Flags, Falls And Frangible Pins: Thoughts From The FEI Eventing Risk Management Seminar

Mar 13, 2020 - 7:55 AM

In Episode 5 of The Chronicle of the Horse podcast, we discuss safety in eventing with Jon Holling, who is the U.S. national safety officer to the Fédération Equestre Internationale, and amateur rider Maggie Deatrick, who recently penned a column for Eventing Nation entitled “A Plea For Transparency.” Read Holling’s COTH Between Rounds column in which he shares his takeaways from the FEI’s recent global safety summit at the Aintree race track in England.

I’m presently sitting on a plane on the way home from three days of meetings at the historic Aintree race track, home of the British Grand National. I must admit that as an American the history involved was a bit lost on me before I arrived. However, after having had a chance to explore the venue, watch an indoor jumper competition, and walk around the track, I have a real appreciation for how special a place Aintree really is.

Every year the Fédération Equestre Internationale has a Risk Management and National Safety Officer meeting, to which each country sends a representative. Once every four years the FEI steps it up a notch and hosts a safety summit and invites additional officials, designers and competitors to discuss the status of the sport and what we need to do going forward to ensure eventing’s success. This year that meant 150 passionate, knowledgeable horsemen and women from across the globe got together to discuss, debate and try to come to agreement on a boatload of topics facing our sport.

Obviously the topics mainly centered around safety, but there are a wide range of ways to achieve improvement in safety. Rider categorization has been a part of the sport for the past several years and will continue to be a major part of qualifications going forward. Statistically, riders with more experience are in fact more safe on course. The reality is that we can look forward to having these rider categories tightened up even more in the future.

The equipment we all wear while competing is a constant topic at these meetings. The helmets are always being reinvented by manufacturers, and we were all fortunate enough to hear about the latest and greatest things to come. The companies involved have some pretty amazing ideas about how to design and test for torsional forces. In layman’s terms that means they are figuring out how to minimize the effect of your brain twisting and sloshing around inside your skull when you hit the dirt. Honestly, it’s not something I even knew was a thing.

Body protectors and air vests were another hot topic. The future of needing to wear an approved safety vest is here, so my friends who are hanging on to their old vests from 1985 need to be ready for an upgrade very soon. Additional testing is needed to decide how much safety is enhanced by wearing an air jacket. While common sense seems to say they can only help, there really is no data that definitively proves this assumption.

Course design is the first line of defense we have in the fight for safety. The effort that is put in to designing and building a course at any level to test the best while keeping competitors as safe as possible is staggering. While I’m completely unqualified to design an upper-level cross-country course, I do know when I see one. I can say without a doubt that the guys in charge of designing our top courses around the world are a passionate, talented group who are constantly striving to be better at their craft.

Beyond the design of the track, I’m happy to report that frangible technology is here to stay. Not only is it here, but the numbers clearly show that when used correctly it dramatically increases safety. Dave Vos’ kettlebell test will provide us with a way to field test fences to not only ensure fences react correctly but also to be sure they don’t have false activations. For very little investment every builder now has a way to test their fences before they ever get jumped in competition.

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Frangible technology continues to be an important element of efforts to improve eventing safety. Lindsay Berreth Photos

Many of us watched the Land Rover Burghley CCI5*-L (England) with concern this past autumn. In particular, the offset white gates near the end of the course seemed to cause too many falls despite the fact that they were fitted with a MIM system. After reviewing the videos at this combination it was determined that when a frangible fence is impacted at angle the force needed to activate a device can be doubled. I’m thrilled to tell you that MIM has now come up with a new yellow clip that will react correctly in this and other situations that require less activation force.

Speaking of which, we are now in the age of true reverse frangible corners. The technology exists, and we’re well on our way to mandating their use worldwide. For those who are concerned that cross-country is turning into show jumping, let me put your fears to bed. It takes a mere .5 joules of force to knock down a rail in a show jumping course. Conversely, we are setting front rails on cross-country to activate at 250 joules. For those like me who are not mathematically inclined, that is 500 times more energy. For back rails we are setting the activation point at 500 joules, which works out to 1,000 times more energy. So for those like me who’ve had concerns in the past over false activations, those concerns are unfounded.

FlagGate 2019 has been a very real thing. With many riders worldwide expressing concern over the new flag rule, the goal for the meeting was to discuss the rule and clarify what is in fact worthy of a clear ride, 15 penalties for a flag, or 20 for a runout. After watching numerous videos of riders hitting flags on narrow fences with 150 of the most qualified people in the world, I am not sure we have this solved just yet. It’s a necessary rule, but the reality is that this is a judgment call made on the day by the officials. I do think and hope that once the decision has been made by the officials that the “official” video will be released for all of us to see. This will only serve to reinforce the decision that these very qualified judges have made. Keeping that video private only serves to encourage conspiracy theorists.

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Some of the topics discussed at the FEI Eventing Risk Management Seminar included safety equipment like body protectors and air vests, as well as fence construction and whether fences have gotten too narrow.

In relation to the flag issue, the designers have come forward to say that fences, particularly on bending lines, have gotten too narrow. There is a proposal to change the guidelines and allow for slightly wider jumping faces at all levels. Sweden probably has the best solution to this entire issue: They penalize competitors 7 points for any flag knocked down on course. This way horses and riders may have two flags and still get a qualifying score but not three. It seems to be a sensible solution. It would mean that we need to come up with a consistent way to fasten the flags to the jumps that we know would be the same every time.

Ideas like this one from Sweden help catapult the sport forward. The fact that we can all get together every year and share what we’re doing serves as a great way for the global eventing community to work together.


Jon Holling has been a mainstay at the top level of eventing for 20 years, competing in North America and Europe. He won the 2012 Bromont CCI4* (Quebec) and was a member of that year’s Nations Cup team at Boekelo (the Netherlands). Jon has successfully ridden around many five-star events. In addition, he formerly coached the Area IV young rider team, which has won numerous medals, including two golds. He serves on the U.S. Equestrian Federation Competition Management and Human and Equine Safety & Welfare Committees and International Disciplines Council and is vice-chair of the Eventing Sport Committee. He and his wife, Jennifer Holling, run Willow Run Farm in Ocala, Florida. He started contributing as a Between Rounds columnist in 2015.

This commentary ran in the Feb. 24 & March 2 issue of The Chronicle of the Horse as part of our Show Jumping Issue.

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