Jockey safety vests are not to blame for a rise in fall-related neck and spine injuries, Australian research has shown.
The study into the effectiveness of the vests, compulsory for jockeys and trackwork riders since 1998, indicated that most neck and spine injuries resulted from head impacts against which the vests were not designed to provide protection.
However, its work has also led to the racing industry suspending the use of one vest by jockeys.
Safety vests are now an established part of the kit worn by jockeys in Australia.
The physical and financial cost of jockey fall injuries is substantial – industry information suggests the average time lost following a fall is more than 500 hours per incident, with the claim cost from horse-related falls amounting to about $A3 million a year.
The research, part-funded by the Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation (RIRDC), with significant backing from the racing industry, included four main components.
The first was a survey of jockeys to get an insight into their views on the safety vests currently used; the second was an analysis of insurance claim data about injuries before and after the introduction of safety vests; the third was a review of video footage of jockey falls from horses; and the fourth was the testing of the most popular safety vests against Australian standards.
The jockey survey found that while there were positive views on the safety benefits of vests, many riders were not completely satisfied with the comfort or protection offered by them and some concerns were raised about whether vests were contributing to a perceived increase in spinal and neck fractures.
The analysis of insurance claim data showed a reduction over time in injuries in areas protected by the vests, such as the back, chest and ribs, but an increase in spinal and neck fractures.
The review of video footage by a biomedical engineer suggested spinal and neck fractures were mainly caused by the rider’s head hitting the turf after taking a forward dive off the horse into the track.
As safety vests are not designed to protect the upper spinal column from these types of injuries, the report determined that such injuries are not a result of a fault in the vests.
All safety vests used by Australian jockeys were tested against standards approved in the Australian Rules of Racing.
Of the two most popular vests worn by jockeys, one vest performed extremely well, while the other vest comprehensively failed the testing.
Based on these results, the Australian Racing Board (ARB) moved in September 2013 to ban the use of the Tipperary vest by licensed jockeys, track riders and stable hands.
RIRDC managing director Craig Burns said the report would be a catalyst for the industry to make further improvements to the safety equipment used by jockeys and trackwork riders.
“The adoption of this report’s research findings will make long-lasting improvements to the safety of jockeys and trackwork riders in Australia,” Burns said.
ARB chief executive Peter McGauran said the report has allowed the horse racing industry to make important decisions based on solid research and hard facts.
“Jockey safety is of paramount importance to the Australian thoroughbred racing industry and the equipment available to jockeys must offer effective protection whilst being comfortable under riding conditions.
“Striking a balance between protection and wearability is a particular challenge for racing authorities given the uniqueness of race riding,” McGauran said.
“It’s vital that we base safety equipment standards on the best available science and this report makes a major contribution to our understanding of the benefits of riding vests.
“The RIRDC study has already seen the ARB act to ban the Tipperary vest because it didn’t meet the required standard, and it will also be the basis on which the ARB will shortly introduce more rigorous approval and compliance processes for other vests.”
The report makes several recommendations aimed at improving jockey safety. These include changes to the ARB’s standard for vests, improving systems for approving vests and better systems for monitoring compliance and vest performance. The ARB has already decided to adopt all of the report’s key safety recommendations.
The report’s principal researcher was Dr Caroline Foote from Equine Consulting Services.
The report, titled Evaluation of safety vests – Health and safety in Australian racing, is available for free download from the RIRDC website www.rirdc.gov.au.