Are We Going To Be Eventing Or Aren’t We?: USEA Safety Summit Round Table Part 1

Nov 27, 2017 - 8:58 AM

After two deaths in the sport of eventing this fall in France— French rider Maxime Debost in a rotational fall at a one-star event and Boyd Martin’s mount Crackerjack due to a fractured limb while galloping on cross-country at the Pau CCI****—U.S. Eventing Association officials gathered a diverse group of industry players to discuss the state of safety in the sport with The Chronicle of the Horse.

This four-part series begins with a focus on fence technology and course design. This section of the conversation features four-star rider, USEA Cross-Country Safety Subcommittee co-chair and National Safety Officer for USEF to the FEI Jonathan Holling, FEI course designer and co-chair of the USEA Course Designer/Builder Committee Tremaine Cooper, USEA President Carol Kozlowski, USEA CEO Rob Burk and James C. Wofford.

Why are we talking about safety now? When you look at the numbers, there are fewer injuries and fatalities in this year than in the last few years. So why do you think there’s a public outcry right now? 

Rob Burk: Any time you have a tragedy in the sport, whether human or equine, it raises attention, and we know we’ve had a recent fatality in France, and it’s a sensitive subject. We all care about the sport. I remember sitting on the outside before I was an employee of USEA and questioning when something happened as well.

The questions are valid to put forward anytime anything happens. Is there a reason why it’s more fervent now than in the past? There have been times when there were punctuated points in late ’90s and around 2008 where a lot of attention was focused on the sport. It was probably just as fervent, but social media allows it to be much louder to a larger audience really quickly.


Jonathan Holling: I would add that there is proven technology available now that we have here in the U.S. to make things safer on cross-country. While I don’t know that the most recent situation at Pau had anything to do with it, with a couple of the other [catastrophic accidents] worldwide, there are some questions about if they could have been prevented or helped or made less severe if that technology was mandated.

It’s easy to pick on low hanging fruit when the international body, the [Fédération Equestre Internationale], doesn’t mandate all of the technology available. It’s easy for people to pick on that and say if you made that mandatory maybe this wouldn’t have happened.

Are frangible pins effective? Is there universal agreement that those pins do in fact reduce injury and make the sport safer?

Holling: Yes—where they work. That technology doesn’t work on every fence. Where they’re appropriate, they are proven to reduce the chance of a serious rotational fall.

An example of what could have been a dangerous rotational fall. Photo by Lindsay Berreth
But with the release of the MIM clip, the horse was able to get his front legs forward to land safely. Photo by Lindsay Berreth

Tremaine Cooper: They don’t inherently make the fence safer, but they come into play when you’re already in trouble. They work on certain types of fences.

There are a couple of different technologies. One reason we didn’t have a national approved list of frangible technology like the FEI does was so we would encourage people to come up with new technology. Right now I could come up with a new system, and as long as I could convince the [technical delegate] or the president of the ground jury that there aren’t any adverse things that could happen, then I could use it, and we can test it.

There are a certain number of fences, like a big log over a ditch, a trakehner, where we haven’t found a way to give way in the same way that a MIM clip, which is a hinge system, or a pin, which is the British system, works. Right now [frangible pins and clips] work on a certain type of rail jump, and the trick is to use them in every situation we can.

But we need to be careful we don’t make fences that aren’t good fences and just say, “Well they’re frangible, so they’re fine.” The first, most important thing is to have the right fence in the right spot and make it jump well. Then absolutely if you can use something—everyone misses once in a while. Make it so that when that sort of thing happens the fence will give way in such a way that the chance of injury is reduced.

Burk: One of the oldest frangible fences is a brush fence, right? I know David [O’Connor] among others has been working on new and innovative designs, but for the most part the British pin and MIM clips are predominately used.

Cooper: Those are the two FEI-approved technologies.

In 2015, the FEI presented data that showed more falls occurred at frangible fences. Is that because there were more falls at the type of fences that can be pinned? Or are riders treating frangible fences that they know are pinned or clipped differently?

Course designer Tremaine Cooper explains why penalty points are so important for frangible fences.

Burk: By time you trigger a frangible fence, something is probably going wrong. My impression of the focus on frangible design is to remove or reduce rotational falls, rotational falls having the most catastrophic outcome.

Cooper: The first pin was quite different from the way we usually use it now. The first one was to stop a very specific type of fall, usually a slow speed rotational fall where the post was behind the rail. It wouldn’t be activated if you hit it hard; you could chest it, and it wouldn’t activate. You’d have to basically start rotating, and at a certain point it would give way. The horse would probably still fall down, and it wouldn’t completely do away with point of rotation. It still works in one specific type of fall—a slow rotational fall. That’s evolved… Now we always try to have it be on the backside of the post, so that if you hit it horizontally as well as just vertically going down it will give way.

But there are a bunch of things that we’ve looked at, even the length of the hinge. In the beginning it wasn’t put on the backside. They had a gate, and they had a dummy horse they’d send down this thing, and they found out if it was hinged at the bottom on a long hinge it would accelerate the fall because it would lower the horse to the ground. So now if you look at the MIM system, it’s fairly short. It’s a 12- or 18-inch hinge so that the horse can maybe still get its feet underneath him.

The MIM clip after it was triggered. Photo by Lindsay Berreth

It seems like the direction the sport has been going is more jumping efforts over shorter distances. Have there been studies about how that affects the horse?

Cooper: To slightly correct that, we used to have a range of distance and a range of efforts, and it was up to the designers. I could have maximum jumping efforts and minimum distance or vice versa. A number of years ago we went to the ideal being, for a national horse trial, 100 meters per jumping effort. It doesn’t mean a jump every 100 meters; it means overall that’s the ratio.

Honestly when I first heard that, I thought, “Ugh, it’s a mathematical formula. There’s a huge difference between one that’s out in the open and one in the woods.” But it does work really well. I had to lop off jumping efforts on courses, and it made them ride a whole lot better. That’s basically the intensity of the course. If you can keep the course a little less intense, it rides better.

Plus you can tire a horse’s mind, and if you have maximum jumping efforts on a short distance they don’t mentally get a chance to take a breath. For the FEI, as you go up, there are less jumping efforts per meter. So it’s 105 [meters] for two-star, 110 for three-star for CICs, and CCIs it’s different again.

Burk: In ’09 Dr. Reed Ayers and John Staples conducted the USEA GPS Speed Study. In their initial analysis they found that the more adjustment of speed (fast, slow, fast, slow) there was a higher incidence of time faults. From that we’re trying to extrapolate what does that mean. We’re trying to figure out what other questions to ask.

On the internet there are a lot of conversations about types of jumps people think cause problems. For example: ditches, jumps into and out of the water, and fences going downhill. Obviously those are all core questions you see on pretty much every course. Do you feel like there are core elements that you would never consider removing?

Holling: Generally speaking the sport is safer than it used to be. The struggle is trying as a sport to make it as safe as you can. I’ve always had that goal myself, and I’d like to set the bar very high and say I’d love to get to a point where there are virtually no catastrophic accidents in the sport.

But at the same point you have to balance and be realistic and say, “Are we going to be eventing or aren’t we?” That’s not to say it’s acceptable there are catastrophic injuries, but when discussing these types of fences that are dangerous. I saw some of those questions on the Chronicle Facebook page. Some of them I think you get to a point where you say, “All right, where are we going to draw the line? It is still eventing?” We do still have some danger there.

We have to keep innovating. We have to keep being flexible. We have to keep saying as a sport we are going to use all the information and technology that we have that we know will make things safer. But I think there’s a line you can cross there when you say, “This is what you have to have; it still has to be eventing.” We’re still going to jump in and out of water. We’re still going to jump corners out of water. Otherwise we should be show jumpers, which is fine, but then we should go show jump.

Jonathan Holling on Sportsfield Two Doors Down. Photo by Lindsay Berreth

Carol Kozlowski: I also familiarized myself with some of the comments on the Chronicle Facebook page. I have to say it is a bit discouraging to me. A lot of objections and alarms made over types of jumps we ask our horses to jump or the questions or the designs seem to made by people who don’t have experience, who haven’t jumped these types of jumps themselves and therefore extrapolate that, “If I find it difficult or if my horse finds it difficult then likely others will.” I think there’s a little bit of a reach there when people who don’t have the experience in dealing with those questions weigh in. They’re entitled to their opinion, but when they think that the sport needs to change based on what their view is then it becomes problematic to me.

Go to Jon Holling’s training facility; go to Phillip Dutton’s. You go there and see how they train these horses. These horses are methodically produced to understand these questions. Obviously the way the course designer puts them together makes each designer unique, but of themselves, these upper-level athletes understand. They have seen these questions. They have been trained all along to read them.

Jimmy Wofford: One of my soapbox comments is to course designers. In the past they’ve tended to forget that we call this “cross-country.” The fences should be designed on the level, going up, going down and going across. Each one of those physical features changes the nature of the obstacle.

A table on the level isn’t the same as going up, going down, or indeed, going across. This is improving, but in the past they’ve tended to find a nice level piece of ground to build these incredible puzzles and ignore the fact that two corners on the level are not the same as two corners along the side of the hill, and you can increase the difficulty without increasing the size of the obstacles. I think that particular part of design is improving recently.

Cooper: We have to be careful not to pick one type and say it’s a dangerous fence or not. Two good examples: If you look at numbers of falls and types of fences, rolltops are near the top. If you just saw that, you’d say, “Oh, rolltops are dangerous.” The fact is we use rolltops in some of the trickier pieces of terrain. So just to look at the data without realizing how it fits into the whole course can be deceiving.

People say a lot of falls happen at corners. The most falls are at corners that are decked in and have a solid front. The ones with an open front have less, and the least number happen at one that’s open. To just say “corners” are dangerous is not knowing what’s behind it.

Tremaine Cooper. Photo by Lindsay Berreth

Burk: Over the last several years, ascending oxers are one of the most common type at which falls occur. Well, we’ve had ascending oxers for a pretty long time.

Cooper: And just to comment on Carol’s comment, as a designer we have to always look at where the top of the sport is, and then it’s basically a set of building blocks. So we say, “OK, if we’re asking these questions at advanced, how do we get them there?” So the intermediate should be preparing them.

If they’ve answered all the questions they can move up. That goes all the way to beginner novice. As a designer if I’m asking too much at one level where they’re not ready I’m doing a disservice. I’m also doing a disservice if they’re basically going around and around a flat field until they get to advanced, not seeing any terrain. I haven’t prepared them as a designer. If you complete every level as a rider, and you make sure you don’t go to every single easy event, then you’re ready to move up. If you pick all the easy ones and barely get by, you’re doing a disservice to yourself as a trainer and to your horse if you move up.

By the time they’re seeing tough questions you’ve hopefully gone through a very long set of schooling and exposure to get to that point.

Burk: We’ve got a really cool subcommittee that Tremaine is on and Jon is the chair of. It was formed a couple years ago as a task force, but it was so valuable we made it into a more permanent fixture. We brought together not only course designers, but also engineers including the former head of Google’s moonshot program, Dave Vos; Kaitlin Spak; Doug Payne, and it’s been interesting to have those guys talk about the science and engineering and physics and take a look at that in comparison to what the course designers see. I think we’re advancing a lot. That’s where the most recent frangible pin recommendation came from. It’s been building international support.

Jimmy Wofford (second from left) commenting during the round table discussion. Photo by Lindsay Berreth

What new fence ideas are in the works?

Burk: I keep getting emails or texts from someone showing me their design ideas. How we test those is another big question we have, so we’re looking into ways to better cooperate with the UK and others and the folks with MIM.

Cooper: I do a bunch of teaching for licensing of course designers. One of the things I tell them is that if you haven’t seen it and you’re a low-level designer, there’s probably a reason. Innovation is great, but you shouldn’t do it for the sake of innovation. You should be pretty sure. I should never put a jump on a course where I’m not 99.99 percent sure it will ride well. You don’t want to be overly clever. That’s where you get into trouble as a designer.

Burk: I’ve seen fences on hydraulics. I’ve seen push fences that push back on impact. The Germans have a number of designs they were showing us, including one design they talked about with an airbag that deploys much like your car and pushes the top of the fence over.

Cooper: There’s one with magnets. I want the budget for that.

Burk: Those raise all sorts of other questions. How consistent is the magnet? Over time will it diminish its ability to hold? There’s a lot of testing that needs to occur before it’s launched.

Cooper: Whenever you talk about risk management, I think we have to be comfortable saying this is a risk sport. If you don’t want any risk, don’t go near a barn. But what I think we need to work incredibly hard at is what happens when you’re in trouble, if there are safer ways to get out of it, if there are safer ways out of it so that there are not catastrophic injuries out of it. It’s easy if you can go around a flat area with no jump, but you could still get hurt. It’s that balance of keeping the integrity of our sport.

Don’t miss the next installment in this series, which focuses on cardiopulmonary events and other studies and will be published tomorrow, Nov. 28.


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