Two weekends ago I had the pleasure of watching the country's best equitation riders compete for top honors at the 2020 USEF Medal Finals. Sunday saw the top 25 riders come back for a second round before being whittled down to another group for a final -- and extremely challenging -- test.
What I didn't notice while I was watching? Sam Walker, who ultimately placed third, was wearing a safety vest. At a BigEq final! And I had no idea until I caught up with Judge Rachel Kennedy the following day.
"Oh yeah, he was wearing it the entire time! So was another rider who almost made it to the top 25. It's so low profile that you don't even notice it" said Rachel Kennedy, one of the Medal judges.
After observing multiple riders sporting the Horse Pilot air vest during The Great Lakes Equestrian Festival, I had the pleasure of chatting with Rachel, top rider, trainer, judge and owner of ESP Farm, about her opinion on the rise of the safety vest on the AA circuit. The short answer? It's about time we all start wearing one, despite opinions from some corners that the vest violates the "traditional" look of the hunter and equitation rider.
Kennedy has been a fan of safety vests for a while, explaining that her son rode in a Tipperary safety vest as a child. "When he was little I bought him a little safety vest. And I actually just gave it to one of my customers whose grandson just started riding. I only made my son wear it during lessons, but we didn't know then what we know now about the added safety benefits."
"A lot can happen during a lesson," Kennedy continues. "It's when we're not paying attention that things happen. Anything we can do to be safer -- from helmets to proper protective shoes to vests -- the better. Times have changed. I don't remember this many accidents happening."
When asked about which vest is her favorite, Kennedy said that she and her customers ride in the Horse Pilot air bag vest. "If you're lucky enough to be able to afford the cover for it, then you really don't see it."
Based on my observations at Great Lakes Equestrian Festival this summer, the Horse Pilot vest, which retails for $775, definitely seems to be the emerging choice of AA circuit riders. The low-profile vest includes a magnetic tether that attaches to the saddle. In case of a fall, the tension on the cord trips the Co2 cartridge, which causes the vest to inflate. When inflated, the vest helps protect the chest, abdomen, neck and vertebral column.
When asked what the vest sounds like when it inflates, Kennedy explained that "it sounds a little like the air brakes on a tractor trailer. My horse did not spook or move when mine inflated. It's not uncomfortable when it blows up. It doesn't compress you that hard. I did it three times last week. Oops."
Speaking of "oops," unintentional inflations seem to be the running joke of the industry at the moment. The source? Riders who forget to unclip the tether of their vest from the saddle before they dismount. But, as with anything else, there's a hack for that.
"My customers and I have started attaching keychains or colorful ribbons to the cord so that it catches our eye before we dismount." Kennedy recommends unclipping as you're trotting your circle at the end of course so it's already unclipped by the time you leave the ring. Kennedy also recommends having a little bag in your tack box for spare cartridges and the allen wrench that's required to change the cartridge. "It takes about five minutes to change the cartridge, so you want to know where that 911 bag with the cartridge and allen wrench is on a busy show day."
Speaking of cartridges, Nips from Rider's Boutique recommends having enough spare cartridges in your tack box to accommodate a weekend of accidental triggers. "We have to ship the cartridges via ground shipping, so they're not the easiest things to instantly replenish if you run out while you're riding at home. Be sure to have at least three spares in your tack trunk and stock up when you're at the horse shows."
When asked about the popularity of the vest, Nips said sales have grown exponentially since the summer. "It has reached a tipping point. Entire barns are coming in and buying them. It helps that some of the biggest names in the sport are taking the lead."
While the Horse Pilot vest seems to be the most popular option at the moment, I asked Kennedy whether, from a judge's perspective, she would ever deduct points off of an equitation or hunter rider sporting the less expensive Tipperary vest. "Absolutely not," she said. "I don't know how in good conscience any judge out there can't just let it go. The vests are all pretty nice now. If a judge can't see through that little bit of hardness in an air vest or a Tipperary vest, then they need to check their eye a bit." After all says Kennedy, "looking at a safety vest is a lot better than looking at an ambulance coming into the ring."
We couldn't agree more.
Interested in purchasing the Horse Pilot vest or have questions about it and the available accessories? While we don't stock the Horse Pilot vest, The products are available through this link at Rider's Boutique. You can also ask questions about the products via direct message on Instagram at @riders_boutique.