Don't Wait On The FEI: Creative Solutions For A Safer Sport Star In Eventing Risk Management Seminar

Jan 28, 2020 - 3:01 PM

The pressing need for riders to share responsibility for their own safety was a recurring theme at the Fédération Equestre Internationale Eventing Risk Management Seminar at Aintree Racecourse, Liverpool, England, Jan. 24-26. The gathering of 150 officials, trainers and course designers from around the world discussed developments in frangible technology; the latest thinking in course design such as intensity of jumping effort, groundlines and the profiling of the leading edge of a fence; and safety helmets, body protectors and medical cover.

Delegates heard about the increasing though still informal use of Equiratings to flag horses at heightened risk of falls. Hot topics such as the correct penalty for breaking a pin, the new flag rule, and whether certain fences would have been built were frangible technology not available were all discussed, with no clear conclusions reached.

Yet despite all these technical and regulatory initiatives making a direct contribution to fall reduction worldwide, the conversation kept returning to the riders who assume the Minimum Eligibility Requirement means “competent to upgrade,” especially in developing regions with few competitive opportunities.

What can be done to encourage riders to self-improve? Will the time come when regulators tell riders they are not up to it, based on the statistical data? Summit moderator David O’Connor, the FEI Eventing Committee chair, said that moment is getting close; they’re discussing whether it should come from the “feel” of parents and trainers, the FEI or national federations.

David O’Connor, the FEI Eventing Committee chair, led the FEI Eventing Risk Management Seminar at Aintree. Mollie Bailey Photo

He commended Sam Watson and Diarmuid Byrne of Ireland-based Equiratings for continuing to “wrap their heads” around the issue. For the time being, Equiratings data about at-risk starters is provided to FEI ground juries rather than being regulatory, a “rider-friendly” approach. But O’Connor emphasized that poor standards amongst the bottom 3% impact on the sport as a whole.

For the first time, some sessions were live-streamed, and this did not deter many from speaking openly about worrying trends. Anne-Marie Taylor, former British team gold medalist, cited two Indian riders she once coached. Having obtained MERs, she noticed they had entered a popular European four-star. Taylor warned the organizer the riders were not ready: One of them had a horse fall, the other three refusals. Had Equiratings applied, they would not have been eligible, Taylor observed.

Canada’s Jo Young described officiating in Chile at the one-star level, where none of five starters completed, having been approved by their national federation to start despite no prior eventing experience.

At the other extreme, Australian rider Paul Tapner said the Event Riders Masters organizers want to develop a CCI5*-S category for elite level participants, which, aside from marketing appeal, could help filter out those who might otherwise attempt the Badminton and Burghley CCI5*-Ls in England before they are ready.

However, noted course designer Mike Etherington-Smith said senior figures were wary of “piecemeal solutions” that did not fit into the sport’s overall strategy. A short format five-star might dilute the unique status of the headlining CCI5*-Ls.

Course designer Mike Etherington-Smith wasn’t keen on the idea of a short-format five-star event. Chronicle Staff Photo

The number of five-star horses “took a dive” to 272 last year compared with the mid-300s, added Etherington-Smith. “If the stepping stones to five-star are not correct, then perhaps we should look at the four-stars,” he said.

There was a general consensus that course designers should have a supporting role in judging. (Currently they stand back on cross-country day). There were concerns that young, potential course designers are being deterred because they’re prohibited from designing courses they might themselves compete over, due to the FEI’s conflict of interest policy. O’Connor said his committee had repeatedly told the FEI this was not a good fit for eventing but had been “beaten” down.

O’Connor reminded national federations there was nothing to stop them applying tougher qualifications under national rules if they felt FEI rules did not go far enough. Germany’s delegate Philine Ganders-Meyer said that organizers with “strong” courses should be allowed to impose additional qualification criteria.

Geoff Sinclair, chair of the FEI Eventing Risk Management Steering Group, gave a candid update on safety innovations in his native Australia. These are based on the 31 recommendations from last year’s inquest into the deaths of Caitlyn Fischer and Olivia Inglis in New South Wales in 2016.

Sinclair divided them into those that had been adopted—appointing a full-time safety officer, enhancing the role of the rider rep and technical delegates, upgrading safety equipment standards, and improved medical cover and paramedic response times—and the few that should not be “blindly followed” in a welter of soon-forgotten policies.

There are now escorted course walks for all. A working group is discussing whether, when show jumping precedes it, those with too many faults should not start cross-country. Horse falls last year in Australia were the lowest ever: 0.25%.

In hindsight, Sinclair deeply regretted that Equestrian Australia did not reach out to the Fischer and Inglis families immediately after the tragedies; lawyers had advised against it.

Laurent Bousquet and Pierre Michelet outlined initiatives adopted by France, where the Ministry of Sport intervened after fatal and other serious eventing accidents. France is proactively communicating its risk mitigation effort to combat a misinformed social media. French national qualifications are stronger than the FEI equivalent. From 2021 all riders in French national events must name their trainer on entry forms or risk being refused.

With U.S. representative Jonathan Holling and Great Britain’s William Fox-Pitt, Bousquet led a separate discussion about the widely varied attitudes to being coached, and the global problem of dissuading riders from galloping too fast.

Holling felt there should be a community-based approach to looking out for people. “If you see someone riding badly, it’s not unusual for myself or other professionals to go up to the trainer and say, ‘Hey, I saw your girl struggling,’ ” he said. “If someone has a bad go it affects the entire sport worldwide. I mustn’t get my back up if someone tells me, ‘Your student is riding like a sack of you-know-what.’ ”

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Jonathan Holling encouraged the eventing community to work together to keep riders from riding at a level beyond their ability. Chronicle Staff Photo

Holling described what he expects of his students before they can step up: “You don’t have to dictate the stride, but you must be able to make some adjustments. If I can SEE you making the adjustments, you are not good enough for that level. It needs to look smooth.”

Fox-Pitt stressed the need to train horses for sharpness and reaction, saying, “Lots of experts can teach you about seeing strides, but in the real world things go wrong, and then we need our horses to really help us. The modern [eventing] world has become so perfect and exact. Everyone is trying to ride like Michael Jung, but that isn’t the real world.”

He observed that in the U.S., virtually everyone attends every competition with their coach, while others attend frequent clinics solely for the love of learning with no intent to compete. “There isn’t a single Brit that does that,” he said. “We just want to get out there and do it, even if it doesn’t look pretty!

“We so quickly focus on skinny rolltops and precision stuff that we forget to jump banks and ditches on funny terrain,” he continued. “Some of our best training grounds here [in England] are on all-weather [synthetic footing]. Sadly that’s the sport of the future, but we are not there yet!”

Hosted by the home of the Grand National, the summit compared notes with British Horseracing Authority guests about the growing public scrutiny in the areas of ethics and horse welfare. The BHA’s new mission is to monitor all race horses for life, after they leave training.

Barry Johnson, independent chairman of the BHA Equine Welfare Board, said that while progress had been made, British racing was still on the “back foot.”

“We are going to try to change public attitudes,” he said. “There is no point in saying, ‘We look after our horses brilliantly, and they look fantastic,’ if we haven’t explained what we are doing and why it is good for the horse. I would like to think that in 10 years’ time, the public will be led on welfare by the industry itself. That will lead to more participants and people supporting racing, rather than people trying to call it down.”

Veteran sports journalist Steven Wilson, who has covered many Olympic Games for the Associated Press, addressed the barriers to the wider reporting of equestrianism. He admitted he had never covered horse sport himself because he did not understand the finer points; AP hired specialist freelancers where needed.

“It still carries the stigma of being a bit niche and the stereotype that it is for the privileged, the elite and maybe the well-off—and that the rules may be hard to understand,” said Wilson. “At the same time, myself and others respect and admire the sport, the courage and tradition it involves.”

The tendency of older equestrians to be less social media-savvy was highlighted when attendees were asked who had heard of the Youtuber “This Esme,” a teenager with 350,000 followers who is a major influencer of equestrian youth in the United Kingdom. Only two hands went up.

Tapner urged the sport to “support every level” of its pyramid. “You have to look after the top level, especially as they are the celebrities who will put themselves on social media, who young people are going to look at and aspire to and want to get into the sport because of,” he said.

Watch video of the summit on the FEI website.

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