Protective Riding Vests: Which One is Right for Me?

courtesy of SmartPak

Have you ever wondered if you should be wearing a protective riding vest, or stared at all the different types, styles, colors, and brands of protective vests and wondered how to choose the right one? As the store manager of SmartPak’s retail store in Natick, MA, I helped many customers choose protective riding vests that best suited their riding style and their wallet. I’m happy to share that information with you so you can also make an informed choice when shopping for a protective riding vest!

Protective vests started being used in the 1980’s and 90’s for multiple sports – event riders, steeplechase jockeys and rodeo riders all embraced the opportunity for additional safety. The earliest vests looked like lifejackets, but technology has changed the form and function over the last few decades as well as who uses protective vests. Jockeys and exercise riders wear vests on the track, and rodeo riders wear them to ride bucking broncs and bulls. In some countries, most beginner riders wear them for lessons. Vests are mandatory for eventing riders in recognized competitions during the cross-country phase.

Similar to riding helmets, there are safety testing standards set by organizations such as ASTM, BETA and SEI, although not all protective riding vests are certified. More and more riders are wearing vests for everyday riding – for trail riding, in the hunt field, schooling and showing on the flat and over fences in the ring, as well as more traditional use while galloping and cross-country jumping.

Types of Protective Riding Vests

There are two main categories of protective vests – those that are made of shock-absorbing materials, which I will refer to as passive vests, and those that require deployment of an air canister that rapidly inflate the vest to provide protection, which I will call air vests.

Passive vests can be approved or non-approved. Approved passive vests tend to be slightly heavier, with dense foam overlapped to prevent open seams and decrease the likelihood of impalement injuries. They can be a bit bulky, but most are made of materials that mold to the body, especially in warmer weather, so they become more comfortable with use. Non-approved passive vests tend to be lighter, with seams around foam blocks that allow for greater flexibility and comfort, but the level of protection is lower.

Air vests are lightweight shells with a compressed air cartridge attached to them. These vests must be tethered to the front of the saddle with a provided cord and will deploy only when the rider becomes separated forcefully from the horse, usually due to a fall, at which point the cord will pull the trigger from the vest, deploying the air cartridge and inflating the air vest in a blink of the eye. Due to the need for activation, there are circumstances when air vests will not deploy, such as the horse and riding falling together and not separating far enough to deploy the vest. Due to this, rules in eventing state that riders must wear a passive vest underneath an air vest. Several manufacturers have combo vests that combine an approved passive vest with an air vest in one unit.

How to Choose the Right Protective Riding Vest

So, which one should you choose? That depends on what level of protection you are looking for, what comfort level you would like, and how much you are willing to spend. Vests with the highest level of protection can be the bulkiest to ride in, and therefore may not be as suitable for everyday riding, while the higher risks associated with riding at speed over fences across varied terrain make it more crucial to wear maximum protection.

You’ll see riders of all disciplines riding in different types of vests, though you’ll commonly see eventers riding cross-country in approved vests with integrated or separate and layered air vests, while casual riders may use a more comfortable unapproved vest every time they ride. If you’re not sure about which type is right for you, be sure to evaluate the possible options with your trainer.

Protective riding vests can deteriorate over time due to dirt, wear and tear, and impacts that affect the absorption of shock. To ensure longevity of your protective vests, it is important to maintain their cleanliness and shape, and check them regularly for damage. For inflatable air vests, most manufacturers recommend sending them back for annual inspection to insure the air bladders are intact and the mechanisms are working properly. For traditional protective vests, this includes following the care instructions and checking seams and straps for integrity. Some vests have an outer layer that can be machine or hand-washed once the protective padding is removed, while others are integrated and need to be spot-cleaned. It is important to keep your vest hanging on a wide, shaped hanger that provides more support than a wire hanger, to prevent the protective material from folding or molding around the thin wire. Many protective vests are made with memory foam, which can mold into uncomfortable shapes if not hung correctly, and they can become very stiff and rigid in cold weather. Protective materials can deteriorate over time, especially if left in direct sunlight and exposed to water, dirt and sweat, so replacing protective gear a minimum of every five years is a general rule of thumb. As protection equipment is constantly evolving thanks to technology and research, this allows you to keep up-to-date with the most effective protection.

How to Know if Your Protective Riding Vest Fits

Once your new vest arrives, how do you know if it fits? When you unpack your vest, save the packaging in case you have to return it, and leave the tags attached. Make sure you’re wearing something similar to what you would wear when you’ll be riding with your vest on. Loosen any straps or cords on the sides of the vest, then put it on and zip or clip the closures. Adjust any fitting straps or cords so the vest is snug without been tight – you shouldn’t feel like you are wearing a straight-jacket!

On the flip side, passive vests should move with you, so it shouldn’t be loose as you move around. If you can’t get it closed or it’s too big, try the next size up or down. If it seems to fit well, try sitting in a chair or in a saddle – does the back of the vest hit the chair or cantle of the saddle? If it shifts the vest up, the vest may be too long. You should be able to fit a few fingers between the bottom of the vest and the saddle, although this is less important for casual riding than it is for cross-country jumping, where you may need to lean back when jumping down banks.

If the vests seems very stiff when you first put it on, give it some time to warm up and mold to your body – walk around, sit on the couch, move around a bit to see if it will start to break in and move with you. For air vests, make sure you try them on over a passive vest if you plan to do so. These vests need to be slightly loose, so make sure you can fit a closed fist between the air vest and your body or the passive vest you plan to wear with it.

Don’t be discouraged if you don’t get the right size the first time. Protective riding vest fitting can be a bit of trial and error.