Here’s How To Choose The Right Body Protector For You

Three-day event riders are required to wear a safety vest.

Selecting the best body protector for you can be a highly personal choice, rather like choosing a saddle, a pair of riding boots or a pair of breeches. But from a safety consideration, it can be as important as choosing the right riding helmet. Download a PDF of this article here. See also our article on air vests by clicking here.

With both helmets and body protectors, three factors are most important—fit, quality and the type of riding you do. But, as with anything humans wear, style and color also often make the sale.

In the case of body protectors, some riders prefer a softer, more pliable feel, one with a design and materials that allow them to feel as if they’re wearing nothing more than a down vest. Others like to feel as if they’re wearing a bulletproof vest, that they’re wearing something that will really protect them if they fall off.

We at the Horse Journal aren’t able to test body protectors for their protective abilities, so we will strongly recommend that readers buy vests that have been tested and certified by the American Society for Testing Materials (ASTM) and Safety Equipment Institute (SEI) or by the British equivalent BETA. You can be confident that vests tested and certified by these groups are capable of providing you with the maximum protection possible. (We believe BETA testing is actually more demanding than ASTM testing, particularly in shock absorption.) Two of the vests in this article are not ASTM/SEI-certified but are instead certified in Great Britain as BETA level 3.

You can buy several vests that are not certified by either group, vests that may offer features you want. Often these are vests whose manufacturers have decided the requirements certification aren’t cost effective. These vests may protect your spine, ribs and internal organs in a fall, but they may not offer the level of protection that an ASTM/SEI-certified vest does.

(The key word in that sentence is “may”—the protection could actually exceed the ASTM-SEI standard, but we don’t know simply because they haven’t been tested.) 

Suit of Armor Or a Vest?

We have used or examined nine body protectors, made by seven manufacturers, of which five are ASTM/SEI certified, two are BETA level 3-certified, and two are uncertified. All but one of them are designed specifically for wear during a relatively short period of time—primarily while warming up for and riding cross-country courses or when schooling outside of competition.

Of these, we feel only the Tipperary 1015 Eventer (and perhaps the Tipperary Competitor XP 1036) would suit those who want to feel as if they’re wearing nothing more than a wintertime vest for warmth. Five others (the Charles Owen JL9, the Charles Own Kontakt 5, the Woof Wear Ergo, the KAN and the AiroWear Outlyne) fell somewhere in between—there was no question you were wearing a safety vest, but their materials felt relatively flexible and molded well to our bodies. The other two (the Intec Flex Rider and the Lami-Cell) felt like we were wearing a suit of armor. But that feeling can be reassuring to many riders.

Of these, we found the Charles Own JL9 and the AiroWear Outlyne to be the most comfortable and least restrictive choices. The JL9 is $60 to $100 less expensive than the Outlyne, which is specially designed for women, so we found the JL9 to be the best value for competitive event riders. The Charles Owen Kontakt 5 is about $50 more expensive than the JL9 and is designed to feel as snug and comfortable.

Roy Burek of Charles Owen, a company that also produces and markets ASTM/SEI-certified helmets and other riding safety equipment, said that their crash vests are manufactured with a relatively new generation of foam called Gelfoam European TM.

“It closely flows around the contours of the body, unlike previous stiffer foams that will form a tube and tend to slide up the body, and it avoids the need to create creases or cuts in the foam that will be weak points when kicked by a horse or landing on a raised object,” said Burek. “The Gelfoam will cling to the body, especially in the small of the back and under the ribs, and so users will find almost no movement in use.”

On the JL9, the elastic is sewn directly on the Gelfoam and strapped over top of the shoulders to guarantee that the Gelfoam stays in place for the lifetime of the body protector. “This allows the materials to interface with the body in a natural way rather than forcing the body into rigid protection,” said Burek.

Burek, who is a member of the ASTM Safety Standards Committee, added that the JL9 is “designed to minimize damage to your internal organs, your rib cage, the processes on the spine, and soft tissues. It’s designed to work with the body’s natural defenses by minimizing the restriction of body movement, and it is designed to be extremely comfortable.”

While Charles Owen vests are designed with safety protection in mind first, Burek admitted that they can’t turn a blind eye toward fashion. He added that their vests can all be customized “with a variety of color and piping options and feature a slim appearance achieved through the tapered shoulders and rounded chest protection panels.”

The Outlyne, which was introduced in 2008 and is neither ASTM/SEI- nor BETA-certified, uses multiple layers of shock-absorbing foam (called UltraFlex Technology) that becomes increasingly pliable when combined with the wearer’s body heat, allowing it to mold to the wearer’s body. It is also slightly lighter in weight than other similar vests.

Unlike the Charles Owen and AiroWear vest, the Woof Wear Ergo vests are made of EVA foam that is designed to be unaffected by body heat. Therefore, said John Felton of Woof Wear, it remains more pliable in colder temperatures than other vests. “It’s the high-tech foam—there isn’t anything else like it in the USA,” he said.

The Woof Wear Ergo vest is priced roughly the same as the Charles Owen and as much as $100 below the AiroWear. It’s available in only black, and the fit is altered only by the Velcro fasteners on the shoulders and sides. But I’ve used one for more than five years, and, like all Woof Wear products, I’ve found it extremely durable and slightly cooler in summer temperatures than the Charles Own JL9.

We’ve found that, generally, some women don’t prefer the Intec Flex-Rider and the Lami-Cell vests because of their stiffness. Both are ASTM/SEI-certified.

Intec uses polyethylene foam instead of vinyl nitrile foam, which becomes more pliable when warmed. Vinyl nitrile foam loses its shock-absorption strength in the extreme temperatures (above 90 degrees) that can be found in many U.S. locations, which is why Intec uses polyethylene foam.

The Lami-Cell vest uses two layers of combination foam, a vinyl nitrile foam to provide the impact protection and a Flexotech foam give it flexibility, allowing it to fit the body.

Because of its low price (from $89.99), we would consider the Lami-Cell vest to be the best value for riders who only occasionally need to wear a safety vest.

Like the riding helmet, an equestrian vest is an item of safety.

Two New Body Protectors

The Charles Owen JL9 is available only in the United States, but in the last year the company has introduced another vest that was previously available only in the United Kingdom, called the Kontakt 5. This vest is not ASTM/SEI-certified, but it is certified to BETA level 3, an even tougher standard. There are more layers of Gelfoam in the Kontakt 5 to meet the BETA standard, and it’s about $50 more expensive.

Burek said that they’ve made the Kontakt 5, like the JL9, to “focus on flexibility, comfort, breathability and security” by using the Gelfoam technology developed by Charles Owen. Burek said that Gelfoam has “revolutionized body protection,” because, “unlike traditional foam, Gelfoam has millions of air bubbles that reduce the weight and increase the impact absorption.”

Another reason that riders find the JL9 and the Kontakt 5 comfortable is that Charles Owen created a fit system that allows for each body protector to have interchangeable panels, so riders can choose different sizes based on their build. This allows for an almost customized fit off the shelf and ensures that the vest is the correct length to protect the liver and spleen. Riders can adjust the fit by positioning the panels in different locations to allow for various chest/waist ratios.

Another relatively new body protector is the KAN, which uses a “smart foam” developed by Planet Knox, which has been making body protectors for motorcycle racing for more than 30 years. The KAN vest sells for $449 and is made especially for women.

The Knox HR Foam is made with convoluted passageways that trap air inside them. According to the manufacturer, “When impacted, the air is compressed, which pushes the foam cells together in the zone where the force is concentrated. The resulting hardening effectively absorbs the impact energy and spreads it, thus preventing serious injury. It then returns back to its original form ready for use again and again. “

The manufacturer claims that Knox HR Foam is 20-percent more shock absorbent than other types of foam, according to independent testing.

The KAN vest was first marketed in England in 2008 and introduced to the U.S. market about four years ago. Its founder is Wendy McCaughan of Ireland, who is a fashion designer, was a design consultant for companies that made bulletproof vests, and is a rider.

Every KAN vest is customized for each client, using individually molded pieces. Potential buyers submit their measurements and answer questions about the type of riding that they do and any previous injuries or ailments so that the pieces can be molded exclusively for them.

We found that it feels rather tight when first worn but that the materials soften and mold to the rider’s body. We also found their customer service excellent, as it should be for a garment that costs twice as much as its competitors but is neither ASTM/SEI- nor BETA-certified.

“Crash” vests were originally seen in bull riding.

Tipperary = Comfort

The Tipperary Eventer 1015 has been on the market for 25 years but is not ASTM/SEI-certified because of the laces it uses to close the sides, a feature ASTM/SEI does not accept but which provides the comfort that many riders like. Despite its lack of certification, we think this product has stood the test of time as a reliable piece of safety equipment, having been worn by thousands of riders and, as anecdotal evidence suggests, provided them with a more than acceptable level of protection. Tipperary claims this model is the world’s best-selling body protector.

For many, the most important consideration when buying a crash vest is comfort, which is the main reason for the popularity of the Tipperary vests among event riders, trail riders and others.

The Eventer 1105 is made with a proprietary foam and with breaks between the squares of foam. These breaks, the manufacturer says, provide both full coverage and mobility. Basically, they allow riders to move comfortably while wearing the product. And the more you wear their vests, the more they conform to your body shape.

Tipperary now makes a vest called the Competitor XP 1036 that is ASTM/SEI certified. Tipperary designed this vest primarily to be worm underneath shirts, sweaters or jackets, making it the only one of the nine vests we’ve examined to be fully suitable for trail riders, foxhunters or for other forms of competition besides eventing’s cross-country phase.

The Competitor XP 1036 is made with the same proprietary form but without the breaks, so some riders will likely find it less comfortable than the Eventer 1105.

Bottom Line

It stands to reason that the vest you choose must be comfortable when you wear it. If it isn’t, you may be tempted to skip it. We don’t want you to be compelled to do that.

So, if at all possible, try on a vest before you purchase it or carefully check the retailer’s return policy. If you don’t have many dealers in your area, consider a trip to a large equestrian trade fair, such as the one at Rolex Kentucky, to experience the widest variety of vests.

We think the Charles Owen JL9 is the Best Buy for active competitors. The Lami-Cell is our choice for Best Buy for occasional users.

The Vests We’ve Examined:

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