Keep Calm and Kick on–And Consider an Air Vest

by Annie Penfield
Air Vest

Nervous and scared were the words of Tremaine Cooper in describing the goals of his design of the new Intermediate course at GMHA's Festival of Eventing last August. I was closer to terrified after walking the Preliminary cross-country. Due to the new upgrade, aimed at elevating this historic venue to a higher standard now set by Area 2, it was big. The beautiful new fences were landscaped and the terrain was graded and it promised an exciting ride. Even though it was my fifth Prelim of the season, and I had jumped clean at the previous four, and I knew we were capable, it was still, to me, really, really big.

Nervous and Scared: It never occurred to me that this was in fact a normal occurrence. Perhaps these could be appropriate emotions for the situation. As Tremaine stated, and Prelim course designer Janine McClain reiterated, to be nervous elicits better riding.

I had been nervous and scared at each preliminary event of the season—and at each of the four previous courses, I waited for this level to feel like the new normal. I haven't gone prelim since (I am pained to tell) the 80's. A lot has changed about the courses and to state the obvious: a lot has changed for me. I am still a weekend warrior—an adult amateur—but also now the mother of three. And at the prelim level the margin for error is less forgiving, hence the addition of the Air Vest to my gear.

Set off by a rip cord attached to your saddle, an Air Vest will inflate between .2 to.09 seconds depending on the model. Either way, it inflates before you hit the ground. It covers the lower kidneys, tail bone, hips, chest, and surrounds the neck thus reducing spinal cord, chest and internal injuries. Either model, the Point 2 or the Hit Air Vests, achieves coverage for neck, torso, and hips.

I first purchased an Air Vest when Preliminary was a dim hope on my horizon and the Area 1 Young Riders were doing a fundraiser. Air Vests were new to the market and I was unsure about picking them up for Strafford Saddlery, mostly because they were an expensive item and I wasn't sure I really had the market for them. And I did question the relevance: if geared toward a rotational fall when crushing injuries are devastating to the rider, would the air vest help if the rider did not separate from the horse? So what was really gained with an air vest over a regular vest? And if the rider was crushed and then the vest inflated, pressing on broken bones—how painful. Not to mention my fear that if I got jumped out of the tack (which happens more than I care to admit), I did fear it would blow and I would be riding like the Michelin Man.

Still I purchased one to try it out, and I hung in the trailer.

Then I received requests for air vests, mostly from the parents of young riders and then older recreational riders. And I decided to pick up the Hit Air Vest—really a price point issue but feeling it offered a high level of safety.

Still my vest hung in the trailer.

Then when I was at an event last year, a friend fell off on cross-country. She did not have a rotational fall, and she did not even fall at a fence. She fell when her horse stumbled galloping down hill. I saw her walk across the finish line with a big smile and the unzipped, exploded Air Vest. That was the moment. She would not to be sore tomorrow and that was a big attraction. And although it's realistic to consider the worst case scenario when riding horses, there are more often the minor falls.

I do fear falling, but even more I fear the day after the fall. I fear the pain and I dread how it's going to aggravate my regular life—that is if I'm lucky to sustain minor injuries. And the Air Vest was a promise to reduce the impact of the fall, not only reducing the level of injury but reducing the pain, and thus allowing me to continue the rigors of normal life.

So at my next XC schooling, I took the Air Vest off the hanger in my trailer. I attached it to saddle, clipped it in, and for a moment congratulated myself on my preparedness and in doing so patted my side to discover no air cartridge. But in the very least I had learned how to attach it properly to both the saddle and to myself.

So I do what you never do: I put on a new piece of equipment at the competition itself. I clipped in at my first Preliminary Horse Trial and have been riding in it ever since.

It was probably the hottest summer season ever here in Vermont (Global Climate Change, future blog topic) and I wore a Charles Owen Protective Vest and Point 2 Air Vest all summer. You get used to it. Still, I am not sure I will get used to the preliminary fences. But I did have the ride of my life over that August GMHA course and I rode over the finish line intact and smiling.

Check out our recent Facebook Live discussion all about safety vest choices & fit!