Eventing Safety: the multi-pronged approach

There was yet another fatality (horse and human) at an event this past weekend, and I dunno about y’all but I’m growing weary of this same song and dance. Tragedy strikes, everyone gets upset and/or outraged and points fingers at what they think the problem is, but nothing ever actually happens. Eventually people stop talking about it, people forget, nothing changes, and we move on along until it happens again.

Image result for the definition of insanity

At least this time we’ve started to see a little action. The fatality occurred yet again at a table fence, like so many have recently. A few pros stepped up and started a fund to begin outfitting more fences with frangible/collapsible technology, and you can also donate to the USEA foundation (specifying that the money be allocated to the frangible fence fund). This is a great thing, and I’m happy to see the community rallying behind it. If safety technology exists, we have to utilize it, and it’s up to us in the sport to figure out how to help fund it.

The truth is, though, that this will take time. A lot of time. And money. A lot of money. Think of how many venues there are in this country, and how many fences we’re talking about that would have to be rebuilt (if possible) or scrapped and replacements built from scratch. It’s a big, albeit extremely worthy, undertaking, and while it’s part of the solution, it isn’t all of it.

 

I do think there are other things we could be doing now, or other avenues that should also be pursued in this quest for a safer sport. I see many people blaming one thing or the other, but the truth is that there are a lot of different aspects to this, and it isn’t as simple as fixing one thing.

Course design is a big part of it, and something that is already a work in progress and heavily studied. Understanding how horses read fences, jump shapes, trajectory, lighting and how it changes, terrain, speed, the flow of the course as a whole, etc – it’s complicated, but these things are all factors when it comes to safety. We’ve done a lot to improve this, but there is still more to learn. We’ve seen several fatal falls at tables in recent years – what is it about these fences that we’re getting wrong?

I also think, and this may be an unpopular opinion, that more liberal application of yellow cards and dangerous riding penalties would not be a bad idea. Officials shouldn’t be made to feel hesitant to use these if they think they’re warranted. I bet all of us can easily think of several dangerous situations that absolutely warranted a yellow card or a DR penalty but ended up as just a warning, if that. Hell, maybe we ourselves have deserved that kind of wake-up call at some point. With this particular rider there is at least one prior incident seen on video that was clearly a DR/yellow card offense, but none was given. Would it have ultimately made a difference many months later? Who knows. I know it’s a tricky situation, emotions flare, but we have to trust our officials to do their jobs, and we have to allow them to help keep us safe. Of course, officials also don’t have the ability to be everywhere at the same time either, and it’s just not possible for them to police everything, which brings us to…

Rider responsibility. You have to be realistic about yourself and your horse, where you’re at, and what you’re capable of. If you can’t quickly and easily adjust your horse’s gallop, if you can’t keep them straight to the jumps, if you’re getting dragged around XC… you’re not safe. Many horses are just not capable of moving beyond a certain level. Surround yourself with people that will be honest with you, not with people who just tell you what you want to hear. Err on the side of caution. Know when to call it a day. Stop getting so caught up in ticking boxes and moving up that you are willing to overlook red flags. Your life may depend on it. I was absolutely appalled to read a comment on social media yesterday from someone saying that they had a rotational fall in warmup but got back on and ran cross country. This is ghastly. Do not do this. Do not let your friends do this. Do not let your student do this. I can’t believe anyone would even want to, or think that’s a good idea. We have to be smarter than that.

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Which also segues to the whole “if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all” thing that so often gets thrown around. In this situation, it’s crap. I’m sorry, but it is. Everyone makes mistakes, even Michael Jung, and mistakes are one thing, but we all know an accident waiting to happen when we see it. I’ll go ahead and put this out there for myself – if you see a consistently dangerous situation, if you think that either I or my horse is not prepared for what I’m attempting – call me out. I mean, have empathy, do it kindly from a place of caring, not a place of judgment or meanness. Take me aside, don’t be rude about it, but please, say something. I would hope that all of us feel the same way. Ego is dangerous, hubris is deadly, and we have to be able to accept constructive criticism and doses of reality. If your friends don’t love you enough to be real with you, get new friends. If you don’t love your friends enough to be real with them, be a better friend. If your trainer isn’t willing to stand flat-footed and say “you aren’t ready for this” or “you need to be better at x thing before you’re safe to move up” – get a new damn trainer. Keep a team around you that knows you well, sees you regularly (at home and at shows) and that you trust. Also, be willing to listen to those people that care about you and are more experienced than you are.

We also need to talk about how behind we are in the US when it comes to rider safety equipment. We can’t even manage to pass a rule making BETA 3 vests mandatory, and I’m sorry but that’s just ridiculous. I think it’s well past time that the US aligns it’s own safety equipment rules to at least match those of British Eventing. We know (because science) that this equipment makes a difference, why can’t we require it? This is very easy, low-hanging fruit. It was mega-frustrating to see the rider involved in the latest fatality wearing a sub-par vest that did not even come close to fitting correctly. Again, would it have made a difference? Who knows. But we can police this, and we should, because it might make a difference for someone else.

BEhelmetrulesBEvestrules

Other possible rule related changes – NQR’s and MER’s. Also might be an unpopular opinion, but I don’t think it would be a bad idea to revisit the basic requirements that have to be met before someone is qualified to move up, and to start those requirements at Training level or even Novice. I also don’t have a problem with requiring them to be met by the the horse/rider combination either. This would inconvenience the upper level riders who bring horses up more quickly or obtain already-established upper level horses (maybe there can exemptions to the lower levels for extremely qualified horses and riders, I don’t know), and yeah someday it might even mean that I myself might have to hang out a certain level longer than I might want, but I feel like that’s a much better alternative than letting people leave the box when they really shouldn’t.

I also whole-heartedly agree with the Eventing Nation piece yesterday about accident reports and transparency. Not just the basic fall reports that are required and processed internally, but public ones, with extensive evaluation and detail. It’s frustrating that all we ever know about these accidents is what gets passed around the rumor mill – never any specifics on exactly what happened or how. I realize it’s a very sensitive subject and must be handled with compassion, but we have to do this. To me it’s an even bigger tragedy to not even be able to understand and learn from these types of accidents. How do we fix it if we don’t even know what went wrong? How do we ensure that we personally do all we can to not make the same mistakes? Other sports do this, we can too. We have to.

Everyone has their own idea of what the problem is, and in a way I think everyone is right to some degree. This isn’t a simple thing with a simple solution. There are so many factors that influence safety and accident prevention, and it’s up to us to figure out what all of them are, and pursue them all equally. If doing some of these things means that my entry fees or membership fees go up a little bit, raise them. The things that can be done quickly and easily and immediately – we have to do them. The things that will take longer and require more work – we can’t lose sight of them. The future of our sport, even our lives and those of horses, depend on it.

21 thoughts on “Eventing Safety: the multi-pronged approach

  1. Are you talking about the part where she went off course in the tall grass that should have been a DR penalty? I thought a lot of the commentary was internet haters, but after watching the video myself I’m sad to say I agree. I don’t think that making a mistake or riding above your level should result in a fatality ever – most of us do this as a hobby and the stakes should not be life or death- but if we had safety reports that presented concrete evidence that riding above your level has serious consequences – then maybe people WOULD be a little smarter about what they choose to do. It seems like the whole system failed here, and a horse and rider paid the price.

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    1. Yes. Someone was killed years ago at that event doing the exact same thing, and they even warn you that it’s very much not allowed. She was out of control, trying to regain it, and rode into very tall grass at speed, which is incredibly dangerous. There are several concerning things going on there. It was a “red flag” situation for sure.

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  2. Read this older article by Jim Wofford this morning and found it interesting, especially the part about making the questions on XC more tricdy so that they have to be ridden at a show jump pace, and then riders have to press much harder during the rest of the course to make up time. It seems to be directed a bit more toward the upper levels, but I thought some info could be applied to all riders and any levels.

    https://practicalhorsemanmag.com/training/jim-wofford-eventing-lives-balance-29236?fbclid=IwAR3-cZ-8DGMtiYTxZ5Y9u9eVKZOP5s1T9ldiE-0eTm0J8FN-bM5qvAHQTSk

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    1. Yeah, and I agree with a lot of what he says, although there are some inaccuracies as well. Accident and fatality rates have actually gone down. Still though, even one death is still too many when there are clear and obvious things we could be doing to mitigate the risk.

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  3. someone saying that they had a rotational fall in warmup but got back on and ran cross country

    The FACE I just made, oh my God. I was horrified enough to realize that when I was warm up stewarding last month at Pine Hill, someone’d flagged the biggest log to run downhill but everyone was jumping it uphill out of habit. A rotational fall in warmup and they still competed? How is that even allowed??

    Anyway, thank you for all of this. Totally agree 100% with all of it. This is already an inherently risky sport; if there are steps we can take to reduce the risk, we need to take them.

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  4. I think one of the trickiest things about our sport is that it is a partnership with an animal that has no voice. How many times have I thought “that horse is a saint” because he will jump whatever is put in front of him despite the rider on his back not helping. (That rider has been me, and probably all of us, at one point or another). But there comes a time when a horse with heart, a horse who will do whatever is asked of him, just can’t do it. And then something horrible can happen. And more than likely, it’s happening at fences above the Training level, because that’s when shit gets real.
    I often feel bad for the horse who is a machine on cross country. So often, people think a double clear on cross country means they’re ready to move up, despite a less than stellar dressage or stadium round. There is a reason dressage happens before jumping. What you do there has a direct correlation to what you’ll be doing in your jump rounds, and way too many people don’t think about that, or care, and I think it leads to serious problems down the road, as you move up the levels. And to be clear, I am not referring to what place you’re in, or what score you achieve in your dressage test. I’m talking about adjustability, responsiveness, strength. Having a horse that can execute the movements and a rider that understands why they are important.
    I really don’t know a lot about this particular tragedy. I didn’t have it in me to look into it. I’m speaking in much broader terms as to what I think is part of the problem. I agree with what you mentioned in your post as well, and really hope some changes can be made in the sport. I, for one, am all for more regulations before people can move above Training.

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  5. I fully agree with your assessment that yellow cards and warnings need to be used more often. I was jump judging at a horse trial a couple of years ago where a rider was riding around Training at a semi-controlled bolt, just basically aiming her horse at the fence at full speed. It was scary, and we kept mentioning it on the radio. Eventually she was stopped by the TD and eliminated. I hope that sort of thing becomes more prevalent.

    I also think taking qualifications away should be more used. If you’re trying to go Prelim and failing, take a step back. Do some more Trainings, clinics, schooling, and earn back your right to ride at that level.

    This whole situation is sad, but also aggravating. People keep bringing up Formula 1 and Indy car racing. Those are also inherently dangerous, but nobody dies because there are strict security measures in place. We should be doing that too.

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  6. I’d like see a study looking at how many crashes included crank nosebands and martingales since the number and severity of accidents has not improved even with course improvements. Horse’s proprioreception is handled by the hyoid apparatus between their lower jawbones.
    They have to be able to open their mouth and move their jaws and tongue to fine tune their balance. The omni and sternohyoidus muscles that give feedback to the hyoid to run down the side and bottom of their neck. Abrupt pressure from a martingale on their chest and shoulder as they take off would also interfere with their fine-tuning.

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  7. This, all of this. It’s stupid how easily some things could be implemented. I really really want a report on every death available to everyone. If someone dies offshore, you can guarantee there will be a 200 page report that tracks way back in the incident to the “root cause” which is not always apparent to an outside observer. Where is the report?

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  8. As someone really new to the sport, I just don’t even know what to think. I am not infrequently traumatized by watching others bolt around the course and had more than a couple of gasps judging the show jumping ring for a little local event a couple of weeks ago. It’s kind of hard for me to believe that anyone capable of jumping at the upper levels can be so out of control as to create that much danger for themselves and their horse, but news stories just keep coming. The individual tragedy for the families involved and the negative light shed upon horse sports both make me sad. We don’t need another reason to chase away potential newcomers or cause more participants to give up horse sport. But as far as answers, I haven’t a clue and we (horse sport enthusiasts) don’t seem very good at banding together to make industry-wide changes very often.

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  9. PREACH SISTER PREACH
    We have to look at the big picture. It’s not just adding MIMS and Frangible pins to fences, its rider education, MERs (getting them at appropriate, times and Courses) horse’s age, dressage scores, past history of performance for horse and rider, rider safety Equipment, course design etc all need to be looked at. I think to keep riders and their horses safe it is going to take changing many things. Maybe, not big sweeping changes but lots of little tweaks toward the big goal of keeping riders and horses alive and safe.

    As a rider who is starting to ride at these bigger levels,
    I WANT THIS:
    “if you think that either I or my horse is not prepared for what I’m attempting – call me out. I mean, have empathy, do it kindly from a place of caring, not a place of judgment or meanness. Take me aside, don’t be rude about it, but please, say something.”

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    1. And someone should have done just that for a good many of the green-to-the-level riders at the last Burghley, and those riders should have listened. Burghley barely missed more than one serious outcome. Some of the leadership seems to realize that.

      We need a culture change around speaking and listening. And not to be someone who stands aside silently, watching the preventable accident happen.

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  10. Very well said, hit so many important points. This post could be a “list of demands” to get behind for eventing.

    Compared with 15 years ago eventing safety has come a long way, and it took massive pressure and force of will to change certain hidebound mindsets in the senior leadership. And, I’m sorry to say, a spate of tragedies.

    But there is so much further to go to make this sport what it could be in terms of greater safety. It does not have to be like this, there is so much more that can be done.

    This has been a terrible run of deaths. We have to care enough to do better.

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  11. I’m one who would love to see the improvement in safety requirements, ACROSS THE BOARD of equestrian disciplines. The FEI did well setting this example by mandating helmets for dressage, but there’s so much more we can do. Personally, there are many ways I’d rather die than in a horse accident.

    There’s a youth [western] drill riding organization near me, and they do not require helmets. FOR YOUTH, riding at speed, in many different directions, with 40+ people in one arena. Even the AQHA requires youth to wear helmets in most cases. It just baffles me that even at the local level, safety seems to be optional or sub-par in many cases.

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  12. And it goes all the way down to the lowest levels. I was at an unrecognized event last fall going BN. My horse was a total basket case (uncharacteristically). We got an OK dressage score and moved up from 7th to 2nd after having a clean stadium round over fences that were set 2 holes below height. People were having stops and falling off everywhere. Yet the XC had several maxed out fences, some shared with novice, and with very unfriendly approaches (let’s see, do I go down through the dry duck pond and back up, over the mound, or at a steep angle to this maxed out ramped table?) and the people that had all the problems in stadium, including those that fell off and were eliminated, were allowed to go cross country!! (I withdrew because my horse was so distracted that I didn’t feel it was safe.) The culture is pervasive in our sport, and it needs to change, yesterday.

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  13. I hear what you’re saying about NQRs and MERs. Being from a country where the philosophy is to go higher and faster every time, it’s terrifying what riders will tackle without thinking it through. Qualifying standards should be across the board. Proficiency ratings with a minimum level set for a horse, minimum for a rider, and then a minimum for the combination would allow for the flexibility of ULR and young horse or experienced horse with younger/inexperienced rider. Eg 3x clear @ +/- x% optimum time for rider, same for horse, then as a combination has to total at least 3, with an minimum of 1 each for horse/rider/combination to move from lower level to medium, and a 5x / 5x /3x for upper levels? Exemptions for the combination reqs for riders with 10+ completions at 2*+ level to start at intermediate heights with qualified horse maybe?

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  14. Great article. I especially agree with your comments on publishing detailed analysis of the cause of falls on XC. As I’ve said in other posts, I used to do some skydiving, and for *many* years every issue of the Parachutist magazine has published a column of incident reports in which experts present a written analysis of the root cause of every safety incident (not just fatalities, though that is the majority). And the reports are published online and archived at https://uspa.org/Safety-and-Training/Incident-Reports. The reports are recognized by all skydivers as an invaluable safety resource. Of course they’re partly subjective and information is incomplete, but it presents what acknowledged experts in the field have concluded based on the information available. I believe that in eventing similar analyses are performed by USEA or FEI or other governing bodies, but the results are not made public because of privacy concerns. The skydiving world simply accepts that these analyses are published, and that the benefit of getting the information out to participants and potentially saving lives far outweighs the cost of personal privacy! The published analyses do not include names or specific locations, but the skydiving community is small enough that everyone in an area can recognize which reports refer to incidents in their areas, but that’s just the way it is. If you go to that website, you can click on the “Show/Hide Details” link to the right of each item to see what the reports look like. I think there’s no reason that something similar could not be done in eventing!

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  15. Even as a non-eventer I agree with everything you said, including the “disaster fatigue.” That is a such a shame and I hate that it happens. We see in a lot of areas these days. 😦 But more transparency about these fatal accidents would only help! If it causes one person to think, “Yanno, maaaaaybe I’m not quite ready to move up… despite what friends/other riders/trainer says… after all, I’m not a professional and why do I have to risk everything?” Note: That said, I would be curious to know how many deaths have been ammies and how many have been pros or aspiring pros, as the latter certainly have more financial incentive to push too far too fast.

    I haven’t been able to locate any video footage of the latest rider, so not sure where you guys saw it? I didn’t know that you actually weren’t allowed to go off course into tall grass.

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  16. You make so many good points here, and even though I’m not an eventer, I think they all make great sense. I’m all for tradition, but if things can be done more safely, than they should be. Riding is fun but is inherently dangerous. So if we can do any number of things to make it safer, why aren’t we? I think saving lives is worth a few dollars.

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