What do motorcycles, airplanes, and horses have in common? Vests that inflate when you pull the string! Last week we addressed protective vests (read about it here). When doing any cross country activity, you must wear a protective vest, but what about an air vest? They are completely optional. They may be a good option if you are not a cross country rider but want more protection, the vests are less bulky so they are easier to use in an every day situation.
So a little history on these vests, they were originally invented for motorcycle racing. As you can imagine, at those speeds, a fall will hurt, bad. Add some concrete and you just earned a very expensive trip in an ambulance. If well fitted and well adjusted, they will inflate before you hit the ground, similar to an airbag in your car. “So basically an airbag for motorcycles.” Yep. If you are nearby when one goes off, at least the first time, it will scare the shit out of you.
“How does it work?” Well there is an air canister inside the vest, similar to a self inflating life jacket, think airplanes. “Your exits are here, 2 over the wings, and at the back of the plane.” For those who have never been in a plane crash with water exits, this small air canister is shoved in part of the vest and looks a lot like a mini scuba tank. So when you pull on the cord/lanyard on your vest, a trigger like a gun is pulled which shoots a “firing pin” (yep similar to a gun) that punctures a hole in the tiny scuba tank. “Greaaat, so if I fall off, I am firing an air gun next to fluffy pony?” Yes, and it may freak your horse out, although it’s not super loud, it is a bit exciting.
“So how does the air come out of the canister and fill the vest? Does it just think that someone is firing a gun at it and decide it needs to leave the canister on principle. Like the neighborhood is suddenly taken over by gang members?” Sort of. Much like a regular scuba tank or propane tank for your grill, the gas inside is under pressure. “Over crowded” is a good way of thinking of it. If you are locked in a packed room with a gazillion other people, it’s hot, there aren’t any chairs, then you hear the door unlock and someone yell, “Look a way out!” people will stampede to get out. Same with the CO2 in the canister. “I’m hot just thinking about that, I’m going to turn on a fan.”
As with all other safety equipment, proper fit and adjustment is key. There is a lanyard that goes from the vest to the saddle, if the lanyard is not short enough, you will hit the ground before the vest deploys, if its too short you will lean over to adjust your boot and deploy the vest (yes I saw this happen once, yes I laughed after I knew the person was ok). If you forget to unhook it before you get off, you deploy the vest. It does take some force to deploy the vest, 33lbs. is the smallest load I saw, so if you aren’t too enthusiastic about getting off, you might feel it before you deploy it.
Getting down to the vests, there are 2 types of deployment internal and external. “What the heck does that mean?” During one of my offshore training classes, I put on a life vest and inflated it as a demonstration. For safety reasons, there are actually 2 vests, in case the first one gets a hole or breaks, the second one is there as a back up. I put on the vest, and fitted it snugly. I inflated the vest, the one furthest out filled up quickly and was quite comfortable to wear around. Then I asked the instructor what happens if you inflate the second one, he told me to inflate it and see. When I pulled the red toggle, just like on airplanes, the lifejacket between the already filled one and my body filled with air. Things got quite uncomfortable. So external deployment is like inflating the first life jacket, it expands away from your body, the internal type inflates close to your body and can be a bit like getting squished.* Neither is bad, its just a matter of preference.
On a note about the canister, once used it’s trash, there is no reusing them. Something to keep in mind if you might be deploying your vest regularly.
For standards there isn’t much out there yet. One standard is EN1621-4 which is the motorcycle standard for air vests, although no company touts passing that. There also seems to be “SATRA M38” testing but I can not find information on what that entails.
A quick comparison in no particular order:
Point Two: Internal deployment – Manufactures motorcycle vests as well, has passed BETA level 3 tests and SATRA M38 tests, inflates within the vest for easy repacking, replacement canisters are $25-$30**, low end model will cost you about $675, they have a hybrid mentioned above. They have a number of very informative videos on their website, the one below has a number of rotational falls with the horse landing on top of the rider and the rider walking away, you need a strong stomach to watch.
Hit Air: External deployment – Says it has done testing and has 20 years experience, inflates outside the vest so less of a “squished” feeling, needs to be repacked into the vest, replacement canisters are $50**, Low end model will cost you about $420. Skip to minute 2:50 if you just want to see it inflate.
Helite: Internal deployment – has a shell type vest on the market, they mainly do motorcycle stuff but outfitted 12 nations at the London Olympics. Not a lot of information on this company yet, the vest will run you about $700. This is more like a fashion vest with a safety element, if you are looking for something with less bulk for more every day wear. I haven’t seen it in the US but they sell a show jacket with an air vest built in, if you are a jumper looking for some added safety, I would look into these! Replacement canisters are $30**.
Airowear: External deployment – They have the AyrVest which is a combination air vest and safety vest, the safety vest passes BETA level 3 and the air vest passes SATRA M38 and will cost you about $710. Replacement canisters are $45**. Sorry I couldn’t find a video on this one.
As far as what the vest covers, they all are pretty much the same. Hit Air has a large neck roll but the others do come up high around the neck to control the head during a fall. Here is a nice video of Hit Air and Point Two, literally back to back, the coverage is very similar,skip to 4:25 to see the side to side coverage. It is a little promotional for Point Two but the video of the 2 girls comparing back to back is an unfair comparison since you can see that the Point Two has begun to deflate.
As always, something is better than nothing, whether you are ready to make the investment for an air vest or not is a personal decision. I am doing novice and I don’t have an air vest currently, I may reconsider if/when I move up to training. There is no right or wrong answer, I will point out that the cheaper ones inflate a bit slower than the more expensive ones, however deployment time and inflation time are 2 different things, deployment time is how quickly it starts inflating, where inflation time is how long it takes to become fully inflated, the “slowest” rate I saw for full inflation is 0.25 seconds, a quarter of a second is still quite fast.
So what is my suggestion? For upper level XC either the Airowear, if I want a combo vest or the Point Two for just the vest. Simply because they have certifications. The Hit Air may be just as good but since they don’t have a certification, its harder to guarantee, but honestly for me doing Novice and and maybe training, I am considering Hit Air because it is so much more affordable. If you are a show jumper or dressage rider looking for low key and discreet protection, I would get the Helite. As I stated above, any protection is better than no protection so if the Hit Air is in your price range then go for it!
*This can differ from each person.
**The canisters may be cheaper if you buy in bulk or get them on sale, this is just what was found generally on the internet.
Disclaimer: I do not own an air vest, I do not sell them, I am merely presenting the facts and engineering behind them