Riding vests won't prevent torso injuries but they can significantly reduce the impact of a fall. Several models and styles are on the market containing the following features:
Outer covering: In some quarters, safety vests are becoming a fashion statement. Rodeo riders go for a leather-look exterior or a denim-and-suede combination; event riders custom-order vests in their "colors," and one company even makes a vest with a canary-yellow wool front to be worn with formal hunting attire.
Foam blocks: Blocks of high-density foam within the body of the vest help to absorb the concussion of a fall. Depending on the style, the vest may incorporate a few large foam blocks, or it may have many smaller blocks sewn together. Some riders say the smaller blocks offer greater flexibility; others swear by the larger blocks, believing they offer more protection. Try several vest styles, if you can, to see which type suits you best. Some foam blocks have ventilation holes, which manufacturers say increase airflow without compromising safety.
Adjustments: Most vests have laces, snaps, buckles or hook-and-loop closures along the sides. These are intended to fine-tune a correct fit, not to compensate for a poor one.
Shoulder pads: Some vests have detachable shoulder and arm pads, but says John Nunn, owner of Bit of Britain Saddlery in North East, Maryland, many of his customers prefer to ride without the additional armor. "I guess they feel that the arm is mendable, and they don't want the extra bulk," he says.
Protective panels: To provide extra protection to vulnerable areas, some vests feature impact-spreading plastic panels that cover the spine, kidneys and sternum. Rodeo vests have special protective panels all over to deflect a bull's horns.
Inner lining: Vests invariably retain heat, but the inner lining can help ease the discomfort on a summer day. Most manufacturers use a cotton-polyester mesh that increases airflow next to the rider's skin and wicks away moisture. Some styles have pockets for separate cold packs.
This article originally appeared in the August 1998 issue of EQUUS Magazine.