Protective Vest, Safety Vest, Cross Country Vest, Which is the Best?

We have all seen them, whether watching jockeys, bull riders, cross country or those one or two people at the Hunter Jumper shows. Funny looking foam vests, some in plain black some in colors. Which is the best, which protects the most? What about the kind that blow up like a life preserver?  I did have a lot of requests for this article when I was at an event this weekend.  The time has come my friends.

First of all, I have heard people call them flak jackets, this is similar to someone calling a bagel a donut.  “Did someone say donut?” Sorry, I have no donuts, but it is breakfast time so I wish I had a donut.  Flak jackets are made for bullets and shrapnel, they have kevlar or metal plates in them.  The light ones weigh 5lbs. some of the early ones weighed as much as 22lbs.  My tipperary weighs about 1lb.  For those wondering what kevlar is, oddly enough this has become a popular turn out blanket material.  When you see “ballistic nylon” advertised, its similar stuff.  “Sweet, so my pony is bullet proof!”  Not quite, in order to make kevlar inpenetrable to bullets, they take many layers of your horse’s blanket material and glue them together.  All of those layers slow down and stop the bullet so when you get shot,  I won’t lie to you, it will hurt, bad, but you probably won’t die.  So, just because your blanket says its “ballistic nylon” does not mean you should head out and shoot at your horse, really really really bad idea.

Ok with that out of the way, let’s talk about standards.  “Ooo jump standards, I love those!!!”  Not those standards, testing standards/certifications, you know, all of those letters and numbers that they put on helmets and vests that no one really knows what it means.  “Oh, boring standards, hooray, she said sarcastically.”

ASTM F1937-04 – Standard Specification for Body Protectors Used in Horse Sports and Horseback Riding

ASTM F2681-08 – Standard Specification for Body Protectors Used in Equine Racing – This is not suitable for cross country or jumping but might be ok for trail riding.

BETA 2009 – British Equestrian Trade Association, Body Protector Standard – There are 3 levels of protection:

  • Level 1 (black label) provides the lowest level of protection that is only considered appropriate for licensed jockeys while racing.
  • Level 2 (brown label) offers a lower than normal level of protection so is considered suitable for low risk situations – not including jumping, riding on the roads, riding young or excitable horses or riding while inexperienced.
  • Level 3 (purple label) is considered appropriate for general riding, competitions including eventing and working with horses. Level 3 body protectors should prevent minor bruising that would have produced stiffness and pain, reduce soft tissue injuries and prevent a limited number of rib fractures.

EN 13158:2009 – European Norms For Protective Clothing – Similar to BETA, just the European standard.

SATRA – Shoe and Allied Trades Research Association – An independent British testing company that certifies vests along with other safety equipment like steel toe boots and safety glasses.

A quick point on ASTM standards.  You can say that you have an ASTM certified vest and all that means is that you built it to their standards, you have to have ASTM/SEI (Like your helmet, click here to read more), to know that the vest has been tested.  Essentially ASTM is just a checklist that you have to follow, SEI is the company that tests it.  BETA (and EN13158) have a standard and they test the product.

Next is the differences, truthfully, there isn’t much.  Both standards require that you cover certain parts of the body, and the variances are very slight if at all.  They also require impact capabilities, ASTM standard tests are comparable to BETA Level 2, not quite as high as Level 3 but not far off.  A rough estimate of the difference between the 2 standards is that ASTM drops an 11lb weight from a height and BETA level 3 drops a 16lb weight from the same height.  “Clearly the European/British standards are far superior, I will buy a BETA level 3 vest.”  Hold your horses, BETA tests on a flat hard surface where ASTM tests on clay which can indent (like a human body) and the pass/fail requirements are the same for both, however, if the clay on the ASTM test dents more than 1″ it fails, BETA doesn’t test this.  “Well then, what do I buy?”

So similar to helmets, any vest is better than no vest, a well-fitting vest is better than an ill-fitting one, a rated vest is generally better than an unrated one, a tested vest is usually better than an untested one, and a vest that meets many standards will ensure you are covered no matter what.  “A rated vest is generally better?  A tested vest is usually better?  You mean it is better.”  Not necessarily, an unrated vest means it just hasn’t adhered to the standard, it could be designed just under the standard but still be a very safe vest.  With a tested vest, you know what you are getting but an untested one could be better, you just can’t prove it because it hasn’t been tested.  “This is all really confusing.”

Well lets talk about what is required:

USEA: A protective vest must be warn for cross country warm up and competition.  A rated vest is recommended.

Europe: BETA Level 3 for all of their cross country stuff including many Pony Clubs so if you are heading there, make sure your vest is properly certified.

Bottom Line Suggestion:  If you are doing upper level eventing (or just want to be super safe at lower levels), and you want the best protection you can get, that is proven, get one that is ASTM/SEI and BETA level 3.  So far the only one I know that might fit this bill is Airowear Outlyne, most places will advertise that it is BETA Level 3 but show nothing on ASTM, however if you visit Airowear’s site, they make mention of it also meeting ASTM standards for Sale in the US.

For BETA Level 3:  Charles Owen Kontakt 5, Airowear Flexion, Point Two ProFlex Vest, Point Two Hybrid Jacket, Racesafe Provent 3.0

For ASTM F-1937-04/SEI: Charles Owen JL9 (BETA Level 2 Rated as well), Tipperary Eventer Pro

Like helmets vests need to be replaced every 3-5 years according to the manufacturer, 5 is a good standard unless you abuse your vest.  Like a helmet, they are made of foam which degrades over time,  this is accelerated by things like heat (you know like leaving it in your car or horse trailer over the summer), sweat, and chemicals (think fly spray).  If you do get in a wreck and the foam dents and does not return to its original shape after 30 minutes, its time to replace.  Also, fit is very important, if your vest is too long it will hit on the back of the saddle and could get caught.  I am pretty short 5’3″ and in some cases a childs vest is a better fit for me.  Try some on before you buy.  Another thing to note, the higher the rating the “stiffer” they will be, most foams warm with body heat and conform nicely but do expect a stiffer product if you have been using a typical Tipperary or other light weight vest.

On another note, I have a Tipperary, it is embarrassingly old, (quite possibly 20 years old?).  I will say, I have recently (as in the last 2 or 3 years) come off my horse quite tragically and the vest did its job quite well.  I basically landed on my spine on the poles holding a bank, my trainer looked like she was going to puke.  I hopped right up and got right back on, no worse for wear.  Thus, any vest is better than no vest.  To answer the question before it gets asked, yes I am vest shopping because of this article.

Stay tuned next week, we will discuss air vests!  If you put your email address in the box on the right, I will send the article directly to your email, which means you will get it before it hits Facebook.