We Need to Get Over the Stigma of Air Vests in the Show Ring

We Need to Get Over the Stigma of Air Vests in the Show Ring

A long-time staple in Eventing, the safety vest has been showing up across disciplines in 2020. Although there have been trailblazers (think top hunter rider and trainer Sandy Ferrell) who have worn a vest in the show ring for years, in a sport where tradition and appearances still hold a lot of sway, protective equipment can sometimes get an eyeroll or snide comment. Why is that? No rider is immune to injury, and accidents can happen in a matter of seconds. If we have the technology to make the sport safer, why can’t we all support each other in taking steps to protect ourselves?

We sat down with top riders to talk about why wearing a vest made sense for them, how we can all fight the stigma against protective equipment, and what they hope to see in the future when it comes to safety in our sport. 

Martin in the warm up ring, wearing the Freejump air vest. Kate Metzner photo.

Martin Fuchs

I started wearing the airbag in 2019 in Aachen. The first time I wore the vest was the Rolex Grand Prix. In America, everyone is already always riding with helmets, but in Europe, it’s still common to not be riding with a helmet. I always wear a helmet and I’m all for safety, so when Freejump approached me and I was introduced to the airbag, I was up for it. I’d already been working with them on other products, and I liked their vest because it’s comfortable, it’s light and looks good (see feature photo - you can hardly tell Martin is wearing it under his jacket). I think they are innovative, and they care about quality. After a couple months, I started using it at home too when jumping and schooling my horses. Now, I feel uncomfortable jumping my horse without it. Recently I went to try a horse, and I didn’t have the airbag with me, and it was a strange feeling.

At the end of the day, not only is it safer, it makes me a better rider. 

Eventers have been taking protection more seriously than we do. Obviously, they have more falls, but it only takes one accident, just one silly fault or mistake, to cause a serious injury. I think the mentality is changing now for riders in other disciplines. There have been more conversations about it recently. I’ve been wearing it for about a year, but I’ve really started to see more of a demand in the past two or three months. I thought it would catch on quicker honestly, but I also think these things take time. As people become more aware, I think we will see it become more common. 

Kate Metzner photo.

I know there is a perception that, when you are young, you might think it is not so cool to care about safety. But as more and more riders start caring about it and wearing the airbag, I think we will see that mentality change. And actually, I feel like the younger generation is more aware of safety. It’s just the smart thing to do. I hope that I can help younger, and even older riders, to start taking safety more seriously. 

At the end of the day, we ride at our own risk. I would never tell anyone else they have to wear it, but I know for myself, I feel safer and better with the airbag. Horses are big animals, the smallest mistake for the rider or the horse can have a fatal consequence. So we should try to protect ourselves as much as we can. Even with the airbag, like the helmet, we are never fully protected. But every extra layer of protection we can have is smart to take. 

I feel more comfortable on the horse with the airbag, so at the end of the day, not only is it safer, it makes me a better rider. 

Catherine competing in her air vest. 

Catherine Tyree

I started wearing the vest at the end of August after talking about it with my dad and my boyfriend. My dad said to me, “There’s really no reason why you shouldn’t wear one.” To me, this is similar to the evolution of helmets. Many people used to not wear them, then they didn’t have a chinstrap, and now they’ve evolved to have better protection. If we have the technology to protect ourselves, there’s no reason why we shouldn’t use it. What we do is dangerous and honestly a little bit crazy. We jump horses over things that are in their way, and we expect everything to work out. The reality is that so many things can go wrong, no matter how much we try to have everything in our control.  

I have a good friend who recommended Helite. It was easy to get quickly and they were great about helping me get the right size. There’s no harm in trying the different brands available; it’s good to see what feels right for your body. It is an investment, but protecting our neck, back and spine is just as important as protecting our head. It only takes one freak accident for something to go wrong. 

There is no social stigma in trying to protect yourself.

About two weeks after I started wearing the vest, I had a really bad fall in Michigan during the week of the Gold Cup. I got to a jump completely wrong and went straight over the horse’s head. There’s a picture where I am completely perpendicular to the ground and the closest thing to the ground is my head. When I landed, I didn’t notice the vest go off. My upper half did not hurt at all and I was able to walk away with a badly sprained ankle. At that moment, I was so grateful for my dad suggesting I wear a vest. I don’t even want to think about what could have happened if I had not been wearing one. 

Now, we are beginning to see more traction and initiative with a lot of riders in the Hunter/Jumper world. Vests have been used more regularly in Eventing for a while now, and even though we might be a little bit behind, it’s encouraging to see so many people in our discipline wearing them and advocating for safety. 

I think it’s great that we have so many grand prix riders wearing them at the highest level of the sport. Seeing top riders choose to wear one is very encouraging and sends a clear message to other riders: there is no social stigma in trying to protect yourself. No one is too good or has been around long enough where they don’t need to be concerned about safety. It’s also great to see more riders wearing them in the equitation and hunter divisions. Sam Walker was 3rd in the Medal Finals, and he was wearing a Freejump vest. I strongly believe it takes leaders in their respective divisions to pave the way and normalize safety.

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While wearing a vest may not be completely normal now, it is on the way to being normalized and mainstream. There’s no reason to feel self conscious about choosing to wear a vest. Those who may feel nervous or uncomfortable about wearing one might have to find the strength and courage to be a trendsetter in their group and set a positive example. It’s important to put yourself and your safety first. Riders have the chance to enjoy the sport while protecting themselves as much as possible, and they should take full advantage of it.

Geoffrey wearing a his vest in the hunter ring. Photo by Teresa Ramsay.

Geoffrey Hesslink

I had an injury last year, so I started getting a little bit of pressure from my owners and loved ones to start wearing the vest. I got one in September, and I competed in it for the first time at Middleburg Classic this Fall. I was still working out some minor fitting and adjustment issues, but overall I was happy with the experience. Everyone’s biggest struggle is visually how it looks and how it makes you feel on top of the horse, and for me, I was worried that some of the different brands looked big and bulky and uncomfortable. I felt the Freejump brand was able to maintain that slim, tight look I’m looking for. 

Before my accident, I didn’t really give that much thought to safety technology, but now I’ve done a lot of research, trying to be more aware of how I can be safer. I don’t think the airbag jacket would have helped me necessarily because I broke my leg, but anytime you have a devastating accident, that will wake you up to the need to be as safe as possible. 

When you are working with horses, anything can happen. 

The first week I wore the vest, I was testing it out and getting my feet wet. I’m normally a very confident person, but a few people made some comments to me. I was really focused on showing, and I sort of forgot that I was wearing it because it was still really new to me, and then I got off and forgot to unplug it from my saddle, and it blew up. And yes, there were people laughing at me around the ring, and I did feel self-conscious. Even though I might have felt, in that moment, a little uncomfortable, that’s not going to stop me from wearing it. Sometimes we feel like a negative comment or a funny look is the end of the world. It’s not. But in this sport, one serious accident could very well be.

Sometimes we feel like a negative comment or a funny look is the end of the world. It’s not. 

Air vests have been a hot topic of 2020. I think there are still many riders who are worried about appearances and being judged for wearing one, and I was guilty of it at first. But I’ve spoken to judges like Jimmy Torano, who has been very vocal about how he would never take off any points and doesn’t see how any other judge really could. Still, it is different, and different is scary for a lot of people. I’ve heard a few people compare it to helmets, back in the day when everyone wore the thin, velvet helmet. And now the helmet technology has gotten very advanced. This is similar. I think it is going to take an adjustment period for everyone, judges, trainers and riders. But I also think it is going to become normal. For me and the kids who train with me, leading by example is the best way to make that happen. In a few years, I don’t think we will even be talking about this anymore. 

The level of competition and difficulty in the way that our sport is evolving is greater than in the past. For me, it is common sense in the jumper ring. It is not a judged event, and you are jumping huge jumps and racing around. For jumpers, it’s a no brainer. For hunters and equitation, I think there might be a longer adjustment period. But it’s going to happen, and it’s going to be for the better.

Alex Crown donning her air vest. Photo by Ahmed Al Maawali

Alexandra Crown

I started wearing the vest over a year ago, in the Fall. My friend Zoe Conter was wearing one, and I was inspired by her. I was talking to my friend Danielle Levin, who told me Kaval had just started carrying the vests. I decided to order one, and I’ve honestly never looked back after that. It feels silly to not be wearing it. 

Of course there was still some stigma around safety equipment, and it took me a minute to get past that. I was worried that it would look weird or bulky, which I think is a concern that a lot of people might have. But I chose the show coat with the vest that fits into the show coat, and honestly you can barely tell that I’m wearing it. I did my first show wearing it, and I don’t think anyone could even tell, and the photos came out fine. And it actually gave me so much more confidence because I had this extra layer of protection. 

Sometimes, people are just looking to see if someone else is doing it first, and then they follow suit. 

At first, I was wearing the air vest in the show ring, but I wasn’t wearing it at home. After my fall earlier this year, which just happened at home during a training session, I always wear it when I train. I am very strict about that now, because things can happen so quickly. This was such a freak accident, my horse just slipped on a turn and fell. My injury was only to my head; my body was ok. So I escaped without bodily injuries, but that could have easily not been the case. I could have broken ribs or worse, and it was silly of me not to have it on. Next fall, I might not be so lucky. 

There’s such a focus on appearances in our sport, and that’s been holding us back when it comes to safety. People don’t want to look different. And there was this stigma in the past, not wanting to look like you are scared. But I feel like the mentality is already really starting to change. I think what is slowly starting to happen is more people are choosing to wear the vest. Professionals are showing in them and posting on social media. People do look to their role models, so the more we talk about it and share our experiences, the better we can influence change in our sport. Even if it’s a little bit scary, sharing how the vests helped in a bad accident is important. Sometimes, people are just looking to see if someone else is doing it first, and then they follow suit. 

For me, it is similar to advances in helmet technology. After I fell, I found out about the MIPS technology. I was a little nervous at first because the helmet looks quite big, and I didn’t really want to switch to a different brand. Very quickly I realized how crazy that was. If it will make you safer and prevent an injury, then it is never worth it to worry about what others will think. Why would we care more about looking good than preventing an injury? 

There is nothing more important than being safe and being able to do this sport that we love in the long run.

Feature photo by Kate Metzner for NoelleFloyd.com

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