One day in 2008, Dan Michaels opened his email and found a message from David O’Connor asking for input on new frangible fence ideas for a joint U.S. Equestrian Federation and U.S. Eventing Association eventing safety summit.
A retired aerospace engineer, Michaels, 69, had watched as different kinds of frangible technologies were introduced to cross-country fences over the years, but he wasn’t convinced the technology was going in the right direction.
Michaels, who started riding at age 45 and has evented through the preliminary level, wanted to design a device that interfered less with the sport and scoring, so he put together a presentation explaining the path he envisioned for frangible technology and sent it to O’Connor.
His suggestions included a post and rail and a double-hinged collapsible table, and he started experimenting at his farm in Longmont, Colorado.
“The pins that have been implemented, they just really didn’t work well when they broke, and the [current] MIM technology has had the same sort of issues,” said Michaels. “You can break one side, and the other side will hold up, or a fence won’t fall away the way you’d like it to. They all promote safety, but they’re also interfering with the sport. Any sort of fusible link device will fatigue while horses are on course, and they just kind of touch the fence. Once a device fatigues, a horse and rider can come along and barely whisper at it, causing the fence to fall and accumulating penalty points for it.”
In 2021, the FEI released new standards for the energy that frangible devices should take to fall, but riders around the world are still being awarded 11 penalties, whether a fence is hit hard and prevents a catastrophic fall as intended, or if it’s hit with less energy.
At the 2021 Tokyo Olympic Games, for instance, seven riders knocked a frangible yellow MIM clipped open corner at varying degrees of force with front and hind limbs, costing Germany’s Michael Jung the title.
In 2022, 10 riders knocked a frangible log at the Pau CCI5*-L (France), including dressage leader Felix Vogg of Switzerland, who plummeted down the leaderboard and later called for a renewed look at frangible penalties on his social media.
The FEI has guidelines for replacing pins as needed after hard knocks where they don’t deploy and for testing devices for repeated hits to make sure they’re not weakened before they’re used in competition, but Michaels thinks the technology isn’t where it needs to be yet.
“My perspective was, we needed frangible devices designed that were not fusible links and that did not have a fatigue mechanism and would only break when you hit it hard enough that you would have fallen if the fence didn’t yield,” he said. “We need to have designs, so that if a fence breaks, you should be able to give the horse and rider the same penalties you would give them if they fell at the fence.”
Michaels came up with a device that’s similar to the ball catch hinge on a cabinet. It’s a ball and socket with a loaded spring. Springs of various stiffness can be used, and the compression of the spring can be adjusted. Therefore, it can accommodate almost any load or configuration, and you can adjust the amount of energy required to break the fence. Resetting just requires replacing the rail into the jump latch.
“The design of the latch is such that the holding force is repeatable, time after time. The latch also forces the fence into the same ‘holding’ configuration after each non-yielding strike on the fence,” he said. “There is no fatigue mechanism. The fence will always ‘break’ at the same impact energy. I think I’ve come up with a design that when the fence is properly built using this design, if you hit it and break the fence, you would have fallen. It takes a substantial hit. If you want to argue that, OK, yes, I hit it hard, but I wouldn’t have fallen, then I think we ought to get into a mode where if you hit it hard enough your horse needs to be retired because it hurts when you smack it that hard. That sort of device, I think, if it was used on course with that philosophy, would not be interfering with the sport. It would simply be making the sport safer for the horse and rider.”
Michaels has trialed his device on post and rail fences, most of which currently must use red MIM clips in FEI competition. He’s also experimenting with a frangible table.
He’s had some trouble convincing course builders to use his device in competition, as most builders want to use what’s already been proven to work.
“I’m not a jump builder,” he said. “That’s not my background at all. So it’s a struggle for me to build fences and document them in an appropriate way to get the required FEI approvals. This is where I really need to involve real builders with real background and experience. While building these jumps, I am constantly working in discovery mode, uncovering lessons that an experienced builder already has encountered and resolved. It takes me forever to make the smallest steps of progress.”
Michaels presented his device at the USEA Annual Meeting and Convention (Georgia) in December 2022 to drum up interest from builders. The USEA has several devices available to any builder who wants to try them.
“I think it’s a really cool idea,” said Jonathan Holling, a five-star rider, USEA’s chair of the Cross-Country Safety Committee and chair of the USEF Eventing Sport Committee. “It looks incredibly promising. I’m excited about the idea, and I know it’s a long grind to get that done.
“He’s incredibly intelligent,” he added. “He’s a good, kind person who wants to lead the sport. He’s what you really want as a member of the U.S. Eventing Association. He’s somebody who puts their money where their mouth is. He talks about safety, and he tries to improve safety. He’s really the ideal eventer. He rides, he competes, he wants to make the sport better, and he’s gone out and done something to try to do that.”
Marc Grandia, a five-star rider and national cross-country course designer through preliminary, has experimented with Michaels’ device at his farm in Duvall, Washington. He agrees that a change is needed to make the sport more fair.
“Most riders don’t like it, but the sport’s becoming one where you know you have to think about how you’re going to leave up frangible jumps on cross-country, because if it comes down, it costs you 11 penalties, which could cost you the win and cost you money,” he said. “Those guys at the top level are walking around their courses thinking, ‘How am I going to leave these things up?’ ”
Grandia noted that MIM clips are set in their activation force, are not resettable and are disposable. Living in the Pacific Northwest where there’s a rainy season, he’s seen how logs can expand, contract, and lose or gain weight based on moisture content.
“The limitation with MIMs right now is that you have two options for activation forces—‘easy’ and ‘hard’—and I just don’t think that’s nearly accurate enough for the future of our sport with the way things are being decided on frangible rails,” Grandia said. “We need something that can be dialed in exactly for the individual jump and the individual situation. That might be a jump going up a hill or down a hill requires different force, or it might be, oh, it rained overnight, and those jumps have soaked up water; we need to go out and make sure they haven’t gotten too heavy to fall down. Or it works in the spring, but now it doesn’t work in the fall because it hasn’t rained since June 1, so those jumps have dried out, and they weigh half as much.”
Grandia thinks Michaels’ device will be the way of the future.
“Dan’s is resettable, so you buy one, and it’s all you ever need,” he said. “It gets rid of the idea that there’s a fatigue problem. MIMs has a fatigue problem. There’s a fatigue indicator, so you know it’s been hit, and it weakens a little bit. The problem that comes in is that most events are practical and say, ‘Well, it’s fine, we can use it for a few more horses,’ and in that case you’re not creating a level playing field for everyone. Dan’s device takes that out of there. A set of MIMs clips costs $30. Over time that adds up.”
Dave Vos, a professional engineer, competitor and member of the USEA Cross-Country Safety Committee and the FEI Eventing Risk Management Committee, has advised on frangible designs and how to present to the FEI and has been involved with Michaels for four years.
“It’s a fine idea, but there are a lot of details that have to be worked through,” he said. “He has to complete the process of defining which fences can be built with it and how they’re to be built and then to present the testing data. The way of the future is that people like Dan or British Eventing or several others around the world will find new ideas. What usually happens is they discover their device works really well for a certain type of fence or certain range of fences but not that well for others, or that it works very well for very specific conditions. I encourage everyone to be inventive.”
Michaels has started working on an instruction manual, which he hopes a builder or the USEA can help him complete.
“For anyone who wants to come up with a frangible device, they have to meet the standard we released in 2021,” said Vos. “That revised standard is a very generic definition of what any frangible fence needs to be able to do—how it has to perform, when it needs to release and at what energy and momentum levels, as well as how it has to move out of the way properly and the appearance and so on. It also says there has to be a clear set of instructions on how to build it so that builders around the world can easily get a kit and build a fence that works properly.”
Michaels is excited about the interest from the USEA convention, where he was also awarded a Governor’s Cup, presented to volunteers who have contributed greatly to the sport.
He has a patent for his jump latch and has offered to help any builder who wants to experiment with it.
This article appeared in the February 2023 issue of The Chronicle of the Horse. You can subscribe and get online access to a digital version and then enjoy a year of The Chronicle of the Horse and our lifestyle publication, Untacked. If you’re just following COTH online, you’re missing so much great unique content. Each print issue of the Chronicle is full of in-depth competition news, fascinating features, probing looks at issues within the sports of hunter/jumper, eventing and dressage, and stunning photography.
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