Air jackets may not be preventing eventing riders from more serious injury, according to a major study jointly undertaken by the universities of Melbourne and Sydney.

Researchers found that eventing riders in air jackets had 1.7 times more likelihood of serious or fatal injury in cross-country falls compared to riders who did not supplement their mandatory body protection with an inflatable safety vest.

The analysis utilised a substantially larger sample base than previous studies – examining the data of 1,819 riders who fell in FEI events around the world while wearing air jackets compared with the 1,486 who fell when not wearing them between 2015 to 2017.

Data was categorised as either “no/slight injury” or “serious/fatal injury,” of which latter there were 102. The 55% of the fallers wearing air jackets represented 67.6% of the serious/fatal injury outcomes.

These surprising results are published in the Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport by researchers Lindsay Nylund, Peter Sinclair, Peta Hitchens and Stephen Cobley.

They stress it does not mean air jacket contribute to injuries, and recommend further research to understand these findings, including more data about injury outcomes, rider characteristics and the biomechanics of falls.

The FEI, who provided the data, advised there was no official record of whether 443 of the fallers had been wearing an air jacket, so the study first treated these riders as if they had not. A second analysis deleting these 443 made no tangible difference – in fact, the likelihood of serious injury increased to 1.8%.

The researchers offered a number of “plausible” explanations.

First, a separate study on air jackets commonly used in Switzerland showed that 150 to 593 Newtons were required to deploy an airbag. This force might alter the rider’s fall trajectory and cause him to land closer to the horse and so be more exposed to trampling or crushing.

Second, inflation occurs along the longitudinal axis of the human torso, impeding the rider’s ability to tuck and roll. The study asserted that fall scenarios are usually more complicated than the impact absorption characteristics usually measured in vertical drop-testing in laboratories.

Third, the noise made by the cartridge when triggering inflation (around 87-98 decibels) could startle a rider, and momentarily distract from responding to the impending fall.

Fourth, it “remained a possibility” that riders at more risk of injury would chose to wear an air jacket.

The lead researcher, Lindsay Nylund, is a former Olympic gymnast and coach who has become a prominent figure in Australia’s equestrian safety lobby in recent years. Nylund has applied his gymnastics knowledge to helping riders handle themselves better in the event of a fall, giving seminars across Australia and authoring Surviving the Unexpected – Safety Training for Riders.