At the first show I ever attended as a brand new eventer, I witnessed a friend and teammate fall and leave the show in an ambulance.
It was a freak accident. She was running Beginner Novice on a supremely talented horse. She broke a lot of bones. Her road to recovery has been long. But, thankfully, she is recovering fully.
Now. Maybe she still would’ve been hurt badly even had she worn an air vest. Who knows. But it was scary. That spill affected me more than the falls I saw just weeks prior at the Event-Formerly-Known-As-Rolex. At that level, I think, the danger is greater. The falls are expected. (Whether or not they should be, and safety in the sport in general, is a conversation for another time.) At a small schooling show, where we intended to go out, knock the dust off after the long winter, and have some fun? No, that seems safe. Small potatoes.
That’s when I decided I would always be more comfortable wearing an air vest on cross country, even at the lowest of low levels. And I did my research on different air vest models.
I couldn’t figure out why the Point Two vests were $150-$250 more expensive than the others. So I emailed them and asked. Why should I choose your vest? Is it $150-$250 safer? How can you prove that? I also emailed Hit-Air and Helite.
No one emailed me back. But Point Two called me. In fact, their CEO, Lee Middleton, called me himself. He spoke to me for 25 minutes and answered all my questions – even the ones I didn’t know to ask yet. Here are my notes, edited and organized for clarity.
Update, 1/2/18: A rep from Helite contacted me after seeing this post and gave me some more information. That is reflected below.
Safety Standards & Testing
There are currently no required standards for testing of air vests in the U.S. However, Point Two tests all their vests to the SATRA M38 standard. This test proves that their vest inflates fully in just 0.098 seconds, and the airbag is one continuous chamber. Helite’s vest inflates in 0.1 seconds (100 milliseconds) and fills up with 18 liters.
A study done by TRL (Transport Research Laboratory) states that the Point Two jacket reduced the level of chest compression from a severe impact by more than 55% when compared to an unprotected fall. A Level 3 certified regular body protector (the kind you’re required to wear on XC – although in the U.S. it is not required to be a Level 3 vest) reduced the level of chest compression by just 9%.
The Point Two vests were tested by four independent testing labs. They exceed the requirements for EN 13158: 2009 (European standards, which are quite a bit stricter than those in the U.S.). Mr. Middleton was very clear that they design and send their equestrian vests for testing separately than their motorcycle vests. Not all companies do this; some adapt a motorcycle vest and use the results motorcycle vest tests to apply to their equestrian vests as well. I like knowing that Point Two tests their equestrian vests in ways that simulate a fall from a horse – not from a motorcycle, which is quite different.
Helite tests and does quality control on each of their airbags in their workshop in France. They use high quality materials, and have a 2 year warranty (which they said can be extended to 4 years if the jacket is registered online).
One thing I would never have thought to ask about was the integration of the canister of CO2. It’s a hard container with some sharp angles. Couldn’t that cause more damage if you land on it? The Point Two vest is designed with Level 1 certified foam and places the airbag between the canister and the body. This causes the canister to be pushed away from the body during inflation/impact and increases the safety. Some Hit-Air models may not have an airbag or foam behind their canister. Some may – just be sure to check and ask questions if you’re considering a Hit-Air vest.
Protection of vulnerable areas
According to the studies by TRL, when worn together with a Level 3 vest, the Point Two air vest improves spine protection by 69%. And, when worn alone or with a body protector, it also reduces risk of rib fracture and organ damage by at least 20%.
The single continuous air bag in the Point Two vest provides stable protection from the neck to the back of the hips. The Hit-Air, which was the other vest I was considering, has a gap in the air bag that creates a hinge in a vulnerable place on the spine. Another pretty important part to protect!
The Helite vest has similar protection of the back, neck, spine, chest, pelvis and abdomen.
Anecdotal evidence & comfort
Another teammate took a spill while wearing her vest. She had no injuries, and reported that she felt no soreness in the days following and that she felt almost nothing when she hit the ground.
My trainer wore hers and came off while schooling. She reported that it felt extremely tight – so much so that she felt panicked that she couldn’t breathe. Later we determined that she had it strapped on too tight. Also, within 10 seconds, 30% of the air from the ProAir has been released, so even if you can’t take it off right away, it will deflate quickly.
I find the ProAir just fine in terms of comfort. The one thing that bothers me is that it kind of catches my hair at the base of my neck and pulls it really loose from my ponytail/braid. That’s easily fixed by wearing a hair net. I do not find them overly hot, and while sometimes I do think they can look a bit bulky, I’m more concerned with my own safety. When I wear one, I feel a lot more safe and secure.
On one memorable schooling occasion, I didn’t have a vest to borrow. Stryder was uncertain about trying a trakhener for the first time and he popped over and landed bucking. I so wish it were on camera but my designated media-capturer at the time put the phone down (still recording, and the sounds of everyone yelling and gasping are pretty epic). I remember thinking so clearly that I wasn’t going to fall off because I knew it would hurt a lot – Stryder is tall and I was very aware that I didn’t have the air vest. Eventually I realized I couldn’t save it, though, and did an emergency dismount.
At the end of the day, wearing the air vest feels like a smart safety decision, like wearing a helmet or buckling my seat belt.
I decided that a one-time cost of $675 was is better than potentially having thousands of dollars of medical bills and a life-changing injury. I am aware that these are still possibilities; it’s a dangerous sport, after all. But I feel safer and more protected when wearing my vest.
I also like Point Two’s service policy. When I spoke to Mr. Middleton on the phone, he was very clear that the air bags (in any vest) experience degradation over time due to heat, sun, sweat, dirt – all the stuff that happens when riding. They recommend yearly service, where they inspect the vest, clean and test the trigger system, and replace the airbag completely. They can also repair or replace the shell for a fee if needed. They have a lot of programs to keep people in the right size and working-order vest. I truly believe this company works toward their mission of providing the best, safest vests for riders.
I was impressed that Helite saw this piece and reached out to me directly. They gave me some additional information and numbers to add in. I think they’re a good company with another vest that would be a solid choice. They cost slightly less than the Point Two, depending on your size. They range from $590-$645.
I borrowed one all summer, and when the ProAir was on sale for Black Friday, I finally snapped one up for myself.
Not able to drop that kind of money right now? I get it, trust me. This was part-Christmas gift for me, and I really waited around for a good deal. Point Two seems to offer a good number of promotions throughout the year – in particular one where you get their ProFlex Level 3-certified vest for free along with the ProAir I still regret not doing this but it was early in the summer before I was totally convinced about which vest to get.
Side note: My Charles Owen JL9 vest is Level 2 certified and I’m bummed about that; will be considering a change to the ProFlex or some other Level 3 vest at some point later when I haven’t just spend hundreds of dollars on the air vest! I wish I’d been more educated about the certifications and differences between the U.S. and Europe when I bought it.
This post reflects my own views and opinions. I wasn’t compensated in any way.
Please take into consideration that the stats and studies in this post were conducted or commissioned by PointTwo. As of now, independent studies have not been conducted.