Tuesday, Jul. 23, 2024

Training The Adrenaline Beast: USEA Safety Summit Round Table Part 4



After two deaths in 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 fourth and final part of the series focuses on exactly how accidents are handled, how solutions are being sought and public perception of the sport.

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, James C. Wofford, USEF Veterinary Committee Chair A. Kent Allen, DVM and Catherine Kohn, VMD, Diplomate ACVIM, member of the USEF Veterinary Committee, USEA Equine Cardiopulmonary Research Group Chair.

In seeking out solutions for eventing safety, have you worked with other sports that have made changes to improve their safety?

Rob Burk: The [Fédération Equestre Internationale] brought in Jackie Stewart from [auto] racing, and we’ve looked at ski racing as well, and some things we’ve learned from them are to use technology and continue to look at and implement that where we can. Ski racing actually came as a recommendation from Denny Emerson.

We continue to look for ideas on other groups to approach. We have Dave Vos from Google and engineers; we’ve tapped into a NASA-contracted engineer in Suzanne Smith; we’re trying to be able to computer model rotational falls to better understand how they occur. If anyone knows of others we’re willing to reach out to them too.

Some of the people we have brought in to assist us with eventing safety include:

  • Jackie Stewart (Formula One Racing) was brought in during the 2000s to assist the FEI in analyzing the safety of the sport and how to improve it. David O’Connor has a lot of insight into what was gained from Jackie’s involvement, but it primarily centered around needing to institute technological advancements when we have them. From that input we have put additional focus on research and use of frangible devices, helmet research, safety vest and equipment use.
  • We have also worked with leaders in ski racing to learn about some of their safety efforts, and among other ideas to come from that interaction was the concept of the rider representative at every event to communicate rider concerns to the officials.
  • Suzanne Smith is a professor of engineering at the University of Kentucky. She has extensive experience with NASA and others and is currently researching rotational falls so that we can model them and figure out exactly how to reduce and hopefully eliminate them.
  • Dave Vos, formerly a top executive with Google’s parent company, having been in charge of its “Project Wing” and a mechanical engineer with expertise in aeronautics, has been working tirelessly as a part of our USEA Cross-Country Safety Sub-Committee. Dave has a brilliant mind and has been challenging our designers, officials, builders and others to use the best science available. He has shown particular interest in the arc of flight, the time for the horse to raise its legs, the actual distance of takeoff, the use of ground lines to assist in takeoff, and the shape of fences. His input has already assisted greatly in improving our rules and guidelines related to jump design. He and Andy Griffiths put out a really useful article.
  • Engineers Mats Björnetun and Anders Flogård of MIM Construction Frändefors Sweden. Much of their expertise was derived from engineering for automotive crashes. They have heavily researched and been involved in the sport over the last several years, and they designed the MIMSafe clip now used extensively at U.S. events. Anders was not only an engineer but was also a Monster Truck driver and builder.
  • Kaitlin Spak is also a member of our USEA Cross-Country Safety Subcommittee. Dr. Spak has been actively involved in much of the same projects as Dr. Vos, and both are also eventers! She is a former NASA fellow.
  • Roy Burek is the owner of the helmet company Charles Owen but is also an honorary visiting professor at the School of Engineering at the University of Cardiff in Wales with a research focus on concussion and TBI prevention. Charles Owen was among five companies selected by the NFL to develop new materials to absorb energies involved with concussions.
  • Kathleen Becker, DVM, MEng – A veterinarian, engineer and President of Häst PSC, a company specializing in the development and distribution of large animal rescue equipment. Kathleen is the creator of the Becker Sling and brings a unique perspective on the mechanics of the horse, coupled with engineering expertise worked on safety with the USEA for several years.

What do you do in the event of a horse death?

Burk: That’s in cooperation with [the U.S. Equestrian Federation]; we have a two-prong approach. There’s the communications strategy; we want to get as much info as we have to the public, but the most important thing is to deal with the situation on site. You have a safety coordinator at all recognized horse trials; they’ll have a crisis response plan that kicks in. The protocol involves the ground jury, the vet, the medical staff.

Within an hour we notify the public of anything we’re aware of regarding a serious injury or fatality. It goes up on our website right away with as much information as we know.

Usually what we know is limited. We might not know full details until the necropsy is performed, but other times it’s a more obvious injury, and we communicate as much as we know about horse and rider. If it is a horse, we indicate if a rider was unharmed.

Beyond that, the more expansive investigation happens. You have the technical delegate and ground jury and safety officer discussing, but we also consider the fence judge. You have the accident report being filed. There are actually two reports, an accident and fall report. In FEI competition there’s an investigation team. All that is compiled and submitted to USEF, and from that we draw our stats.

Dr. A. Kent Allen: There are mandatory necropsies at FEI level and now going into effect at USEF level. For a long time USEA would fund them…

Burk: We still do, and transport.

Allen: Right, you still do, but there was not a rule requiring it. Now there’s a USEF rule that covers the entire USEF spectrum, which requires that. That information also gets reviewed by a panel with USEF with cooperation of USEA and with cooperation of FEI. There are several government bodies looking at these, compiling, keeping track.

If you’re a regulatory body and don’t know what happened to your horses, you’re not a very good regulatory body.

Who funds the necropsies if it’s not an event horse?


Allen: USEF does. If it’s an FEI horse FEI does, and sometimes it’s a combination of different funding agencies. On a complicated necropsy that funding may not be enough to cover it all. But it is now a rule that it has to be done, and there are going to be various regulatory bodies that will be trying to help people to do it. If a horse is insured, the insuring company is going to require it before they pay out anyway.

As leaders of a risk sport, how do you address satisfying a segment of the public who will only be satisfied when the rate of injury is zero?

USEA CEO Rob Burk discusses the future of the sport.

Allen: I would also say that I had the opportunity at one Olympics where I got to do press coverage going out to about 100 nations, and I was the token veterinarian among M.D.s. It was Atlanta, and [we veterinarians] had done all that work beforehand [on how heat affects equine athletes] and were making changes. The M.D.s were doing their sports the same way they’d always done them. They didn’t do studies, and they were astounded when I told them what we’d done. I did my 15-second sound bite, and I said, “I believe what you will find in this Olympics is that the best cared for athlete will be four-legged, not two-legged.”

We do an extraordinary job of caring for our horses; we really do. We need to continue that, and we need to look where we can help, but I will also agree with you completely that we are never going to make animal rights advocates happy. We will always make people with animal welfare in mind happy, because they will encourage us to do better. The animal rights groups we will never make happy because they have a different agenda, so we shouldn’t try. But we oughta sure as heck take good care of our horses.


Taking exceptional care of the horses is essential. Photo by Lindsay Berreth

Holling: The smell test for me started in 2008 because of a personal experience. I know at the end of the day, if we as a sport and myself as a person are doing everything we can do to make the sport safe, I can sleep soundly.

Those who are opposed we’re never going to make happy, but as safety evolves and technology evolves—whether that’s frangible fences or cross-country vests—we have to adapt to change very quickly as a sport and embrace that new technology and use it.

As long as we do that, we’re OK. As long as you can look someone in the eye and say, “Hey, we’re doing everything we can and more,” that’s the best we can hope for.

Burk: If you take a look at other sports and other things we do in life and analyze the risks of those activities versus eventing, I actually hold that we stand pretty well, compared to, for example, driving a car, which is 63 times more likely to be fatal than competing in eventing in the United States over the last decade. From a risk perspective, we have to take every injury and fatality seriously, but we really encourage everyone to look at the numbers and see how we rank.


Everyone who loves the sport wants to prioritize safety. Photo by Lindsay Berreth

Carol Kozlowski: Our biggest frustration is that we have a lot of information that we’re apparently not doing a good enough job of getting out there. When I read that the “Powers That Be” are ignoring the situation, that could not be farther from the truth.

We are meeting on this, we’re discussing, we’re pulling in the biggest and brightest minds we know to keep moving forward, and if we need to do a better job at communicating those efforts, then obviously we’ve got to do that. It’s frustrating to hear from those not up to speed what we need to do to fix it, as if we’re sitting around ignoring everything.

What is the best channel for reaching out to the USEA?

Burk: Not Facebook. I mean, Facebook is fine but it gets lost in the drown of information, and that Facebook post is gone from the newsfeed in a couple of hours.

People can reach out to USEA through the general number: 703-779-0440, and whatever your topic is you’ll be directed to the right person. We have on our website every committee member listed and phone numbers for each of them.

What about speed? Could we lower speed to increase safety?

Wofford: Speed is a little bit of a red herring. The English Grand National has been running for about 170 years now and only had one rider fatality. The Maryland Hunt Cup has never had a rider fatality, and they run twice as fast [as eventers], averaging 800 meters per minute. It’s possible to go much faster than we go in relative safety.


Cooper: Even at the Maryland Hunt Cup, if you hit the top rail hit hard enough it will fall.

Wofford: There have been very few horses that have broken a rail and stood up. If you deform a 4’10” post and rail set in cement in the ground, you might deform it, but you’re coming down too.

Burk: Arbitrarily saying, “Let’s slow down the speed; it’ll be much safer,” well, there’s a sweet spot. The University of Kentucky research is going to be really interesting to see; at what point does rotation occur in such a way that the horse lands on the rider and speed is a factor in that? You might unintentionally cause a higher rate of rotational occurrence at a certain sweet spot of speed.


Learning to judge pace effectively and not just reading a watch is essential to riding safely. Photo by Lindsay Berreth

Cooper: There have been fatalities at very low rates of speed. I would love to have people throw away their watches until they learn how to ride. To watch a beginner novice level rider looking at their watch instead of getting any sort of feel of how fast they’re going and what the horse is doing. If you look at a whole course you’re going uphill, downhill; you’ll be slower in one spot and up on the time on others.

But you’re relying on beeping rather than teaching horsemanship or feel. Everyone is focused on making time instead of getting the job done right.

Dr. Catherine Kohn: People try very hard to make time, and some horses can do it, and some can’t. You see that at the finish. I think that’s the crux of the issue, not necessarily the absolute speed, but if the speed suits that horse and rider on that day.

Burk: We instituted speed penalties, we were trying to regulate it, but at the end of the day good horsemanship, good training, learning pace, speed, rhythm, these are things that are going to be difficult to regulate.

Holling: When I was looking at horses in England and talking to a friend going out to run at pre- novice, our training level, they weren’t allowed watches at all. It’s something worth looking at. Then you’ll produce young horses correctly, and maybe in a generation you’ll have people who are better at riding in balance and not chasing the clock.

Kohn: I would get behind putting that rule in. People have to make the effort to learn how fast or how slow they need to go to compete at their level.

Cooper: At a lot of the schooling areas I set up I will have a track with 0 to 350 [meters], 400, marked. You get an idea, especially if going up and downhill will a make difference. The first time someone goes to a competition they should have an idea of how fast 500 [meters per minute] or 520 feels. It should be ingrained, so they shouldn’t learn by listening to a beep.

Wofford: Wayne Quarles put a radar gun on people at Galway one year, and one-star riders were going 790 down the hill, faster than any old long format ever went. Not a good sense of pace at preliminary.

Kozlowski: That’s the trainers, that’s the coaches.

Burk: This sort of rough and tumble, “We’re so tough we’re going to do everything to win; we’re going to make it happen,” we’re trying to get away from that while also stressing you can’t be faint of heart to do this sport. At the same time you need to learn how to train the adrenaline beast and say, “This is not what’s in the best interest of my horse, my sport or myself.”

Kozlowski: If we push hard on this with this reasoning in place we might be able to push this concept of not allowing riders to use watches at lower levels forward once again.

Jimmy Wofford discusses why we’re talking about making the sport safer.

Read the previous conversation here:
Part 1: Are We Going To Be Eventing Or Aren’t We?
Part 2: Driving Decisions With Data
Part 3: Maybe This Isn’t A Sport For Every Rider Or Every Horse




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