As a nurse who works in an Emergency Department, safety is my number one priority when shopping for any horse-related gear.
Equestrian sports, and eventing more specifically, comes with its share of inherent risk that rivals some of this country’s riskier leisure activities. That comes out to more “accidents per hour of sport compared with motorcycle riding, skiing and football” (Gates & Lin, 2020).
As an amateur rider, and even more importantly, an amateur rider who frequently finds myself at an array of distances from a fence (despite the heroic efforts of my talented horses), proper personal protection equipment (PPE) is key. The current research on equestrian sports shows that amateurs are far more likely to experience injury than our more experienced professional counterparts. One study said, “when injury rates were adjusted by hours spent in the saddle, experienced equestrians were injured less commonly than amateurs” (Gates & Lin, 2020).
While head trauma trumps as the most frequently occurring equestrian injury, studies have found that in high intensity riding, like racing and jumping, trauma to the chest or trunk is frequent, with one study citing rib fracture occurring in half of severely injured riders (Carmiachael, et al., 2014). And that’s where a vest can quite literally be a lifesaver. Rib fracture not only opens you up to collapsed lungs (hemo/pneumothorax) but also makes you a more likely candidate for pneumonia. Having seen my share of patients come through the ER with chest trauma, I don’t skimp when it comes to my own body protector.
After taking a few involuntary dismounts from my up-and-coming thoroughbred last year, a friend pushed me toward using an air vest. She shared that from her personal experience, the aches and pains associated with falls were reduced when she was wearing an air vest. In August of 2022, the French company FreeJump launched their first two-in-one protective vest and airbag, and after vetting it for several weeks I’m sold.
A combination vest, as opposed to a body protector + separate air bag, gives precise protection every time you zip it up. When I’ve used separate pieces, I found myself wondering if I had secured the airbag properly. Would it stay in place correctly? Did I fasten it tight enough for protection, but also loose enough so that I can breathe after it deploys? Though these are mostly unjustified ramblings of an anxiety-prone rider, I find I prefer the reliability and convenience of a combination vest.
In an independent test conducted by the French company CRITT Sport Loisirs (Regional Centre for Innovation and Technology Transfer), the X’AIR SAFE had eight times better protection compared to a body protector alone, and four times better protection than a body protector with separate airbag on top when compared to other top brands.
A small size of the airbag deploys in 89 milliseconds, one of the fastest acting when compared to other top brands. In a sport where wins and accidents are decided in inches and seconds, that’s a safety net that’s irreplaceable to me.
As far as specs go, the X’AIR SAFE meets the EN 13 158: 2018 level 3 standard of the Eventing body protections for competition use, which makes it appropriate for USEF sanctioned competition, and the NF S72- 800-2022 standard for equestrian airbags. It’s of note that Freejump’s airbag technology in previous products was the first to be certified by the NF S72 800 2022 standard.
The airbags are integrated inside the body protector, padding around the spine and neck specifically, to give an ideal distribution of the airbag’s benefits. While there is still little research regarding airbags in equestrian sport, their use is growing, and in 2022 the Fédération Equestre Internationale (FEI) for the first time ever recommended their use.
While safety ratings and statistics are important, a cross country vest must also be functional because what use is a good vest if it doesn’t allow you to do your job as a rider? Freejump’s promise of a weight reduction of 20% was enticing, and in my opinion was delivered with this X’AIR SAFE. Historically, body protectors have been bulky and restricting in my experience, but I find the X’AIR SAFE to be very allowing. I am happily able to move my arms and torso without restriction.
The vest is constructed of laser cut pieces that include a dense outer foam layer and a more rubbery foam inner layer to provide shock distribution and absorption. That inner layer contains materials similar to what is seen in bulletproof vests. The first time I donned the X’AIR SAFE it was immediately obvious how light the vest was. It was a literal weight off my shoulders when I compared back and forth with my current body protector. This became even more obvious when I took it off and didn’t find my usual sports bra sauna — even when I tried it out on an 80 degree day in Ocala. The cordura-based military grade outer fabric is also a godsend for someone as accident prone and messy as I am. After bumbling several times in and out of my stall and trailer, the material still looks good as new.
Freejump has a pretty comprehensive size guide, so you’ll want to grab a friend to help you measure yourself. My measurements matched me with a size large. The body protector portion comes down right around my ribcage in the front aptly protecting my chest, ribs and all those visceral (lots of blood vessels!) organs like the liver and spleen, and the longer cut in the back reaches far enough to to cover into my lumbar spine. I also appreciate the elastic side adjustments. While my vest was a pretty perfect fit out of the box, it’s nice that you could make it a bit more snug if you preferred.
Another thing that won me over is FreeJump’s accountability to its products and its brand. Each and every airbag is produced at their own workshop in Bordeaux where every product individually undergoes its own inflation and triggering tests before being shipped to retailers. The results of these tests are filed away to match the vest’s specific serial number. This of course would be compared to batch testing. I find comfort in knowing that my specific vest underwent performance screening before it ever reached me.
The Freejump team really believes in its products which is evidenced by a warranty of up to four years from purchase date – much longer than the average for this industry.
After nearly two months of trial, the X’AIR SAFE has now become my go-to safety vest. The level of protection paired with its comfort and breathability exceeds my requirements to leave the startbox.
Carmichael SP 2nd, Davenport DL, Kearney PA, Bernard AC. On and off the horse: mechanisms and patterns of injury in mounted and unmounted equestrians. Injury. 2014 Sep;45(9):1479-83. doi: 10.1016/j.injury.2014.03.016. Epub 2014 Apr 1. PMID: 24767580; PMCID: PMC4125461.
Gates JK, Lin CY. Head and Spinal Injuries in Equestrian Sports: Update on Epidemiology, Clinical Outcomes, and Injury Prevention. Curr Sports Med Rep. 2020 Jan;19(1):17-23. doi: 10.1249/JSR.0000000000000674. PMID: 31913919.