A tense moment, a jump, and a tumble to the ground are followed by the crushing weight of a 1,500 pound animal slamming into your body. For most of us, this is the stuff of nightmares. But for equestrians who spend day after day hurtling jumps, this is another day on the job. But new technology is allowing riders to breathe a sigh of relief, albeit a slightly restricted one. The New York Times reports that equestrians are wearing new air bag vests and that the trend is catching on.

Death and serious injury are nothing new to the world of horse-riding. In 2008, Olympian Darren Chiacchia was nearly crushed to death when he flipped over his horse, which then crashed on top of him. Chiacchia spent a week in a coma. Rotational falls, or somersaulting flips, are among the biggest danger for riders. In the past four years, at least 13 riders have been killed.

Kevin Baumgardner is the president of the United States Eventing Association. In 2008, he wrote “The overall trends, particularly over the last three years, are unmistakable and, in my view, totally unacceptable. I know that my concern that the sport has gotten off track is shared by many of our members, amateurs and professionals alike.” 

Luckily, equestrians now have a new option for safety – and it’s a bit like something you’d find in your car. Riders are now sporting inflatable vests. The vests are two pound contraptions worn over a protective foam vest, with a cord attached to the rider’s saddle. When the cord is yanked, it punctures a cartridge of carbon dioxide that inflates the vest. Many are made by Point Two Air Jackets, which sells the vests for up to $700.

Oliver Townend is a British rider who was wearing a vest last April when his horse fell on top of him at the Kentucky Three-Day Event in Lexington. As the NY Times reports, Townend broke his sternum, four ribs, his collarbone and the tips of his shoulder bones. However, he feels that he could have died without the vest. As Townend told the NY Times, “It’s certainly the biggest step forward in the safety of our sport, ever. I walked out of hospital the next day, where otherwise I would be in a box or in America for a month.”

So far, the international group governing the sport does not require that riders wear vests. Some point that the vests only limit the damage in the event of a fall, and that they do nothing to prevent them. Nonetheless, an independent study shows that the vests can protect the spine by 69 percent and internal organs as much as 20 percent.

But most riders aren’t complaining. The biggest problem most equestrians have with the vests is remembering to dislodge them before they dismount. David O’Connor is the president of the United States Equestrian Federation. As he told the NY Times, “It’s always a source of amusement. You hear a pop, and somebody’s looking like a marshmallow.”

For further reading:

Equestrians test air bag safety vests
New technology helps riders avoiding crushing injuries from horses and falls.