This subject came up at the Pony Club CPD evening last week, and I thought it was definitely worth a bit of time spent thinking about it.
Body protectors are an integral part of riding today, and many people put them on like they put on a hat. But is it beneficial to do flatwork in them?
They obviously have the benefits of protecting the upper body and vital organs, and I think many parents want what’s best for their child and will purchase all the safety gear they can get their hands on. There are numerous studies that show the benefits of body protectors in falls at speed or from height. Bouncing off in trot onto the soft surface of the school doesn’t have quite the same level of danger though.
I think there is also the psychological benefit of feeling protected, which gives you more confidence in your riding.
Which could cause you to take unnecessary risks, or ride outside your comfort zone, but that’s another topic …
Let’s look at body protectors and how they fit. They’ve changed in my lifetime, so I’m sure we’ll see more change in the future. The first ones I remember were made of little bits of foam, and very bendy. They looked a bit like the life jackets from the Titanic! Then they evolved to be two large pieces of foam that wrapped around front and back, attached with Velcro. Now the large pieces have been anatomically divided to increase movement and the protectors fit like a jacket. Racesafe have also developed ones with much smaller bits of foam, going back to the original life jacket style, albeit with less floppiness.
The more recent ones are definitely an improvement in that rider’s can move more and they contour to the body. But wearing a piece of foam around you does restrict your movement slightly and upset your balance.
I’m sure there’s an element of getting used to riding with one and learning to adapt to it’s feel. Possibly something I find difficult because I only ever use mine for cross country, so am not used to it daily.
Let’s go back to learning to ride, and wearing a body protector on the flat. Does it help? Well like I said earlier if it gives you a confidence boost a clever instructor can use this to their advantage. A not so clever instructor can push too far. The body protector can help those with a sloppy posture, encouraging them to sit up more. But have you ever seen kids riding with a body protector and their elbows sticking out? Of course they can’t put their elbows by their side because the body protector is under their armpits. (I think this applies more to the Velcro, large foam piece styles) This will affect their balance, arm position, and contact on the reins. Which jeopardises their learning and can give them bad habits for life.
When learning sitting trot the body bounces around as the correct muscles develop. A body protector can inhibit this and make the body rigid, thus being harder to sit and absorb the horse’s movement. Even with more competent riders and jumping, a body protector can make it harder to absorb a sudden movement or to keep the balance through a spook.
A couple of weeks ago one of the horses I was riding did a very impressive spin. Towards the spooky sheep. Which I obviously wasn’t expecting; my body was poised for a spin the opposite way. I stayed on, albeit with my arms wrapped around his neck and one foot precariously over the cantle. I’m pretty sure that having a body protector on would have made it harder for me to sit that spin.
I’m not advocating the abandonment of body protectors, I’m just saying that a bulky, or badly fitting one, can make riding harder. Riders may find they develop better sitting trot, or can develop better feel for a horse’s way of going on the flat without the restrictions of the body protector. Perhaps more competent riders when jumping small fences will also find it easier to develop their balance without the rigidity of one. An instructor, especially in our society of blame and health and safety, can’t tell a client to remove their body protector, but perhaps giving clients the opportunity to put on their body protector before the jumping part of their lesson would help riders’ flatwork? And instilling in clients that it really is worth getting the protector fitted by a professional and buying the best.
I think it’s important to go for the best fitting body protector, and to avoid the larger panels if possible so it will contour to your body. Body protectors are not an area to skrimp and save on. I hate seeing children in badly fitting protectors; I remember one girl who wore her elder sister’s body protector. She looked like a turtle, the shoulders came up to her ears! And I’m sure it didn’t do her coccyx or position any good having the base of the back so low.
It will be interesting to see how body protectors develop as technology improves; perhaps they will become even lighter and thinner so are more suited to flatwork and less inhibiting.