We all know that horseback riding is a dangerous sport no matter which way you cut it. Whether you’re wearing a helmet, a safety vest, or you’re bubble wrapped, there’s always a pretty decent risk of injury.
While equestrian safety vests are increasing in popularity, the stigma surrounding them still exists. In general, the equestrian community has not been outwardly hateful or negative about safety vests. However, in my personal experience, more often than not, people have a disapproving or apprehensive response to conversation surrounding air vests.
The way I see it, if there’s another way that I could potentially increase safety while participating in my favorite (very dangerous) sport, then why wouldn’t I want that? Although air vests can’t prevent all injuries, the thought that a vest might soften the blow to my neck or back during a fall was all the convincing that I needed, especially after knowing a friend who broke her back. However, I definitely felt awkward the first few times I rode in my vest. 20% because I had an air cartridge bouncing around my torso while I rode, and 80% because I felt like people were seeing me and thinking of me differently. I worried that people thought that I was a bad rider and that’s why I needed a vest. I thought about the professionals at my barn and felt embarrassed to ride in front of them. Nobody had been rude to me at all, and I realized that my worries were just in my head. Just when I felt like I had started to push my doubts aside, I went to my first show with my vest.
Riding in the equitation and hunters felt particularly bizarre. In these divisions that are fundamentally concerned with how you look, I doubted that I would ever make it in the ribbons again. Undeniably, the vest makes it harder to see my equitation, covering the arch in my low back and sometimes making my shoulders look hunched when they’re not. Luckily, there was some objectivity infused into such a subjective division; the judges saw my vest as a safety feature and I didn’t feel that I was knocked any points for my new look.
After that first show, I finally realized that this journey of confidence is completely internal and no awkwardness (real or imagined) will define how I feel about myself as an equestrian. It definitely still feels weird to see photos and videos of myself riding, because it looks different than it used to, but that’s not all due to my vest. When I watch myself ride, I’m learning to embrace my new look with my vest the same way that I embrace my new “look” when I apply techniques and improvements in my riding.
In hindsight, I sometimes feel silly that I built up the idea of what others would think about me riding in a vest. However, it’s completely in line with human nature to worry about your outward appearance, especially when it’s a little bit different from the trends. I think as a community, equestrians need to continue being supportive of each other, because we all know what a huge role the mindset element plays in success as a rider. Confidence comes from within, but it doesn’t hurt to have a supportive community to help you feel empowered to be the best rider that you can be.