Southern Oregon is horse country. We see these animals everywhere: in fields and paddocks and being ridden down roads and trails. Yet few of us spend much time reflecting on how dangerous it can be to straddle the back of a half-ton creature with a mind of its own and strength we can't imagine.
In February 2011, experienced rider Lucia Scott went for a ride near her Applegate home. Somehow — she doesn't remember the accident — she fell off her horse. She wound up with six broken ribs, a broken scapula, a punctured lung and a concussion. If hikers hadn't found her in the field, she easily could have died.
Scott had been riding all her life, but at the time she had never heard about air vests for horseback riding.
"Now I wouldn't ride without one, even on the most docile of horses," Scott says.
Based on the same technology as automobile air bags, the vests contain inflatable sacks in the front and back and a small canister of gas that inflates the bags in one-tenth of a second. The rider connects the vest to the saddle with a rip cord, and if they become separated, the vest inflates itself.
Two companies, Point Two Air Jackets of England and Hit Air of Japan, make the vests.
"I first saw them four years ago at a trade show in Philadelphia," says Candace Kahn, owner of Action Rider Tack in Medford. "Then a customer asked me to carry them."
Kahn selected the Point Two Air Jackets brand, created in England specifically for horseback riders. The other brand is adapted from one created for motorcycle riding, and Kahn decided she'd go with the one specially designed for falling off a horse because the distance of the falls is very different. Now she always wears one herself.
"They are very comfortable," Kahn says. "I like this brand best because of the craftsmanship, the quality of materials; it's lightweight, and it blows up very quickly."
"No body protector can prevent spinal injuries," Kahn notes, "but I think it's important (that) people consider wearing these. It's not going to protect you against everything, but it protects around the ribs and the vital organs. While the price of the vest is expensive, what's the price of a broken back?"
The vests are not as effective for rotational falls: when the horse and rider somersault together, and the rider doesn't separate from the horse right away. Twenty-five percent of riders involved in rotational falls in international competitions between 2004 and 2009 either were killed or seriously injured, according to statistics from Federation Equestre Internationale, the international body that governs equestrian sports.
The vests come in two models: one just an air vest, one incorporating an underlayer of high-density foam. Sizes range from child on up, priced from $675 to $870. They weigh about 2 pounds and can be worn under traditional riding jackets. The vests are reusable by simply replacing spent canisters.
"I did come off my horse with the vest on once," Kahn says. "We made a sharp turn unexpectedly, and it happened so fast — the air vest was like a pillow under me."
Grace Murdoch of Applegate fell wearing a vest and credits the vest with saving her from injury. She says it is a very soft landing, and she is thankful she invested in the vest.
"I chose one mostly because of being aware that as you get older, your body doesn't heal as fast," Murdoch says. "And equestrian sports really are very risky."
Professional equestrian competitors are now wearing the vests throughout Europe and the United States, and they are being credited with making the competitions safer — a worthwhile investment for anyone who loves riding.
A. Paradiso is a freelance writer living in the Applegate. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.