Re­duc­ing Risks to Make Event­ing Safer

A com­pre­hen­sive in­quiry looks at the safety chal­lenges and changes in event­ing, in­clud­ing fran­gi­ble-pin tech­nol­ogy and data anal­y­sis that as­sesses cross-coun­try risk.

Practical Horseman - - Special Eventing Issue - By Jenni Autry

Any ac­tiv­ity in­volv­ing horses will al­ways carry an in­her­ent amount of risk. Add in the el­e­ment of gal­lop­ing a horse at speed over solid cross-coun­try ob­sta­cles, and event­ing car­ries one of the high­est risk lev­els for se­ri­ous in­juries and fa­tal­i­ties among all eques­trian sports. Sta­tis­tics gathered over the last two decades have painted a dis­turb­ing pic­ture. Since 2004, the Fédéra­tion Equestre In­ter­na­tionale re­ports that 14 event riders around the world have died at in­ter­na­tional com­pe­ti­tions due to fa­tal ac­ci­dents on cross coun­try. While the FEI only re­ports fa­tal­i­ties that oc­cur at in­ter­na­tional com­pe­ti­tions, the web­site horsetalk.co.nz has tracked 38 riders around the world who have died from ac­ci­dents dur­ing both na­tional and in­ter­na­tional events for the same time pe­riod; it lists an­other 17 riders who have died in event­ing since 1997. The same web­site counts 91 horse deaths on cross coun­try since 2005 from falls as well as other in­juries, in­clud­ing car­dio­vas­cu­lar and pul­monary com­pro­mise (see “Study­ing Horse Fa­tal­i­ties,” page 29).

The risk of se­ri­ous in­juries and fa­tal­i­ties in­creases sig­nif­i­cantly when a horse hits a solid ob­sta­cle and falls, throw­ing the rider to the ground at high speed or, in the most se­vere cases, falling on top of the rider. The FEI re­ports that horse falls are cur­rently hap­pen­ing at a rate of one horse fall for ev­ery 63 starters on cross coun­try, with the risk of a se­ri­ous rider in­jury oc­cur­ring in one out of ev­ery 55 horse falls. In ad­di­tion, there is one ro­ta­tional fall for ev­ery 572 starters, with the risk of a se­ri­ous in­jury to a rider in those falls listed as one in ev­ery five.

These sta­tis­tics weigh heav­ily on 2000 U.S. Olympic in­di­vid­ual gold medal­ist David O’Con­nor. Fol­low­ing a four-year term as coach of the U.S. Event­ing Team, David was

elected chair of the FEI Event­ing Com­mit­tee in 2017 with a plat­form to fur­ther risk-man­age­ment in the sport.

“If we re­duce horse falls to an ab­so­lute min­i­mum, peo­ple won’t be get­ting se­ri­ously in­jured,” David says. “Our num­ber-one mea­sure has to re­main re­duc­ing horse falls.”

David has cham­pi­oned this mantra since 2000, when he sat on the new FEI In­ter­na­tional Event­ing Safety Com­mit­tee. Formed fol­low­ing the fa­tal ac­ci­dents of five event riders in Great Bri­tain dur­ing the 1999 sea­son, the com­mit­tee sought to ad­dress the grow­ing con­cerns about safety in event­ing and rec­om­mend changes to ul­ti­mately save both hu­man and equine lives.

Chaired by Pere­grine Cavendish, Mar­quess of Hart­ing­ton in Eng­land, the com­mit­tee re­leased what be­came known as “the Hart­ing­ton Re­port” in April 2000, the most com­pre­hen­sive over­view of riskman­age­ment in event­ing at the time.

While the Hart­ing­ton Re­port re­com- mended nu­mer­ous changes, two key ar­eas emerged as the most crit­i­cal in re­gard to boost­ing safety on cross coun­try:

Fran­gi­ble tech­nol­ogy: Con­struct­ing cross-coun­try jumps with de­formable de­vices that al­low part or all of a solid ob­sta­cle to col­lapse, thus de­creas­ing the risk of horse falls and par­tic­u­larly ro­ta­tional falls.

Data track­ing: A world­wide sta­tis­ti­cal data­base to track horse and rider falls, in­juries and fa­tal­i­ties. The FEI be­gan com­pil­ing this data in 2002 and has re­leased an event­ing sta­tis­tics re­port ev­ery year since 2007.

The Evo­lu­tion of Fran­gi­ble Tech­nol­ogy

British Event­ing, Great Bri­tain’s na­tional gov­ern­ing body for event­ing, spear­headed much of the early re­search into fran­gi­ble tech­nol­ogy in part­ner­ship with Trans­port Re­search Laboratory, an in­de­pen­dent trans­port con­sul­tancy and re­search com- pany based in Wok­ing­ham, Eng­land.

Af­ter con­duct­ing ex­ten­sive film anal­y­sis of cross-coun­try ac­ci­dents, TRL de­ter­mined that ro­ta­tional falls oc­cur most com­monly when the horse hits a fixed jump be­tween his knee and el­bow, which causes a ro­tat­ing mo­tion over the jump. If the horse hits the jump below the knee, he is bet­ter able to scram­ble over the jump and stay up­right, thus pre­vent­ing a fall and po­ten­tial crush­ing in­jury for the rider.

TRL de­vel­oped a math­e­mat­i­cal model and built a crash horse to test the the­ory, and the first fran­gi­ble pin, a safety de­vice de­signed to limit the force of a horse im­pact, was de­vel­oped as a re­sult. The new fran­gi­ble pins were tested on post-and-rail fences at nine British Event­ing horse tri­als in 2002, in­clud­ing the Bad­minton Horse Tri­als, and fit­ted to all new fences at ev­ery level on British cross-coun­try cour­ses prior to the start of the 2006 sea­son. Other coun­tries fol­lowed suit, us­ing fran­gi­ble-pin tech­nol­ogy

in var­i­ous sit­u­a­tions.

In 2013 the FEI ap­proved a new type of fran­gi­ble de­vice, the MIM Safe New Era Clip, for use in in­ter­na­tional com­pe­ti­tions. Whereas fran­gi­ble pins break only un­der ver­ti­cal force when the horse makes con­tact with the top of the fence, the MIM Clip al­lows the pins to break un­der both ver­ti­cal and hor­i­zon­tal force when the horse makes con­tact with the front of the fence, thus pro­vid­ing an­other safe­guard against ro­ta­tional falls. The MIM Clip is now ap­proved for ox­ers, post-and-rail fences, gates, walls and ta­bles.

The MIM Clip also fea­tures a re­us­able in­di­ca­tor tool that al­lows fence judges to see if the pin has been weak­ened by the horse mak­ing con­tact with the jump, and the pin can also be eas­ily re­paired by the fence judges. In con­trast, re­plac­ing fran­gi­ble pins re­quires a length­ier re­pair process from the course-build­ing crew, of­ten lead­ing to a hold on course and de­lay­ing the com­pe­ti­tion.

To­day the FEI es­ti­mates that fran­gi­ble tech­nol­ogy is found on an es­ti­mated 3,500 cross-coun­try fences at in­ter­na­tional-level horse tri­als around the world. New fran­gi­ble tech­nolo­gies are cur­rently be­ing tested in Ger­many and Aus­tralia.

Mike Ether­ing­ton-Smith, one of the world’s lead­ing cross-coun­try course de­sign­ers, de­signed the tracks at the 2000 and 2008 Olympic Games, 2010 World Eques­trian Games and the Rolex Ken- tucky Three-Day Event for 17 years. He also sat on the com­mit­tee that pro­duced the Hart­ing­ton Re­port.

With his ca­reer as a course de­signer span­ning two decades, Mike says the most im­por­tant de­vel­op­ment in cross-coun­try course de­sign has been the in­tro­duc­tion of fran­gi­ble tech­nol­ogy. “We have to be care­ful that we don’t go too far down the line and have knock­down fences be­cause that’s not what the game is all about,” Mike says. “But if the horse or rider makes a mis­take, they shouldn’t be pe­nal­ized with se­ri­ous in­jury.”

The Im­pact of Fran­gi­ble Tech­nol­ogy

Since the FEI be­gan record­ing data in 2006, horse falls on cross coun­try have been re­duced dra­mat­i­cally at in­ter­na­tional com­pe­ti­tions. Ro­ta­tional falls dropped by more than half, from .37 per­cent of starters on course, or one ro­ta­tional fall for ev­ery 268 starters, to .17 per­cent of starters, or one ro­ta­tional fall for ev­ery 572 starters.

“The tech­nol­ogy is work­ing, but it’s not fool­proof,” David says. “No tech­nol­ogy can be fool­proof, like a seat­belt, but you still wear one.”

Ad­di­tional fa­tal­i­ties in event­ing over the past two event­ing sea­sons—five event riders have died on both na­tional and in­ter­na­tional cross-coun­try cour­ses since 2016—trig­gered an in­creased push for the manda­tory use of fran­gi­ble tech­nol­ogy.

Nu­mer­ous na­tional fed­er­a­tions, in­clud­ing the U.S. Eques­trian Fed­er­a­tion, called for the FEI to re­quire fran­gi­ble tech­nol­ogy on cour­ses fol­low­ing the death of 29-yearold Maxime De­bost last Septem­ber 23, due to a ro­ta­tional fall at the Châteaubri­ant CCI* in France.

“It is im­por­tant to note that fran­gi­ble de­vices are one el­e­ment in a wide spec­trum of risk-man­age­ment ini­tia­tives,” the FEI said in a state­ment. “While they are clearly an im­por­tant com­po­nent, they will not in them­selves elim­i­nate all risk from the sport.”

“It’s a tricky bal­ance,” Mike says. “These are the things you wres­tle with in your mind. Do we want to ask horses to es­sen­tially be­come show jumpers in their style on cross coun­try? We cer­tainly don’t want riders think­ing they have to show jump the fences on cross coun­try.”

Wil­liam Mick­lem, an ac­claimed coach from Ire­land and lead­ing voice in the event­ing world, has re­mained an ad­vo­cate for fran­gi­ble tech­nol­ogy since its in­cep­tion and has called for the FEI to man­date its use.

“There are many fac­tors in­volved in safe cross-coun­try rid­ing apart from de­sign and place­ment of the fences them­selves: the rider’s skill and ex­pe­ri­ence, the horse’s train­ing and ex­pe­ri­ence, the health of rider and horse, coach­ing and in­struc­tions given to the rider and foot­ing and weather con­di­tions on the day,” Wil­liam says.

“Us­ing fran­gi­ble tech­nol­ogy will not change the fact that horse and rider will still need a pro­gres­sive ed­u­ca­tion,” he con­tin­ues. “But when there has been a fence without fran­gi­ble tech­nol­ogy and a rider has died in a ro­ta­tional fall, who can say in these cir­cum­stances that it was bet­ter for the sport that they died?”

While the FEI hasn’t man­dated the use of fran­gi­ble tech­nol­ogy on in­ter­na­tional cour­ses, many na­tional fed­er­a­tions have passed their own rules re­qur­ing de­vices to be fit­ted on fences at na­tional com­pe­ti­tions.

Nu­mer­ous Pieces to The Puz­zle

Two-time U.S. Olympic team sil­ver medal­ist and ex­pe­ri­enced event­ing coach Jim Wof­ford be­lieves uti­liz­ing fran­gi­ble tech­nol­ogy is just one piece of the safety puz­zle. Event­ing has un­der­gone nu­mer­ous facelifts since he joined the U.S. Event­ing Team in 1965, namely aban­don­ing the tra­di­tional long for­mat for the short for­mat in the last decade.

“Ev­ery time you change one as­pect of the sport, you change the en­tire in­tent of the sport,” Jim says. “It’s like tap­ping a kalei­do­scope. If you in­crease the im­por­tance of the dres­sage test, ev­ery­thing else changes. If you change the height, tech­ni­cal spread and dif­fi­culty of show jump­ing, then ev­ery­thing changes in re­la­tion to that.”

De­spite the var­i­ous changes to event­ing’s phases and for­mat over the years, Jim says he be­lieves the most crit­i­cal el­e­ment that can boost safety in event­ing has re­mained un­changed: Ride a good jumper.

“Good jumpers are born and trained,” he says. “You can train a horse to be a very good jumper and to­tally ro­botic. You can also train a horse to be a good jumper and very in­de­pen­dent. Of those two paths, the in­de­pen­dent horse is a much safer ride be­cause see­ing your strides and know­ing your dis­tance work well un­til it doesn’t work. When it doesn’t work, it’s a catas­tro­phe.”

The bur­den also re­mains with the rider and coach to make the de­ci­sion about when it is ap­pro­pri­ate to move up to a more dif­fi­cult level, Jim says, or to de­cide whether a higher level is be­yond the horse’s men­tal and phys­i­cal ca­pac­ity.

“There is a ten­dency for riders to say, ‘I am qual­i­fied for the In­ter­me­di­ate level be­cause I have my manda­tory qual­i­fy­ing score at two Pre­lim­i­nary events. There­fore, I have now be­come an In­ter­me­di­ate-level rider.’ You can ful­fill a qual­i­fi­ca­tion, but you are not truly com­pe­tent at the next level yet.”

EquiRat­ings Changes The Game

As long as horses and riders com­pete at lev­els be­yond their skill set and abil­ity, se­ri­ous ac­ci­dents will in­evitably oc­cur. Since the launch of EquiRat­ings, an eques­trian data sci­ence com­pany, in 2015, data anal­y­sis has sig­nif­i­cantly changed the way both risk and per­for­mance are an­a­lyzed in event­ing.

EquiRat­ings co-founders Sam Wat­son, an Ir­ish four-star rider, and Diarm Byrne, a for­mer cor­po­rate lawyer in Ire­land, work with na­tional fed­er­a­tions and high-per­for­mance teams around the world to de­sign met­rics to mea­sure and ul­ti­mately man­age per­for­mance and risk. Built on the prin­ci­ple that per­for­mance and risk are in­ex­tri­ca­bly linked, EquiRat­ings de­signed the EquiRat­ings Qual­ity In­dex sys­tem, track­ing cross-coun­try out­comes with unique for­mu­las de­signed to pro­vide a risk rating for ev­ery horse at ev­ery level.

The ap­proach has proved re­mark­ably suc­cess­ful. Ire­land be­came the first na­tional fed­er­a­tion to im­ple­ment ERQI at the na­tional level in 2016. By pre­vent­ing the 1.5 per­cent of horses with the low­est ERQI rat­ings from com­pet­ing at that par­tic­u­lar level, the fed­er­a­tion saw the num­ber of horse falls drop by more than half at the up­per na­tional lev­els that year. The same re­duc­tion in falls con­tin­ued in

the 2017 sea­son.

The FEI signed a four-year deal with EquiRat­ings in 2017 with a goal to im­ple­ment ERQI on an in­ter­na­tional level.

More na­tional fed­er­a­tions are also sign­ing on to use ERQI at their own horse tri­als. British Event­ing called ERQI “one of the most im­por­tant de­vel­op­ments in riskman­age­ment seen in the sport, pos­si­bly ever” and be­gan to de­velop its own ERQI sys­tem dur­ing the 2017 sea­son.

The U.S. Event­ing As­so­ci­a­tion an­nounced a safety part­ner­ship with EquiRat­ings in 2017 and launched ERQI at the na­tional level in 2018, al­low­ing riders to view their horse’s risk rating in a data­base. Aus­tralia re­cently an­nounced that it, too, will adopt the ERQI risk-rat­ings sys­tem at the na­tional level this sea­son.

“Many clients don’t know their cur­rent risk lev­els, which be­comes the first step,” Sam adds. “First, we must mea­sure, then we can man­age. We en­cour­age our clients to

talk in quan­tifi­able met­rics be­cause this is the first step to defin­ing ob­jec­tives.”

Diarm be­lieves when dis­cussing the mer­its of a risk-rat­ings sys­tem like ERQI, the key word to fo­cus on is the “qual­ity” of a horse’s per­for­mance.

“Some of our qual­i­fi­ca­tion tools fo­cus on quan­tity,” he says. “For ex­am­ple, hav­ing two clear cross-coun­try runs at the three-star level be­fore pro­gress­ing to four-star. Be­fore the ERQI ex­isted, there was no dif­fer­ence be­tween a horse with two clears from two runs and a horse with two clears from 13 runs. When it comes to risk, our data anal­y­sis shows that there’s a vast dif­fer­ence.”

‘We Are All in This To­gether’

While con­sid­er­able steps have been taken to in­crease safety in event­ing and ul­ti­mately re­duce horse falls—from fran­gi­ble tech­nol­ogy to data track­ing and in­creased aware­ness and re­spon­si­bil­ity re­gard­ing risk—fa­tal­i­ties have not been elim­i­nated. As long as horses are still falling on cross-coun­try cour­ses, the risk of se­ri­ous in­jury and death to both horse and rider re­mains high.

Four-star even­ter Jonathan Holling be­came in­volved in fur­ther­ing the safety move­ment in 2008 when his horse Di­rect Merger suf­fered a pul­monary hem­or­rhage (blood in the lungs) and died on cross coun­try at Red Hills Horse Tri­als in Tal­la­has­see, Florida. At that same event, Lep­rechaun’s Rowdy Boy, rid­den by Missy Miller, also died of a pul­monary hem­or­rhage on cross coun­try, and Olympic bronze medal­ist Dar­ren Chi­ac­chia suf­fered se­ri­ous in­juries fol­low­ing a ro­ta­tional fall.

“That was a bad day for every­one,” Jonathan says. “When I left that com­pe­ti­tion, one thing that hit me was what an amaz­ing com­mu­nity we are and how close knit we are on ev­ery level. I was also hit with a guilty con­science, like, ‘What are we do­ing?’ This is what I’ve ded­i­cated my life to, so ei­ther I quit and do some­thing else com­pletely or I be­come a part of the so­lu­tion.”

Jonathan serves as co-chair of the USEA Cross-Coun­try Safety Sub-Com­mit­tee and as FEI Na­tional Safety Of­fi­cer for the U.S., one of 43 FEI Na­tional Safety Of­fi­cers from coun­tries world­wide who are re­spon­si­ble for sub­mit­ting re­ports on falls and se­ri­ous in­juries that oc­cur at events in their coun­tries.

He at­tended the FEI Event­ing Risk Man­age­ment Sem­i­nar in Lau­sanne, Switzer­land, in Jan­uary and says he was struck by the deep level of ded­i­ca­tion of in­di­vid­u­als around the world who are work­ing to­gether to­ward the com­mon goal of a safer sport.

“Some coun­tries are deal­ing with their own safety chal­lenges slower and some are deal­ing with them more ag­gres­sively, but every­one is whole­heart­edly try­ing to do the right thing,” Jonathan says. “We are all in this to­gether try­ing to fig­ure this out.”

This se­quence of Will Fau­dree and An­dro­maque from the 2015 Rolex Ken­tucky Three-Day Event shows what hap­pens when a horse breaks a fran­gi­ble pin. The front of this open cor­ner has a con­ven­tional fran­gi­ble pin in­stalled on the top rail of the take-off side of the fence. This type of fran­gi­ble pin breaks only un­der ver­ti­cal pres­sure from the ini­ti­a­tion of a ro­ta­tional fall. As the rail drops away, the force is re­duced and the som­er­sault­ing ac­tion of the fall is pre­vented.

The back rail of this open cor­ner is re­v­erse-pinned, de­signed to give way un­der ver­ti­cal pres­sure and also al­low­ing some lat­eral move­ment of the pole in­stead of just down­ward. In this in­stance, the com­bi­na­tion of An­dro­maque’s weight and lat­eral mo­tion on the top of the rail broke the pin to pre­vent a se­ri­ous fall.

In both meth­ods of fran­gi­ble pin­ning, the rail is at­tached to the jump by a rope or steel cable, en­sur­ing that if the pin is bro­ken and the rail is re­leased, it will not roll un­der the horse’s feet as he lands. The rope or cable also se­cures the rail snugly to keep ap­pro­pri­ate ten­sion to the post so the fran­gi­ble de­vice can work cor­rectly.

Both horse and rider were un­in­jured in this in­ci­dent and went on to fin­ish the course, but they picked up the al­lot­ted 11 penalty points for break­ing the pin.

Olympic and World Cham­pion Michael Jung, aboard La Bios­the­tique Sam, jumps an oxer at the 2015 Rolex Ken­tucky Three-Day Event. The clips of the steel MIM Safe New Era Clip (in red) are shown on the ends of each rail. The rails are con­nected to the post with hinges (in black) that keep the rail from rolling un­der the horse’s feet on land­ing. The hinges also make the fence easy to re­con­struct af­ter the clip has been de­ployed. Un­like fran­gi­ble pins, MIM Clips won’t need to be re­placed, and re­con­struc­tion time is usu­ally less than 30 sec­onds.

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