Equestrian racing isn’t quite as dangerous as racing in a car. You don’t go nearly as fast. But still, if you mess up, you can find yourself trampled by a powerful, 1,000-pound animal.
After a series of equestrian deaths between 2007 and 2008, sports officials implemented new safety standards, according to Wired. One popular new option were vests that aren’t just for padding, but inflate like airbags upon impact to create cushioning for the athletes.
“When we started putting them on riders people were laughing,” Lee Middleton, the owner of air jacket manufacturer Point Two, told Wired. “Riders don’t want to wear an air bag. They want to be as light as possible.”
Point Two worked on their design, and they ended up with a vest that works like one giant airbag, spanning the full length of the torso. If you pull on the vest’s lanyard, an attached CO2 canister can inflate it in under 60 milliseconds.
You can see a demonstration on how the vest works below (starting around the 2:50 mark):
Of course, not all riders are convinced, but the fact remains that the vest airbags actually work.
The paramedic team that saved Laura Collett, who suffered a six-day coma in 2013 after her horse fell on her, credited her inflatable vest. And Oliver Townend credited his air jacket when he survived a horse falling onto him in the 2010 Rolex Kentucky Three Day Event.
“I walked out of hospital the next day, where otherwise I would be in a box or in America for a month,” Townend told The New York Times.
But air jackets still have some issues. They impede mobility, which can make it harder to scramble to safety after a fall. And if it accidentally inflates, it can mess up a rider during a fall — costing crucial milliseconds in the Olympics.
Still, they’re effective. In the rash of equestrian deaths between 2007 and 2008, most of them were from a rotational fall, according to Wired — in which a horse crashes into a fence, somersaults, and then crashes into its unhitched rider.
For an impact like that, an airbag helps.
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