Thursday, May. 30, 2024

Defining Dangerous Riding Is No Simple Matter

“Dangerous riding.” We know it when we see it. We talk about it in hushed tones back in the barn with other eventers. As eventing fatalities and accidents continue to mount, it’s obvious that something needs to be done.

But pinpointing dangerous riding and figuring out how to stop it isn’t a simple matter, and the best minds in the sport are working hard to determine how to identify it, prevent it and educate riders to avoid future accidents.



“Dangerous riding.” We know it when we see it. We talk about it in hushed tones back in the barn with other eventers. As eventing fatalities and accidents continue to mount, it’s obvious that something needs to be done.

But pinpointing dangerous riding and figuring out how to stop it isn’t a simple matter, and the best minds in the sport are working hard to determine how to identify it, prevent it and educate riders to avoid future accidents.

“If it were as simple as going too fast, it would be easy. But we know it’s not speed that’s necessarily dangerous. It’s a myriad of things,” said Gretchen Butts, active rider, licensed judge and technical delegate.

A stream of new regulations have gone into effect in an effort to address dangerous riding, and one of the most obvious is the new column for dangerous riding on the scoreboard along with a hefty 25 penalty points. While members of the ground jury always had the right to eliminate a rider on course for unsafe riding, new rules have given officials a plethora of options for dealing with a scary ride.

“I think what the dangerous riding label did was put it on everyone’s radar screens, and now we are purposely looking for dangerous riding proactively as a means to reduce injury,” said Butts. “I did an [Fédération Equestre Internationale] officials’ seminar in Sweden in May. There were 25 of us—judges, TDs and course designers. They posed the question, ‘How many people have you eliminated for dangerous
riding on cross-country?’ Not a single hand went up. Then they asked, ‘In hindsight how many of you should have eliminated someone?’ All the hands went up. It’s a global issue, not just a problem we have here. We’re all trying to find the answers.”

As officials struggle to deal with dangerous riding, eventers are left with a host of questions. What exactly is dangerous riding? Who determines it, and what qualifies that person to make the call? How do you choose between pulling someone up on course, giving out penalties at the finish or just delivering a strong lecture?

A String Of Bad Fences
Brian Ross is a licensed judge, technical delegate and course designer who has officiated at the world’s most prestigious events.

“Dangerous riding is when the rider is consistently not seeing distances to jumps, running his or her horse at jumps, or just not trying to gain control,” he explained. “I think the main thing is the consistent bad jump, one after another. We all know you can get one or two bad jumps, or even three or four, but it’s when it’s consistent.”

At national events, any member of the ground jury or the technical delegate has the power to stop a rider on cross-country for dangerous riding. In addition, the president of the ground jury may designate one or more deputies (eventing officials who don’t already have an official capacity at the event, level 3 or 4 ICP instructors, or any rider who has represented the United States in a senior international championship) to advise the ground jury. Both deputies and jump judges carry a red flag to stop a rider at the direction of the ground jury.

Have We Gone Too Far?

The tragic accidents and deaths in the eventing world over the past two years have brought riders together in the belief that eventing must get safer, but beyond that opinions vary far and wide. Many people are pushing for immediate action, but others worry that too many quick rule changes won’t benefit anyone.
“I think that you’ve got to make changes in our sport in a methodical and systematic way,” said Liza Horan, an advanced-level rider and member of the U.S. Eventing Association’s Eventing Standards Task Force. “We need to react to some real devastating fatalities, both horse and rider, but I also think we’ve got to be very careful to still have it be a user-friendly sport. I don’t believe in throwing a million rules at the wall and seeing which ones stick.”
Horan argued that a tougher qualification system by itself might eliminate most of the eventing accidents.
“I asked a group of riders I respect in the sport what they thought of the qualification system. The majority of them felt that our qualification system was way too lax,” said Horan. “Even if it inconvenienced them and slowed down the development of their horses, they were willing to make that compromise.”
Qualifications are on the list of rule changes that will go into effect on Dec. 1.

At preliminary and above, riders will need to establish a qualification with the horse they want to compete, and they can lose their qualification if the horse is eliminated twice or falls twice within a six-month period, or if the rider falls twice from the same horse within a 12-month period.
Horan hopes that stricter qualifications will lead to horses and riders who are more prepared for each level. But she’s concerned about losing your qualification through a couple of falls or eliminations, and she thinks it might be too much.
“The majority of these catastrophes are happening to professionals and rising professionals at preliminary and above,” said Horan. “I’m not sure we need to publicly admonish the beginner novice junior or amateur rider.
“I think we need to be careful with the introductory levels of the sport,” continued Horan. “If I have an amateur or junior at beginner novice through training level, they should be allowed to make a mistake. There’s a certain amount of education that we get from competing. At the upper levels the consequences need to be severe.”
Horan worried that confusing new rules paired with “a big brother” watching over you, just waiting to assess dangerous riding penalties, would make the sport less appealing to amateurs and juniors.
“It’s going to make the sport so user-unfriendly,” she said. “I don’t think that by changing rule after rule you’ll get to the core of the problem.”

In an ideal situation, multiple officials would see and confirm dangerous riding, but at the local horse trials level, that doesn’t always happen.

“A lot of times a TD will brief the jump judges as to what to look for, and they’ll become eyes on the course. Between the TD, the controller and the feedback from the jump judges, that’s sometimes the best you can do. It’s not ideal, but it’s reality,” said Butts.

However, officials would never mete out a dangerous riding penalty based on a jump judge’s observations.

“That would be a talking-to thing if I didn’t see it personally,” said Ross. “I hope any judge would say the same even if five jump judges said they saw dangerous riding. It has to be from a licensed official. It’s very important for at least one official to always be on the cross-country course.”

Once Ross has identified dangerous riding, his next step is to make a quick decision about what to do.

“At novice and beginner novice, you keep a careful eye on them as an official but usually give them the
opportunity to finish. When you get up to preliminary and above, it’s scary, and the higher the level, the more chance of a serious injury,” said Ross. “I always want to give the riders the opportunity to recognize it for themselves and do something about it.”

If an official notices worrisome riding, his or her first step is often to speak with the rider at the finish line.

“My conversation that I have at the finish line is about how the dialog goes. I hope that I’d feel at the end of the conversation that that was enough to make a difference,” said Butts. “Is the rider even aware? Is he or she interested and caring enough that I came up and felt the need to chat about it? Or does the person act offended that I would challenge [his or her] riding or decision making?”


At one event Ross was the technical delegate and Butts was the president of the ground jury. She asked him to speak with a rider that concerned them both.

“[The rider’s] reaction was quite flippant,” said Ross. “ ‘So what if I was too fast, and my horse was leaving out strides?’ I reported back to Gretchen and suggested she give a dangerous riding penalty, not just a lecture.”

However, even a rider with a good attitude might still merit 25 penalties for dangerous riding if the riding mistakes were egregious enough.

“There was a gal in Florida who was the only one under the time at intermediate, and she had a run-out,” recalled Ross. “I went to the finish line with the idea of just talking to her, and on the way I saw her dad and coach. I asked them if they’d watched her, and if they’d talked to her about her rounds. They said she wouldn’t listen. I went to talk to her, and she didn’t blow me off. She’s a good kid, but she didn’t seem to get it, so I gave her a dangerous riding penalty.”

And then there’s the situation that can’t wait until the end of the course.

At one competition prior to the rider fall equals elimination rule, Ross pulled an upper-level rider off course. He first grew concerned when she fell off, then remounted and continued.
“They caught the horse and brought it back to her,” said Ross. “She had a bad jump at the next jump. Things weren’t going well for her, but she continued on. I told the controller that if she had another refusal we would pull her off the course because it’s not her day. That would have been her third [refusal], and she’d already fallen off. Then she had a horrendous jump over another one, and I changed my mind, and said ‘Let’s pull her off now before anything else happens.’ ”

Ross said the threat of dangerous riding penalties does make riders think twice. “I think it’s a wake-up call,” he said. “This is the second year where you’re starting to see it implemented, and I think you’re already seeing a difference.”

When A Warning Isn’t Enough
Although the basic strategy for dealing with dangerous riding at an event is fairly cut and dry, it’s what happens next that may be more important, especially in the case of a rider who received a verbal warning.

“I’m lucky that I can go from show to show to show and see how they behave and progress,” said Ross. “On the TD report form, it asks whether there was dangerous riding, and I encourage the TD to make a note of who they talked to for borderline dangerous riding and get that into the TD report. Then there is a paper trail.”

The idea is that officials will start to have a list of riders who may be carrying multiple verbal warnings but haven’t received a dangerous riding penalty yet.

Officials can also issue a warning card at a U.S. Equestrian Federation event. While the warning card may be given for a variety of reasons, including improper conduct and noncompliance with any rule, it does give officials one more weapon in their arsenal of educational penalties.

“When you do the warning card, it starts a paper trail, and people know that whatever they did, the breach was serious,” said Butts.

For The Good Of The Many

Despite the best intentions, a penalty for dangerous riding will always be subjective.
“People are going to get penalized unjustly,” said Peter Gray. “I just came back from Hong Kong [for the 2008 Olympic Games] and was involved with Canadian Television. We had radio contact with control. They were concerned about a couple of horses that in my mind were just slow. They weren’t of a concern to me. Other horses were going quickly and were getting quite fatigued, but they weren’t highlighting those ones. At the Olympic level, I didn’t feel good choices were being made. No one was pulled up or stopped, but I heard the conversation and thought, ‘That’s not accurate in my mind.’ Maybe I wasn’t correct. We all have opinions.”
But to Gray, the need to educate eventers by penalizing them for dangerous riding is worth making a few mistakes.
“There are going to be some really hard-luck stories along the way, but we have to look at protecting the sport,” he said. “In these difficult times that we’re going through, we have to take a strong stand.”
As an official, Brian Ross said you can’t second-guess yourself or the other officials. He also pointed out that riders have options too if they’re unhappy with a decision.
“Riders need to know that there’s paperwork to fill out on competition evaluation and officials evaluation,” said Ross. “If officials are doing it unjustly, then riders have to speak up. Officials aren’t going to hold it against them. But if you don’t, it won’t get any better.”

If someone receives three warning cards within a 12-month period, he or she may be subject to a $500 fine or a formal charge by the USEF.

The FEI offers a yellow card, similar to the USEF warning card, except for one key component: yellow cards are published in a list on the FEI website for the world to see. Competitors who receive two yellow cards within two years from the FEI will then face a hearing and possible suspension.

“If it’s out there, you might think of the implications it has to you personally and preshape your behavior because of it,” said Butts.

And regardless of the outcome of dangerous riding, Ross said it’s important to make sure the offender receives the proper penalty.

“If somebody is dangerous, and they get hurt seriously because of it, they still must be recorded as dangerous,” he said.

Canadian eventing officials have developed a red card specifically for dangerous riding. Two red cards in 12 months will lead to a hearing and probable suspension.


“We’re making it very publicized in Canada,” said Peter Gray, advanced-level rider, Canada’s Safety Officer and coach for the nation’s developing riders. “We’re sending it out to magazines so everyone will know, because this is all part of educating riders that this is the consequence of not riding like you should. It must not be hush-hush. It must be very much publicized and [thereby] be considered as educating everyone else.”

Education Is The Answer
Education is at the heart of the rule changes and emphasis on dangerous riding. If eventers learn what dangerous riding looks and feels like, then they’ll have the knowledge to avoid it.

“In the last five years I’ve seen cross-country riding get less safe,” said Gray. “Correct cross-country technique is not taught, generally. It’s only taught by a very few. Everyone has their dressage trainer and their show jumping trainer, and the coach walks the cross-country course with them, but actually teaching how to ride cross-country is missed universally in North America.”

Although personal responsibility continues to be the catch-phrase for making eventing safer, Gray reflected on a comment made by the mother of two teenaged eventers.

“She said, ‘My 17-year-old and 19-year-old don’t have a mature awareness of what’s safe and
unsafe. They don’t comprehend. I wouldn’t want to leave it totally up to them. They’re not in a maturity where they understand that. Other coaches need to help them understand.’ ”

So Gray points to education, whether it comes from the coaches before the competition, the penalties during the competition or the publicity afterwards, as the answer to preventing dangerous riding.

Gray also focused on the need for upper-level riders to be part of this education process.“Two weeks before a three-day, I watched a rider riding unbelievably badly at the intermediate level. I didn’t mention it to anyone, but I did follow her to the finish line to see who was her coach,” he said. “It was a friend of mine and a well-known coach, so I didn’t proceed any further. Two weeks later, her horse died due to injuries as a result of dangerous riding. We can’t just sit back and talk about what we’re going to do, but we have to take strong steps. If one of our peers is riding in an unsafe way, or if we have a friend coaching an unsafe student, we need to say something and not turn a blind eye, which we’ve all tended to do.”

Sara Lieser

When Did That Happen?
As the USEF and FEI work to synchronize their increasing safety standards, we take a look back at two years’ worth of dangerous riding rule changes.

Dec. 1, 2006
An additional column on eventing score sheets is created specifically for the 25 penalties resulting from dangerous riding at USEA/USEF recognized horse trials.

May 2007
The Fédération Equestre Internationale makes changes to Section 3 of Rule 519 to state that the president of the ground jury at FEI events must designate one or more officials, such as the technical delegate, chief steward or “other experienced eventing officials not in an official function at the event” as spotters on cross-country. These deputies may warn or stop a rider on course for, among other things, “dangerous riding” or “riding in an unsafe way.”

Nov. 2007
Another addition to FEI Rule 519, Section 3, outlines the
warning flag procedure at FEI events. At their own discretion, designated officials may wave a yellow flag to warn a rider of questionable behavior, without penalizing said rider. When specifically instructed by the ground jury, these officials or fence judges will wave a red flag to stop a rider, resulting in elimination. A yellow card can be given after elimination, at the discretion of the ground jury.

An addendum to FEI Rule 520 qualifies “riding in an unsafe way or losing control of the horse” and a “series of dangerous jumps” as grounds for disqualification, penalties or warnings.

Jan. 2008
After a safety summit in Copenhagen, Denmark, FEI officials announced several safety recommendations (not yet approved as rules) made by the Rules Education working group for the coming year:
•    Promote the use of red flags and 25 penalties for dangerous riding; yellow warning flags to be deleted.
•    Dangerous riding penalties could increase from 25 to 45.
•    Riders eliminated with the red flag should also be sanctioned with a yellow card.
•    Tired riders to be added to the list of what constitutes dangerous riding.
•    Officials appointed by the ground jury should be able to stop and eliminate riders on cross-country without referring to the ground jury president. Individuals with this power, however, should be grouped in pairs.
•    Produce an educational DVD for officials to pinpoint examples of dangerous riding and abuse.

May 19, 2008
Via an extraordinary rule change submitted by the U.S. Eventing Association Eventing Standards Task Force, USEF Rule EV141 is amended to make the first fall of a competitor, when directly related to a cross-country obstacle, result in elimination.

July 21, 2008
Significant changes are made to USEF Rule EV111 – “The Dangerous Riding Rule.”

•    In addition to their pre-established power to issue either 25 penalties or elimination for dangerous riding, ground juries are also given the prerogative to give warning cards.
•    Borrowing language from FEI Rule 519, the technical delegate or members of the ground jury may stop a rider on the cross-country course for, among other things, “dangerous riding” or “riding in an unsafe way.”
•    Also in response to 519, the president of the ground jury at USEF events may deputize assistants to advise the jury on cross-country action. These deputies must be “eventing officials up to the level for which they are licensed and not in an official function at the event, any Level 3 or 4 USEA ICP Instructor, or any rider who has represented the United States in a World Championship, Olympic Games or Pan American Games.” If the ground jury deems a ride unsafe, these deputies, as well as jump judges, are empowered to give the rider a red flag, signaling them to stop immediately.

Aug. 1, 2008
The FEI brings their cross-country and show jumping fall of rider rules, 532 and 538, in line with those of the USEF prior to the Olympic Games. A fall of rider at a fence on cross-country or anywhere in the show jumping results in elimination.

Dec. 1, 2008
New qualification guidelines for USEA/USEF competitions at preliminary level and above will take effect. Changes to EV105 state that horses will lose qualification at a level, effectively bumping them down a level, after two non-technical eliminations in a six months, two horse falls within six months, or two rider falls from the same horse within 12 months.

Kat Netzler




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