, including Quentin Judge, Jimmy Torano, and Catherine Tyree, to name a few. For Tyree, though she has only been wearing her vest for a few months, it came in handy during this year’s American Gold Cup in Traverse City, Michigan, where she suffered a fall resulting in a sprained ankle. Tyree notes that her vest protected her from injuries that could have been much more serious.
“I ordered a vest and then wore it a week before American Gold Cup,” Tyree explained. “Then, as many people know, I fell off the second week and I think it saved me from injuring myself more seriously. I could have been really hurt, so for me it was a no brainer to continue wearing it.”
She continued, “I think if you have the ability to wear a vest and afford one, it is definitely something that everyone should do. As horrible as it may sound, if the look of a vest turns you off, there are a lot more serious things that could happen if you don’t have a vest on. Having gone through an incident where I got to experience first hand the protection the vest has to offer, I want to try to help normalize it as quickly as possible and get people on board. It is great to see that a lot of people are wanting to wear them now.”
While the popularity of airbag vests have grown amongst show jumping athletes, there is a stigma that remains within the more subjective hunter and equitation disciplines. For some, even wearing an airbag vest at home can be seen as a weakness. Athletes like Fuchs, Tyree, and Babington are working towards changing that stigma for equestrians of all ages and levels.
Particularly within the equitation discipline, historically judged on looks and turnout, 18-year-old Sam Walker has begun changing the stigma about airbag vests. Just over one month ago, Walker suffered a fall resulting in a broken collarbone while he was competing in Aiken, South Carolina. Since then, Walker has invested in an airbag vest and has worn it at home, in the showjumping arena, and most recently while riding to a third place finish in the Dover Saddlery / USEF Hunter Seat Medal Finals at the Tryon International Equestrian Center.
Walker said, “It was pretty clear to me that if I would have had a vest in Aiken it could have helped save me, and I have seen quite a few horrific accidents where a vest could have helped. It is super light weight and gives you a sense of comfort while wearing it. There is no shame in wearing one – whether you compete in the hunter, jumper or equitation divisions, it really does not matter. I am in full support of wearing a safety vest, and if the best riders in the world can wear one there is no reason you can’t.”
Dover Saddlery / USEF Hunter Seat Medal Finals judges Rachel Kennedy and Ralph Caristo showed their support of the airbag vest movement, even in the equitation ring. Caristo commented, “I certainly don’t mind it at all, it doesn’t bother me. Safety is an important issue in our business and if that is something that is going to help riders minimize injury, it does not change my perspective of judging whether it is equitation or hunters. Anything that will improve the safety of our industry and our riders should certainly be validated. I’m not looking to force people, but if it becomes mandatory I don’t see anything wrong with that.”
Kennedy echoed Caristo’s sentiment, adding, “You can wear a green riding coat with a black vest and you don’t even see it, and for a properly fitted vest, if you do see it you are not paying attention to the right things. The more people notice other people wearing it, the more people will think, ‘If they can do it, I can do it.’”
On the other side of the coin, many have spoken up about the lack of research supporting the safety claims of the various airbag vest companies. Many question the legitimacy of inflatable vests, referencing the lack of research in order to obtain a proper safety rating. While the increase in demand has sparked innovation in airbag vest design, many still believe more affordable options should be available. Prices range anywhere from $300 to $1200 in order to purchase both an inflatable vest as well as replacement canisters. Different variations are available from companies like Horse Pilot, Free Jump, Helite, Hit-Air, and Charles Owen, to name a few.
Due to the lack of solid research, safety requirements and accurate safety ratings in place for airbag vests, the eventing community is still required to have a hardshell in addition to an airbag. An airbag vest is not currently considered an equal substitute for hard shell vests that are required by USEF and the USEA. According to EV114 in the USEA rulebook, “The Federation recommends that the vest should pass or surpass the current ASTM standard F1937 or be certified by the Safety Equipment Institute. Inflatable vests are permitted only when worn over a body protecting vest. Violation of this rule shall be penalized at the discretion of the Ground Jury, and may result in elimination.”
Taking into considering the lack of research behind the implementation of airbag vests, only time will tell if they become the required norm. The push from athletes and trainers throughout all disciplines continues to grow, so the question remains – is it better to be safe than sorry?