Air Vests Help William Woods Improve Rider Safety

In an ongoing effort to make riders of jumping horses safer, Dr. Linda McClaren, professor of equestrian studies and hunter/jumper program director, engineered a pilot program that utilizes safety vests for riders to wear.


The solution: 14 air vests, both purchased and donated, thanks to the efforts of Claudia Starr, chair of the equestrian studies division.


“The division has been incredibly supportive,” McClaren said. “It’s because of the division that we have the vests we have.”


The air vests, which were primarily researched in Asia and Europe, attach to the saddle and deploy an air canister when the rider is dislodged. Before the rider comes into contact with the ground, the air canister deploys and the vest becomes a pseudo-airbag, supporting the chest, sides, hips, back and neck. 


The vests derived from a new partnership with a distributor called The technology, used by police departments and motorcyclists, adds neck and body protection. McClaren is in the process of conducting a research study that provides evidence of their efficacy.


According to McClaren, the biggest difference between these vests and others of its kind is the protection of the neck and, consequently, the head.


“I chose them mostly because of the neck protection and because of the cost,” she said.  “They’re far less expensive [than most equestrian vests used in the U.S.].  They’ve been around a lot longer and have been used with motorcycles which go a lot and faster and are a lot closer to the ground. If they worked for those people, I think they’re going to work for us.”


So far, McClaren has been pleased with the results.


“Every time [last semester] we went to the cross country field or if we were jumping I asked the students to wear them and they were all very amenable to that. We got to the end of the semester and something unusual occurred. No one got hurt.”


However, despite the vest’s apparent successes, there seems to have been little research conducted into the use of vests in an equestrian applied riding higher education setting.  In response, McClaren has begun pursuing a research project in which some of her students have opted to participate. 


In addition to tallying what happens with the vests during classes, McClaren has been utilizing a focus group of six students that meets once a month to discuss topics such as the vest’s safety, overall student attitude towards the vests and the students’ personal experiences with them.


Sophomore Sarah Keylon of Bedford, Texas, a member of the focus group, says that student attitude is becoming more and more positive as they begin to see how the air vests work.  She, herself, has become a huge proponent and has even purchased her own.


“I love them,” she said.  “They obviously can’t protect you 100 percent because there are some parts of the body that are exposed, but they protect all your body organs and greatly reduce the chances of injury if you fall off. I think they’re a great thing to have.”


Keylon wears them for both jumping and flat work and wishes more seats at WWU would utilize them, as horseback riding is dangerous no matter what seat is ridden.  


Many students have come to similar conclusions, like senior Keriann Walsh of Old Bridge, N.J.


“I thought it was a good idea the whole time, but was a little skeptical at first whether they really worked.  They’ve proven that they have, so I’m even more for it.” 


Other students, like freshman Rebekah Savage of South Berwick, Maine, have decided to go a slightly different route by purchasing her own protective vest.


“I wanted my own vest to wear both at home and at school so I purchased my own Tipperary Vest, which was an affordable option for me,” said Savage.


Still, McClaren will continue to research the vests in hopes that she can install a policy requiring them to be worn.  It is her goal that by next spring she will see all her students wearing them.


“I’m just trying to keep them safe,” she said.  “Riding horses is dangerous. Riding horses to jumps at speed is dangerous, and I don’t think there’s any question that riding horses is a dangerous sport.    Anything I can do or come up with to improve the chances of those guys staying safe while they’re pursuing a sport that they love, I’m going to try to do it.”           



Ashley Dorion of Hinckley, Ill., models a new safety vest. She was the first rider to enjoy the benefits of the air-bag technology.


Miranda Weber of Niagara, Wis., jumps wearing one of the new,