Body protectors have become a staple piece of safety wear and nothing can beat that flying sense of freedom that comes on horseback. Read on to learn all about the importance of body protectors, and why it’s a good idea to wear one when you ride.

What are they?

Designed primarily to protect against horse kicks or falls, the body protector covers most of a rider’s torso. They also include shoulder protectors, which shield the wearer’s collarbone. They work by absorbing the intense energy created by falling off, being kicked, or stood on by a horse. The lightweight design and innovative technology that has gone into the body protector makes it an essential item for riders.

Body protectors are made of foam and covered in a spongable fabric, making them easy to clean down after a hard ride. The foam is a PVC Nitrile, which is heat sensitive and therefore gradually moulds to the shape of the wearer. The foam is also perforated to increase airflow and flexibility, and to reduce the weight.

The foam used in body protectors cleverly expands back to its original shape 30 minutes after an impact. Should a permanent dent appear in your body protector, this is a sign that the foam has lost its absorption and, thereby, some of its effectiveness. Dented protectors should be replaced—some companies supply replacement panels, so you might not have to replace the whole thing.

Constant advances in technical materials mean that body protectors are improving all the time: if you tried one ten years ago, you can be sure that the science has moved on, and you’ll probably find a more comfortable fit now.

How do they fit?

It’s vital for your body protector to fit properly. Purchase yours from a properly trained retailer to ensure a perfect fit. As a brief guide, here are some pointers as to how your a protector should fit. It should:

  • Complete the entire circumference of your torso.
  • The sides of the protector should reach to below your pelvis, and the back should extend to at least 15cm beneath the top of your pelvis.
  • Measure 25mm under your last rib: your body protector should reach to at least this point on your torso.
  • The back of the protector should extend to the base of your neck, covering your seventh vertebrae.
  • The front of the protector should reach your sternum—in between your collarbones, underneath your chin.

Overall, look for a comfortable and snug (but not tight) fit. Although your body protector will mould to your shape with time, any significant weight loss or gain will affect the fit and protection it offers.

A great tip to consider when fitting yourself for a body protector: remember to try it over the clothes that you normally wear for riding. Don’t wear a thin t-shirt to trial your protector when you normally when a thick hoodie for hacking—it could significantly alter the fit.

Body protectors come in three categories. These levels are height and weight dependent, and cater to different activities and riders; the difference comes from a variation in the thicknesses of foams used.

Level 1, or black label, is advised only for licensed jockeys whilst racing, proving a lower level of protection with streamlined weight.

Level 2, or brown label, is considered appropriate for ‘low risk’ riding situations. You should not opt for this level if you are an inexperienced rider; riding a young or flighty horse; riding on hard road surfaces, or jumping.

Level 3, or purple label, is recommended for standard horse riding, competing, and working with horses. It is advised that this level of body protector is worn at all times, no matter the activity.

How to check your fit

It’s important to continue to check the fit of your body protector regularly to ensure that it is still protecting you to a satisfactory standard. Make sure you have been wearing your body protector for at least 5—10 minutes, to allow for the foam to shape itself to your contours. Then check the following:

  • Check the protector doesn’t significantly move around. It should feel secure and snug.
  • Check the top of the protector reaches your sternum at the front, and the base of your neck at the back.
  • Check the front of the protector reaches to at least 25mm beneath your lowest rib.
  • Check that the bottom of the back does not touch the saddle when you are mounted.
  • Make sure the protector is still comfortable: imitate riding positions to check your comfort in action.
  • Another way to ensure the fit on body protectors made to BETA 2000 and 2009 standard is to check that no coloured Velcro is visible when the garment is worn. If any is visible, this means that you have probably outgrown your body protector.

What do they protect from?

Although there can be no guarantees that it will defend you from all insult and injury on horseback, the body protector will certainly protect you far more than wearing no protection on your torso at all. It gives vital protection to internal organs and bones, and will reduce swelling and bruising significantly. Although they cannot protect the spine itself, they will cushion any fall and reduce the impact on your back. Body protectors cannot protect against severe torsion, extension, or crushing of the body.

What to look for and how to buy

If you’re looking to reduce your risk of injury by getting a body protector, it’s important to ensure to quality of product you’re purchasing. You should look for the BETA standard on any garment you buy: this is recommended by many clubs, and often stipulated in the criteria of events and competitions. In the UK, all body protectors must conform to the British Safety Standard—check labels to ensure yours does so. Follow the BETA colour coded levels to ensure that you are buying a body protector that adequately covers you for the type of activity riding you will be doing. Body protectors can start from prices as low as £50, and go up into the hundreds. Don’t be tempted by a rock bottom deal—remember, it’s your health and your body that you are protecting. It’s important to select a product that will give you protection you require.

Avoid the temptation to pick up a body protector second hand—in general it isn’t a very good idea. You can’t guarantee the history and usage of the garment; it could be well past it’s best. It also won’t come with any sort of warranty that you could get by purchasing from an official retailer. Furthermore, it won’t come with any of the fitting advice or alteration services that quality stockists offer to ensure the protection for you. New body protectors come with a strength and rigidity: it is advised that protectors are replaced after five years of use anyway, so don’t look for a second-hand product when you’re trying to protect yourself from injury with a body protector.

Should I wear a body protector every time I ride?

There’s no law to say that you have to wear your body protector every time you’re around a horse. It’s up to you, and your discretion, to weigh up the safety of your situation. If you’re an experienced rider partaking in low risk activities on a seasoned, sensible horse, then you may decide to go without. However—the oft-cited saying is ‘better safe than sorry’, and you can’t always know what’s going to happen when you’re on horseback.  

Just remember that if you do decide to wear one, the more often you wear your body protector, the more you’ll get used to it; the better it will mould to the contours of your body, and the more comfortable it will become.