Whenever and wherever an eventing rider is seriously injured or, worse, killed on cross-country, the bad news flashes through the sport's entire community at top speed. If the victim is a high-profile competitor, even the non-equestrian world may take note. Thus, when Olympic eventer Darren Chiacchia was severely injured at Red Hills Horse Trials in Florida in March 2008, the sport--already reeling from the shock and loss--was caught in the unwelcome spotlight of a New York Times article describing "unease" and controversy in eventing's ranks.
Pressure to address the sport's risks increased only a few weeks later when Laine Ashker, a rising young professional, was airlifted from the four-star Rolex Kentucky event with life-threatening injuries. Her horse, euthanized as a result of their fall, was one of several top U.S. event horses to die at competitions in the first few months of this year.
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By late spring, the one thing on which eventing's leaders concurred was that "we do need to take action," says Jo Whitehouse, U.S. Eventing Association (USEA) CEO. There was less agreement on exactly what the action needed to be. Hopes were that a Safety Summit in early June would produce a strategy to preserve and make safer a sport that some observers felt had simply become too dangerous.
But amid the understandable distress over the recent highly publicized accidents and the subsequent flurry of press releases and committee meetings, it's worth asking a few dispassionate questions. How statistically dangerous is eventing? What causes do top horsemen think are behind the falls? What are the likely remedies?
By the Numbers
The first thing to note is that the sheer number of riders in eventing grows every year. From 40,975 riders leaving the start box at recognized events in 2005 (according to statistics compiled by USEA), "starts" had increased to 45,705 by 2007, the most recent year for which complete data are available. "You can see that as the starters go up, we begin to see more people falling off," says Jo. In the same three-year span, the number of recorded falls rose from 556 in 2005 to 684 in 2007. There were 91 recorded injuries in 2005; in 2007, there were 111. No rider fatalities occurred in 2005, but there was one in 2006 and two in 2007.
These numbers mean that one in 67 starters (1.5 percent) fell off going cross-country in 2007. For riders who did fall off, the chances of being injured as a result of that fall were 16 percent. A total of 10 injured riders out of 45,705 starters (one in 4,751, or just over .2 percent) required overnight hospitalization. Compare eventing statistics to those of another "risk sport," alpine skiing: Figures posted on www.ski-injury.com indicate that fewer than three of 1,000 people (or less than .3 percent) skiing on a given day will sustain injuries requiring medical attention. It all adds up to "a pretty good accident rate" for the risk sport of eventing, Jo points out.
Searching for the Cause
Because "pretty good" is not good enough for the leaders of the sport or for the riders at every level who cherish it, however, there has been intense discussion--some might even say argument--in the eventing world about what contributes to falls. If we can pinpoint the underlying factors, the thinking goes, we can make adjustments to minimize them. Among the many possible reasons being cited for cross-country accidents:
Course design. USEA statistics show that by far the majority of serious falls occur at vertical fences, according to Jo. "The USEA 'Report of Incidents by Obstacle Type' is not complete and accurate, but of the reports we did get, verticals accounted for 18 falls." Reported falls at verticals were more than twice as frequent as those at the next-most frequent falls--tables, which figured in seven reports. The challenge of getting detailed, complete statistics is a manpower issue. "People reporting tend to be the medical responders, who may not even know what type of jump was involved. We have to go back to the technical delegate's report and if the TD wasn't there to see it . oftentimes the 'fence type' on the report is just left blank," explains Jo.
Elimination of steeplechase. Among the ways in which classic format proponents believe the new short format has affected eventing for the worse is the loss of the steeplechase phase. "So many horses, especially at the Preliminary level, are not consistently in front of the rider's leg," says Gretchen Butts, who organizes a "half-star" classic format Training level three-day event at her Maryland farm, Waredaca. She is also a certified Level III eventing instructor, a licensed eventing technical delegate, has competed at the CCI**** level and sits on several USEA and USEF committees. "When I watch my Training three-day riders on the steeplechase, it's probably one of the first times in their lives that their horses are truly in front of their legs and forward, to the point that suddenly they've got gears they can work with. They feel what it's like to have a horse eager to run and jump." The forgiving steeplechase brush jumps help make this phase educational and positive, she adds.
Increased emphasis on dressage. "We have forced riders to cross the line between discipline and domination," wrote Olympian, author and international coach Jim Wofford in his popular article "Eventing Lives in the Balance" about the consequence of eventing's ever more intense dressage training on cross-country performance. "When we truly and correctly collect our horses, we also subdue their initiative."
Although increasingly technical cross-country questions require many fences to be ridden at show-jumping speed, highly schooled horses also will be waiting for rider direction when jumping at top speed, he points out. "A system of training such as this will work well.until you miss."
Rider responsibility. "This sport is not taken seriously enough" by some competitors, says Advanced eventer and coach Danny Warrington, a former steeplechase racer. "One of the greatest things about eventing is that it can't be bought. You have to work hard, and you have to earn it. Eventing is so much a horsemanship sport. But some people think, 'We'll buy a horse and do four Prelims, four Intermediates, then go Advanced.' The patience of the old horseman is lost. Riders just want to go, go, go." Danny, whose wife, Amanda, was killed in a cross-country accident 10 years ago, sees entry-level eventers in his clinics who are impatient to get out on course before mastering basics such as keeping their horses straight to the jumps. He says eventing is "an extreme sport from Novice on up; treat it as such. You need to spend years doing this, so when you get to the three- and four-star levels, you'll know what's going on."
Opinions on the measures most likely to make eventing as safe as possible run the gamut from better education to stiffer penalties, and each proposal has its pros and cons.
Reduce cross-country speed, take away square tables and toughen show-jumping. "Knock 20 to 30 meters per minute (mpm) off every division's speed and see if that doesn't help," says Denny. He points out that the cross-country speed remained unchanged over the decades as course design became more technical. "Take the big vertical square fences off the course, or [to avoid causing undue hardship to organizers] make them more rampy by adding hay bales in front." The tougher questions could be asked in show-jumping, where the fences fall down on impact. "At the end of the day, someone is still going to get first, second, third and so on--you just start to do it in a safer way." For the small cadre of elite riders who would complain that this type of test is "too easy," Denny has a question: "For the survival of the sport, is it better to make it too easy for the strong ones--or too hard for the weak ones?"
Increase emphasis on education. "There is a trend toward instructor certification [through USEA's Instructor Certification Program, or ICP] becoming almost a prerequisite to the coaching of event riders," says Gretchen Butts. Even with a common educational foundation, she concedes there is natural variation in coaching quality--and in rider personality. "Riders can hear the absolute best coaching in the world and it's still up to them to do the right thing."
Danny Warrington supports the ICP concept but believes it can be implemented more effectively. "I don't think it's accessible. I've been chasing my Level III certification for two years. Every time a Level III workshop comes up, either I find out I missed it, it's already full or it's in Portland, Ore." (Danny is based in Maryland.) He suggests that ICP could be better run out of a permanent, central facility with regularly scheduled workshops to which candidates could travel.
The U.S. Pony Clubs should be another target of eventing education, Danny says. Historically a starting point for many riders in the upcoming cohort of top-level eventers, USPC could now use some updating, in Danny's view. "The USPC Rule Book is, to me, extremely outdated. We could get the ICP to help the USPC! Even Ivy League colleges update their textbooks now and then! Everyone says 'There's a gap in the education,' but we can fix that. Instead of looking for a new source, we can apply the sources we have."
Stiffen the standards for qualification. "Our very strong feeling is that you should be out there demonstrating mastery," says USEA President Kevin Baumgardner. As of December 2008, moving up to the next level will be tougher. "For instance, to go from Prelim to Intermediate, the new rules require four clean cross-country rounds as well as qualifying dressage and stadium scores. This is a significant change from the FEI (International Equestrian Federation) qualification standard allowing one stop on cross-country. This will help," Kevin adds, "but we also need riders to move up only when they are ready, not just when they've achieved minimal qualification."
Danny agrees that tougher standards will help, but believes "we're still going to have people who get through the cracks"--move up before they're ready--"because there will still be the really good horses that cover up riders' mistakes and carry those riders around the course." Accidents happen when these riders get to a level where the horse can't cover for them anymore, he says. He suggests a system of special "qualifier" events, for instance "IP" (Intermediate dressage and show-jumping, Preliminary cross-country) or "AI" (Advanced dressage and show-jumping, Intermediate cross-country) where officials can evaluate riders' readiness to take on the next level--and then monitor them. "When you're AI qualified you're qualified to go Advanced, but we're still going to keep an eye on you before you can go to a three-star."
Strengthen officiating and toughen penalties. The cross-country accidents of spring 2008 inevitably gave rise to numerous rule-change proposals. Some were still under discussion at press time--for example, the penalty for "dangerous riding" at a competition was under consideration to be increased from 25 to 50 points. Officials are also authorized to simply pull the offender off the course. "We might be wrong in stopping or eliminating a rider 80 percent of the time, and 20 percent of the time we're right," says Gretchen. "But if that 20 percent might save a life or prevent a serious accident, you know what? It's worth it." Nevertheless, she says, "some officials are reluctant to intervene and we're trying to change that mind-set." Officials at large events are more likely to be able to follow FEI recommendation to monitor the cross-country course in pairs. At smaller competitions, she says, "There is a lack of good eyes out there on a predictable basis." A sole TD may be monitoring the course. Suggested solutions are to designate ICP faculty or upper-level riders to help monitor for dangerous riding. "It has to be people who can make an objective decision and aren't afraid to intervene if they need to." But she does think that riders' "awareness that they are being looked at more carefully" can make competition safer.
In addition, FEI and the International Olympic Committee recently approved a new rule that horses and riders will be eliminated after one fall at a fence during cross-country, starting August 1. Previously, horses were eliminated after a first fall and riders after a second fall on cross-country or one fall in stadium-jumping.
Make use of technology. "Frangible pins" that cause the front rail of some types of cross-country fence to fall away upon impact (rather than remaining in place and triggering a rotational fall) have been in occasional use since 2002, but their inclusion in fence design and construction has been optional. That will change as of December 2008 as a result of USEA/USEF rule changes. New cross-country fences built after December 1 for which frangible pin technology is appropriate (including all open oxers at Training level and above) will be required to use the pins. Existing fences whose design makes the use of frangible pins appropriate must be modified to incorporate the pins by December 2009.
Fence construction could be even safer, Denny suggests, if obstacles were crushable. "If you had jumps made of papier-m?ch?, balsa wood or some space-age foam so if the horse hits it, the jump just goes POOF--then that's a different story, isn't it?"
Create additional divisions to accommodate diverse types of riders. This initiative has been proposed by leaders in the sport including USEF President and Olympic gold medalist David O'Connor. "Some variety of this proposal is something we're going to have to seriously consider in the long-term," says Kevin. Among the goals of David's proposal, Kevin explains, is "bridging the four-inch gap [in fence height] between Training and Prelim," often cited as a big step up for many riders.
Additional divisions would provide more options for competitors, agrees Gretchen. "Putting my organizer hat
on, however, I say David's got to convince me that it is affordable. As an organizer, am I going to need more cross-country fences? What is it going to cost me? The organizers have to buy into the program."
"Take Care of This Sport"
One aspect of eventing on which there is general agreement is the sense of ownership of the sport that entry-level riders share with elite competitors. "Eventing, more than any of the other Olympic equestrian disciplines, has a shared camaraderie and egalitarianism," says Kevin. "This sport has a wonderful feeling of togetherness. People are passionate about it." Internet communication, while speeding the news about and reaction to accidents, has also given USEA "the ability to tap into the energy of our members, keep people energized and informed and keep the dialogue going."
The primary mission of USEA right now is education, says Jo. "We want riders at all levels coming through the finish line with a big smile, with rider and horse happy and healthy and ready to go again. We can help that happen by educating the riders to understand that the sport they love so much is one that has to be taken care of. And the way riders can take care of this sport is by learning about it, practicing it, training their horses and getting help--being overprepared for even going Beginner Novice. With all that in place, we should be OK."
BRINGING SCIENCE TO BEAR
In the United Kingdom, engineering graduates from Bristol University are attaching sensors to cross-country fences at some British events and using sensor data plus associated high-speed video to analyze falls.
Researchers at the University of Liverpool in England have analyzed data from 676 jumping efforts (of which 173 resulted in a fall) to pinpoint "variables that increased or decreased the risk of a horse fall." Their study results (published in the March 2006 Equine Veterinary Journal) recommended three simple risk-reduction measures: "maintaining good to firm take-off surfaces at fences, reducing the base spread of fences to less than two meters and reducing the use of fences at which horses are required to jump into or out of water."
In the United States, University of Maryland neuroscientist and amateur equestrian Daphne Soares, PhD, became personally interested in analyzing cross-country jumping efforts and organized her own research project in 2006. She and a small group of volunteers filmed horses over three Rolex cross-country jumps--the Sunken Road, the Footbridge and the Normandy Bank--and subjected the digital images to frame-by-frame quantitative analysis. "We're looking for center of mass and how the center of mass of the horse and of the rider relate to each other." A comparison of a rider who fell at the Normandy Bank with others who jumped it successfully showed that she was "really ahead of the motion." "The variability is very small in terms of having a successful jump, I think," says Daphne. For instance, "a solid lower leg really correlates well with having your torso in balance with your horse's torso."
Daphne would like to continue her research project at the American Eventing Championships, if she can get funding. "I'd be looking for common characteristics or common mistakes at different levels. I think this would be very helpful for our understanding of this sport."
This article originally appeared in the August 2008 issue of Practical Horseman magazine.