Be mindful of fit, comfort, and equestrian governing body requirements when selecting these important pieces of safety equipment

By Natalie DeFee Mendik, MA

Many riders opt to wear body protection for an additional level of safety in the saddle. In some equine sports, such as the cross-country phase of three-day eventing, body protectors are mandatory. Developments in safety technology mean today’s generation of body protectors, designed to absorb impact from a fall or kick, offer comfortable fit and superior safeguards.

When selecting a body protector, first make sure you get the fit right. Measure over the type of clothing you typically wear when riding; manufacturers generally recommend wearing body protectors over lightweight clothing, placing heavier garments over the body protector in cooler temperatures.

To determine your size, follow the measuring guidelines for the brand(s) you are interested in. Different manufacturers recommend you take various measurements, including:

  • Around the widest part of your chest.
  • Around your waist at about the bellybutton (sometimes referred to as the natural waist).
  • From your waist over the front of one shoulder and down to the waist in the back.
  • Your spine from the base of your neck (where you can feel the large vertebra) to the top of your tailbone. Some guidelines recommend running the tape measure from the base of your neck to the seat of the chair you are sitting in, then subtracting 2 inches or 5 centimeters. This allows the back of the body protector saddle clearance, while still covering the tailbone; you should have about a hand’s width from the bottom of the body protector to the back of the saddle.

Place a soft tape measure snug, but not tight, around these areas. Record dimensions in both inches and centimeters. Consult a size chart for the brand(s) you are interested in trying. If you fall between sizes, try the smaller size first.

Once you have chosen a brand and a style, try on the body protector with its straps or laces loose and zipper open. Adjust for a snug fit that still allows freedom of movement. You shouldn’t feel any pinching (which indicates the protector is too small) or notice any gaps (which indicate the protector might be too large).

When selecting a body protector, pay attention to comfort as well as fit. “When you are on the horse, you need to be able to move around,” says two-star and advanced-level Canadian eventer Nikki Ayers. “If the vest is restricting you in any way, it’s obviously difficult.”

She also suggests riders be up to date on the product safety certification required by their discipline’s governing association.

In addition to body protectors, many riders opt for air vests, which connect by a lanyard to a strap on the saddle and immediately inflate outward if the rider falls from the saddle. The small CO2 canister that deploys the vest is replaceable, allowing you to wear the vest again after inflation. These adjustable vests fit much like traditional vests and can be worn alone or, for maximum protection, over a body protector. Some manufactures now offer a hybrid vest that combines a body protector with an air vest in one garment.

“I think air vests are fantastic; I’ve certainly deployed mine more than once,” says Ayers. “It’s brilliant what they’ve invented. The combination of body protector and air vest could truly save your life.”

Like helmets, don’t store your body protector or air vest in extreme environments, such as inside a hot car, in direct sunlight, or in a freezing barn. Don’t immerse it in water; instead, wipe it down with a damp cloth and a mild cleaner. Replace your protector every three to five years, as materials degrade over time.

A knowledgeable brand representative or sales associate can help you select and fit the body protector that’s right for you. If you compete, contact your national organization for information regarding rules and regulations. 

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