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British Eventing has funded a study into the effectiveness of air jackets in the event of a riding fall.

Fatalities

The research calculated the risk of severe chest injury fell from 94 percent when wearing a standard BE body protector to 81 percent when wearing an air jacket.

While this means the air jacket could reduce the likelihood of severe injury if a horse falls on a rider, BE stated there is still a “high probability” of riders incurring a severe injury.

The study further concluded the air jacket is “unlikely” to prevent fatalities should a horse fall directly on a rider.

Rotational falls

According to BE figures, there were 45 incidents of rotational falls on cross-country courses between July 2013 and June 2014.

“Not only can these falls put the rider at risk from injury when hitting the ground, but in the worst case scenario they can result in the horse falling on the rider involved, causing death or serious injury,” said David Hynd, head of biomechanics at TRL.

“In fact, in 2013/14, 16 of these falls resulted in serious injuries and one tragically resulted in a fatality.”

Controlled tests

A series of controlled tests were carried out by the Transport Research Laboratory (TRL) at the equestrian surgical facility at Bristol Veterinary School.

The tests involved dropping the body of a dead horse onto a crash test dummy, comparing the chest deflection when wearing an air jacket with a BETA 2009 Level 3 body-and-shoulder protector.

The horse was sourced from a rescue centre and euthanised by the Bristol Veterinary School for medical reasons prior to the tests.

The test concluded while air jackets may have some safety benefits, fatal and serious injuries are still “highly likely to occur” should a horse fall directly on to a rider.

‘Significant’ step forward

H&C spoke with a number of air jacket manufacturers who all agreed that a 13 percent reduction in the risk of serious injury is more significant than “slight”.

“If the car industry came up with a 13 percent reduction they’d recommend one in every car,” said Charlie Morris from Treehouse, which sells Helite air jackets.

Point Two’s CEO Lee Middleton agreed if such a reduction were announced for car drivers or cyclists it would be described as a “significant” step forward.

Rachel Ricci director at Hit-air UK told H&C it has “long understood” the limitations of both air and body protectors when the rider takes the full weight of the horse in a rotational fall.

“However, we believe that the 13 percent reduction in the risk of serious injury evenin these extremecircumstances is significant, when we are talking about what could be the differencebetween life and death, particularly as its effectiveness improves if the rider is only partially impacted by the horse,” Rachel said.

Further investigation

Although the results provide an indication of the efficacy of air jackets, there are a number of areas that need further investigation.

The dummy used was the average height and weight of a 45-year-old male, so results may vary depending on the rider involved.

For example, risk of injury may be slightly lower for younger riders and substantially higher for older riders, due to the fact that bone condition changes with age.

The horse used in the test was also lighter than a typical eventing horse and there was a relatively low drop height of 1.2m.

“There may be combinations of loading condition and rider for which this design of jacket is unable to offer meaningful protection,” said a BE spokesperson.

Real environment

Lee Middleton agrees the test criteria needs “clarifying” to ensure it reflects how the jackets perform out on a cross-country course.

One major concern is with regards to the time between inflation of the jacket and the impact on the test dummy.

“This delay will likely lead to a reduced pressure of the jacket shown, and therefore reduce the protection offered,” said Lee. “Point Two has consistently pushed for more independent testing to be carried out and welcomes the moves being made in this direction, but is concerned that the test criteria may not sufficiently reflect the real life environment.”

Roy Burekfrom Charles Owen, manufacturers ofAirowear described the study as “ground breaking”.

“Air is an important component in our armoury to protect the rider,” he said. “Studies and standards are the essence to create products that work. I can’t wait to see the detail.”

Extra protection

One element not measured in the study was whether the air jacket protects the rider in the initial ground contact prior to crush loading from the horse.

“While we welcome the testing, we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that air jackets are not sold solely for rotational falls,” said Charlie Morris.

“A good chunk of my customers don’t event break into a gallop. They’re middle aged ladies who want a bit of extra protection.”

Rachel Ricci also approves of the recent tests saying she is “extremely pleased” that BE are investing in independent research. Hit-air UK is meeting with TRL to help with further testing.

“Reducing the severity of injuries from any cross country fall should be a priority,” she said.

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