Why I'm Not An Air-Vest Fan?Yet

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As an active event rider and the father of a young son, I've pondered for the last few years whether, in the name of riding safety, I should shell out the bucks for either a Point Two or Hit-Air air vest. Well, now that I've ridden in one in order to write this month's lead article in the Horse Journal, I've decided that I'm not going to buy an air vest?for at least a few years. (The issue is available as a free download with a special subscription price deal.)

I'm not convinced I'm any safer?that my torso is any better protected?in an air vest than I am in one of three ASTM/SEI-certified body protectors I have. Unlike my body protectors, air vests are not fail-safe or foolproof. For my body protector to do its job, all I have to do is put it on. For either the Point Two or the Hit-Air vests to do their job, it requires considerably more than just putting it on.

Before I wrote the article in this month's Horse Journal, we requested that both manufacturers send me a vest to wear and to evaluate. Hit-Air sent me an SV-2 vest. I rode with it more than two dozen times (twice in competition) and deployed it intentionally twice, but not in a fall. Point Two declined to send us a sample for trial, of either their ProAir or P2-RS Hybrid, but representative Megan Gardner fully answered my questions.

We conducted a test deployment of the Hit-Air vest in the center of our barn, and we learned a few things in that test. For one thing, it's loud. Deployment is not a dull pop; it's nearly a gunshot. The four horses nearby all jumped and snorted, and if their doors hadn?t been closed, they?d have been out of there.

Most importantly, though, we found that changing the cylinder isn?t a snap of the fingers. Fifteen minutes passed from when my wife, Heather Bailey, yanked the lanyard to activate the vest until we had successfully installed a replacement cartridge?even though Heather and I had each read the Users? Guide several times beforehand and had a new cartridge ready.

First, we found you have to unscrew the old cartridge and lay the vest flat to push the CO2 out, which took a minute-plus. The gas began to release as soon as we unscrewed the canister, but we saw no sign of deflation prior to that.

Then the hard work began. Hit-Air supplies an Allen wrench and a bolt that you must have to reset the trigger mechanism so you can re-insert the latch the lanyard attaches to. And you can't do it without the two tools. (Point Two doesn't require tools for this.) Resetting the trigger mechanism was a tricky coordination test that can't be rushed, but once we achieved that, screwing in the canister was pretty simple. Still, the manual sternly warns not to screw the canister in too tightly. OK, we thought, but how tight is too tight' And how loose is too loose'

We could certainly do it several minutes faster with practice, but that's not practice I want to have.

There is no question that canister replacement on a cross-country course would be virtually impossible in the time allowed?even if the rules allowed you to continue after falling (they currently do not) and you had a new canister and the tools in your pocket.

Could you do it while foxhunting or trail riding' Sure, if you're not shaken or upset by the fall and if you're not trying to catch your horse (who might have galloped off after the vest activated with a bang). But you?d better have someone to hold your horse and hope that your friends don't mind waiting while you push the CO2 out and change the cylinder. And if you're hunting?well, the hounds and the field have gone away! Hope you know the countryside!

I'd discounted concerns about the explosive sound of deployment?until our test. Perhaps it wouldn?t unnerve a seasoned competitor on course, but in a quieter setting, it could certainly spook a horse enough that he?d want to get away from you, leaving you horseless after an otherwise unremarkable fall on the trail.

Air vests could certainly be a good idea?someday. They work in cars and on motorcycles. But I'll offer five reasons why I'm going to wait another generation or three before I ride in one.

First, I'm worried about my neck?about landing on my head and neck with the vest inflated. No independent third-party?testing has been done on the effects of landing on your neck with the vest inflated. Representatives of both vests assured me the support provided by the vest would only be beneficial, but neither could cite independent research proving this, so I'm not convinced.

Second, the air vest may not deploy in two kinds of falls?a horse rearing over backward and a slow-motion rotational fall over a jump?because you don't always achieve separation from your horse before you hit the ground. Those are somewhat common falls in my world, and I worry about the effects of the vest inflating when the horse rolls away or stands up. Again, both representatives assured me that an air vest would drastically reduce the likely injuries, but (thanks to our test) I know how tightly the vest fits when it inflates, and the thought of that pressure on broken ribs, a broken collarbone or internal injuries is excruciating for me.

Third, the inability to easily continue riding after deployment.? Almost always, I want to get right back on my horse and fix whatever caused the fall. Assuming I've had just an innocuous fall, I don't want to dither about trying to fix my equipment so that I can ride again. I want a vest that I can quickly deflate and easily return to action.

Fourth, I think?the trigger system is too complex for your average human, making the chance of user error far too great.? The Internet is full of user?s stories about their vests (from both manufacturers) either not inflating or prematurely inflating, and I'd bet that it's because they didn't have the cylinder properly attached. It shouldn't be harder than changing a light bulb, and you should be able to tell immediately, like a light bulb, whether it's working or not. You shouldn't have to need its protection to find out you didn't screw the cylinder in correctly.

Fifth, these reasons mean that the odds of successful deployment are rather less than 100 percent. The odds of my crash vest protecting me are absolutely 100 percent. So, for now, I'll stick with the crash vests that have done their job on many occasions over the last decades.