Wednesday, Apr. 17, 2024

Can We Make Safety Synonymous With Eventing?

A certain level of risk goes hand-in-hand with eventing, but awareness combined with personal responsibility are the first steps toward a safer sport.

Seven riders died internationally over the past 12 months while eventing, and three prominent professional eventers in the United States suffered catastrophic injuries from riding accidents.


A certain level of risk goes hand-in-hand with eventing, but awareness combined with personal responsibility are the first steps toward a safer sport.

Seven riders died internationally over the past 12 months while eventing, and three prominent professional eventers in the United States suffered catastrophic injuries from riding accidents.

Statistics like this make eventers of all levels step back and ask, “Is something wrong with our sport?” So far, the consensus, at least on these particular accidents, is that there isn’t a trend.

“These fatalities tend to happen in spurts. We try to closely examine whether there’s a true trend or just bad luck,” said Andrew Ellis, chairman of the U.S. Equestrian Federation Safety Committee and co-chairman of the USEF Ad-Hoc Eventing Safety Inquiry Committee. “I don’t see any amazing similarities in all these incidents. I think there are lessons to be learned from them all, both positive and negative, but there’s no correlation or relation between these things. That’s good news to some extent.”

But the lack of a link between the fatal accidents doesn’t mean that improving safety in eventing isn’t a critical issue.

“We have a responsibility to learn from these incidents,” said Ellis. “Out of negatives come positives. We have a responsibility to examine the accidents and the circumstances in more detail and, hopefully, make recommendations that are going to be positive to all of equestrian sport.”

The Eventing Safety Inquiry Committee was formed specifically to investigate the incidents, determine whether current, mandated safety measures are adequate and to examine emergency response to critical
accidents at events.

One of the concrete goals of the committee is to improve the recording of incidents. The Fédération Equestre Internationale keeps detailed accident statistics including the type of fall (somersault horse fall, non-somersault fall and unseated rider), the severity of the injury (from none to fatal) and even the type of fence where the fall occurred.

The statistics available for falls in the United States are much more general. All riding accidents at U.S. Eventing Association-sanctioned events are recorded, whether competing or just warming up, but severity, type of fence and even the phase in which the incident occurred have not been tracked since 2001 when the USEF took over recording statistics from the USEA.

“It’s important to have worldwide consistent tracking of accidents and falls so that we can try to put together trends,” said David O’Connor, USEF president and chairman of the FEI Safety Sub-Committee. “We have that at the international level, at the FEI, but I believe all national federations need to start to use a similar format.”

But the existing data suggests that eventing is not getting more dangerous. The percentage of seriously or fatally injured riders at the FEI level has steadily decreased. In 2006 one rider for every 370 starters suffered a serious injury or death, or .27 percent.

Less than half of 1 percent of U.S. starters suffers injuries of any variety, according to data collected by the USEF. From 2002-2006, the injury rates vary, but beginner novice had the highest percentage (.41%) and novice had the lowest (.09%) (See sidebar, p. 14).

However, with more starters in eventing worldwide, the numbers of riders injured or killed will increase, even if the percentages don’t. Add the Internet to that equation, and there’s a much greater awareness today when a preliminary-level eventer is killed abroad than there was 10 years ago.

An Ongoing Quest For Improvement
And one preventable death is one too many. Thus, the FEI, USEF and USEA are all very serious about improving the safety record of eventing.

“Every time there’s a fatality or serious accident, the Federation, who in turn works for U.S. Eventing, is reviewing those accidents through independent review panels,” said Ellis.

He hoped that the Eventing Safety Inquiry Committee, which held its first face-to-face meeting at the Rolex Kentucky CCI**** in April, would have a comprehensive report done by July on recommendations for how to improve safety in eventing.

Over the years many such rules have been instituted to make eventing safer. “We’ve got a lot of things that we’re very proud of,” said Jo Whitehouse, the CEO of the USEA. “Eventing took the lead on the ASTM/SEI helmets and the body protectors. When the USEF set up their safety committee, we worked hand-in-hand with them.”

The job of safety coordinator was one that USEA officials introduced. This individual works with the organizer to coordinate and oversee medical care at events. The USEA Safety Committee also produced the Safety Coordinator’s Manual.

The standards medical officials must follow have also improved at events. “In the past few years, we’ve gone from allowing basically anyone with any medical training to be the medic at a competition
to requiring pre-hospital trauma trained paramedics,” said Ellis.


Phillip Dutton, Olympic eventing gold medalist, said safety has come a long way in the sport. “If nothing else, I think everyone is pretty aware of it—from jump design and construction to rider safety and horse safety and the footing and what we compete on to break away pins and the siding of the jumps,” he said. “If you look at pictures of the jumps in the past Olympics, the dimensions aren’t bigger, but they’re not as inviting and horse-friendly in the way they’re constructed.”

In 1995, the USEA pioneered the Course Advisor Program to aid course designers. “At first, it was focused
on the intermediate and advanced levels with Mark Phillips and Derek di Grazia as the first two advisors. Then it was extended to include the preliminary level,” said Whitehouse. “Mark Phillips recently inspected a couple of training level courses and expressed his willingness to continue to look at lower level courses if organizers would like guidance.”

And these programs and additional safety features don’t even start to cover all of the rule changes that have been instituted to make eventing safer in the past 15 years.

Two falls on cross-country is now elimination, and the fourth refusal anywhere on course will also send you home. It’s a mandatory retirement if a horse falls on course, regardless of whether or not both horse and rider jump up after the incident.

Speed faults were instituted to prevent riders from running their horses recklessly, and just this year the “Dangerous Riding” penalty was examined and is being enforced more stringently.

Taking Responsibility For Our Actions
Regardless of all the rules and changes, personal responsibility and preparedness head the list of ways to make eventing safer.

“We make so much legislation, and we make these rule changes for safety, which are great, but we really have to focus on rider and trainer responsibility,” said Ellis. “Events and associations can only do so much. These people who are trainers and are riders have to accept responsibility that they participate in a sport that has an increased risk. They have to do their part to minimize that risk.

“A governing body or regulatory association can go so far—they can put the framework in place, but the real responsibility rests with the rider and with the trainer,” he continued. “I’m a big believer that trainers—
people who get paid for a living doing what they do—have to accept responsibility to teach safety and better prepare their riders.”

Dutton agreed that a lot of responsibility does lie with the trainer to make sure that his or her students are truly prepared for the level at which they’re competing.

“You’ve got to balance between challenging someone and overfacing someone,” he said. “It’s hard for trainers and coaches because they’re trying to get clients. If you’ve got one student who says they want to do a two-star and you say, ‘Well, you aren’t up to it,’ then they may go  and take their business elsewhere. At the end of  the day, I think most trainers and coaches, if they think the student is unsafe at the level, they’ll try and voice that concern and find a way to say, ‘Maybe you’re better off aiming for this event next year instead of this year.’ ”

Whitehouse pointed to the USEA Instructor Certification Program as an excellent tool to help riders find qualified instructors who have been trained to keep safety in mind. In addition to instructor training, ICP graduates must be certified in CPR and keep current.

“I could not stress enough good instruction,” said Whitehouse. “A good teacher and more lessons rather than fewer [and] practice, practice, practice. A good instructor will pay as much attention to the rules as [to the] sitting trot. They know why the qualifications are in place. They’re there for a reason. They’re to make sure you’ve seen enough and done enough to move up.”

Dutton agreed, “We [upper level riders] have a responsibility to set a good example in the care of our horse, care of ourselves and respect of the rules for safety.”

Safety Should Be Priority
This isn’t the first time that the dangers of eventing have come to the forefront. In 1999, five riders in Great Britain died while eventing, and there was a public uproar to figure out why this had happened.

The Marquess of Hartington CBE led a group that included David O’Connor, Christopher Bartle, Dr. Gerit Matthesen, Lt. Col. Gerry Mullins, Inggar Lereim, Michael Tucker and Jackie Stewart OBE to come up with recommendations for the FEI and British Eventing.

Some of their suggestions have since  been incorporated at the FEI level, including medical armbands, the yellow card system, research on helmets, research on “deformable” jumps and mandatory riders’ meetings on the evening before cross-country.

The members of the Eventing Safety Inquiry Committee are working on similar suggestions. Some of their recommendations will include adding a second Technical Delegate at events with more than 300 starters, onsite USEF review panels whenever a critical incident occurs at a sanctioned event, adopting a thorough and standard format for recording incident data and a cross-country course rating system.

They also hope to develop a worldwide standard for stopping riders on course. If a rider ignored an official order to stop on course, then he or she would be eliminated. The committee members even suggested
creating a rider passport to record falls,  concussions, dangerous riding penalties and yellow cards for the purpose of better tracking a rider’s physical and mental ability to compete.

“You can’t ever get to zero. There’s always going to be stuff that happens in a sport that has anything to do with speed,” said O’Connor.


“Whether we like it or not, it’s not a safe sport,” agreed Dutton. “As riders, as owners, all of us, we need to keep that in mind.”

But the first step in making eventing a safer sport is to keep the issue at the forefront.

“[Additional focus on safety because of accidents] makes us even more vigilant,” said O’Connor. “We have a tremendous number of fantastic qualities about our sport. We have to be outright about who we are, what we do and that we’re trying to be very vigilant. We take this very seriously.”

From Endurance To Corners
As the galloping and the endurance have become less of a factor on cross-country, the courses now rely on technical questions like narrows and corners to separate the riders.

“I think the lower level cross-country courses, and to a degree the show jumping courses, have become more technical,” said two-time Olympic team gold medalist Phillip Dutton. “They’re mirroring the upper-level courses. That’s made the training of the amateur people and the beginners harder, because they’ve got to learn skills that 10 or 15 years ago they didn’t have to learn. But I don’t think that’s such a bad thing. In days gone by, a good cross-country rider was probably a little bit different than what it is today.”

Those more technical courses can cause problems at the lower levels, where amateur riders aren’t as well prepared as they should be. But the dangerous falls tend to come at preliminary level and above because of the speed and height involved.

“I think a horse can jump up to about 3’3″ and, especially at novice, you can just about do anything you want wrong and the horse can stumble his way over. You may fall off, but the horse is unlikely to fall,” said renowned trainer and eventer Denny Emerson. “When you get to 3’7″, the horse needs to be able to gallop and rock back. With a bad ride at preliminary level, the horses don’t rock back. So the horses that do have a wreck at preliminary really have a wreck. They have the above the knee fall.”

To keep up with the changing needs of the sport, Emerson envisions three tracks—one where preliminary is just a stepping stone on the way to advanced, one where preliminary is a destination event, and one at the unrecognized level for people who truly just want to have a good time and be safe at a low level.

“I think we need to look at the realities of the modern sport and then, at these lower levels, make the cross-country relatively safe,” he said. “Design fences that you can have bad riding and get away with it. These are our entry-level people. Then keep the technical questions for later when people have filtered up.”

Growing Up In The Ring
Eventing originally developed as a military endurance test, but the sport of today bears little resemblance to its historic roots. The lack of open land has been a huge factor as big, open galloping courses dwindle, and places to practice riding out in the open are few and far between.

Most eventers today don’t come from a cross-country riding or foxhunting background. Trainer Denny Emerson has watched the changes take place in front of him as his students grow increasingly less confident riding in the open.

“They didn’t have open land to cowboy on as kids. Kids grow up in the ring today,” he said. “They consider a big cornfield surrounded by interstate to be riding in the open.”

Emerson said that without that base, riders are more likely to fall cross-country. “I think if you’re a seat-of-the-pants, save-your-skin kind of rider, you probably have more instinctive ‘stickability’ than someone who had to learn how to ride. I don’t think you learn how to ride on a pony as a kid other than you just get used to it.”

Crunching The Numbers
The U.S. Equestrian Federation tracks some statistics relating to falls and injuries in eventing. This is a chart of the number of starters and injuries for the past six years, but the information may not be significant—according to Leigh Anne Claywell, the USEF liaison for the Safety Committee—as the system for recording accidents is still being refined.

  2001 2002 2003 2004 2005 2006
Starters 40,042 41,238 38,579 41,316 40,975 44,324
Accidents/Injuries  151 62 211 137 162 180
Percentage of Injury/Starter  0.377%   0.15%   0.547%   0.332%   0.395%   0.406% 

The number of injuries per level.

   Beginner  Novice
 Intermediate   Advanced 
Total Accidents 2001-2006 61 89 83 86 35 17
Total Starters 2001-2006  14,873   98,847   63,988   43,155   14,881   4,957
Percentage of Accidents/Level  0.41%  0.09%  0.13%  0.20%  0.22%  0.34%

Officials at the Fédération Equestre Internationale have a more detailed tracking system in place. Falls have been recorded at all FEI events since 2002, but prior to 2004, not all events were reported. More data is available:

  Total number of starters Seriously or fatally injured riders Percentage of starters seriously or fatally injured Horse somersault falls Percentage of starters who fell somersault Horse falls without somersault Percentage of starters who fell without somersault Unseated rider falls Percentage of starters who were unseated
2002 6,583 36 0.547% 34 0.516% 141 2.142% 345 5.241%
2003 9,866 52 0.527% 38 0.385% 171 1.733% 488 4.946%
2004  11,122 31 0.279% 59 0.530% 176 1.582% 456 4.100%
2005 12,139 35 0.288% 55 0.453% 194 1.598% 577 4.753%
2006 13,320 36 0.270% 51 0.383% 189 1.419% 547 4.107%

Sara Lieser




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