Emily Lahore takes a tumble in the water at the Bramham International Horse Trials last weekend. © Jan Milne

June 11, 2008

"Our sport is in trouble." The words from United States Equestrian Federation (USEF) chief executive David Long succinctly explained why more than 250 people gathered at the weekend in Lexington, Kentucky, for an eventing safety forum.

The aim of the public meeting, which included fans, riders, parents, coaches, trainers, veterinarians and course designers, was to discuss steps to improve the safety of the sport for both horse and rider.

The level of fatal and serious accidents in eventing is unnacceptably high and threatens to erode public support and rider participation.

"By showing up here we're collectively acknowledging that things need to change," Long told the gathering.

Equestrian Federation president David O'Connor said: "We can improve safety by doing one thing, reducing horse falls, whether rotational or not.

But he continued: "There is an assumed risk in our sport. We can't stop people falling off all the time."

He said the sport needed to understand why it was getting horses in a position where they couldn't deal with what's in front of them.

US Eventing Association (USEA) president Kevin Baumgardner said: "There are nearly 14,000 USEA members, and we all need to become evangelists for safety."

The summit was broken into four topics: course design, veterinary/medical, qualifications and education.

Discussions covered the following:

Frangible Pins

Frangible pins work with certain types of construction which means they have a limited application. For example, they cannot be used with a log that weighs more than 600 pounds.

The pin breaks and takes away the rotational point as the horse is already falling.

US Eventing Team Chef d' Equipe Captain Mark Phillips said the technology works best for jumps at the preliminary level and above.

Jumps are said to be easy to rebuild once the pin has been activated, and it takes just half an hour to retrofit an existing fence that is appropriate for frangible pins.

One concern from the audience was that riders would ride harder and faster at a fence that they knew would break away just as some currently do with deformable fences such as brush jumps.

The USEA and USEF committed to supporing further research into different types of frangible/deformable technology, and also to fully subsidise the cost of pins for all members who request.

Speed

The audience had much to say when it came to speed. Some discussed the idea of taking away watches from competitors at lower levels.

"The watch isn't the issue," said four-star rider Dorothy Crowell. "We need to teach people how to ride at speed and how to transition at speed. If they need to make up for speed it should be used riding away from a fence, not going into a fence."

The audience spoke about misapplication of speed; riders need to know what is appropriate to do at any given fence at their level. Speed, or the lack thereof, was a hot topic that won't be solved immediately, but one of the suggestions was attaching time penalties at all levels for people who come in well under the time.

"Anyone who comes in 20 seconds under optimum time at Rolex Kentucky is going too fast," said Jane Atkinson, EEI executive vice president.

One solution proposed was for ground juries to adjust speed based on types of courses, weather and other factors. Another suggestion was that if no-one makes the optimum time at an event using the fastest time of the division, to re-set the optimum time would reward riders for safe riding.

Technicality of Courses

The technical difficulty of courses was a hot topic. Dorothy Crowell started by saying she had a unique view because she is back competing at the CCI**** level after 10 years off.

"What's really different are all the courses that lead up to this point," Crowell said. "Beginner novice and up are dramatically different. It doesn't encourage a horse and rider to go out and have a good time."

Many felt the courses today are becoming too technical too quickly and riders are rushing through the levels.

"We want to make sure we're designing horses at the training level that horses can cope with," said Sally O'Connor, FEI steward.

There was broad agreement that horses and riders need lower level courses to be educational, not "mini-Rolexes."

The suggestion was made that the USEA course advisers programme be expanded to include training level and perhaps other lower level courses, to ensure that this goal is reached.

It was a common sentiment that horses need to spend some time learning their job and learning all the pieces of the puzzle before they are asked them to put that together on course.

Many felt that there should be no shame in some courses being "move-up" courses.

"A lower level course should be like a nice canter in the country," said Mark Phillips.

Crowell said she liked to see riders coming in with a smile on their faces at these levels and that speed, balance, and turning should not be asked for all at once but used as building blocks.

Solutions brought up included having the rider representative walk the course when the ground jury walks it, course advisers visiting and advising more at the lower levels and working to close the gap between training and preliminary levels.

Qualifications and Education

The discussion of qualifications kicked off with Olympic rider Robert Costello, Olympic gold medalist Leslie Law and international eventer, organizer, and engineer John Staples acting as discussion framers.

Sub-topics addressed included whether or not to have qualifications at every level, ages of riders, inconsistency with the FEI qualifications, loss of qualifications as a result of a fall, competency, and professional versus amateur.

The topic of qualifications quickly became intertwined with education. Many in the audience felt it was most important that riders chase education and not qualifications, regardless of the level.

"I don't want achieving objective qualifications to promote blissful ignorance," said Young Rider Sarah MacHarg.

"We need qualifications to reflect horsemanship. Once that is in place, we will be chasing education instead of scores."

The group discussed the pressures felt by today's competitors from parents, coaches, owners and trainers. "There are all sorts of factors going on here that don't make this a straight line graph, and we have to be honest about that," said Phillips.

Some possible suggestions going forward included putting a system in place that backed the trainers when they make the decision that a horse and rider are not ready to move up.

The group also discussed a rider licensing program and a rating system where riders like Law can move a horse up the levels more quickly than someone who has never done that before.

"If you're good enough; you're old enough." That was Phillips' response to the question of ages of riders. He mentioned that many young riders he has seen in this country have been riding safely at the higher levels.

Olympic and double World Champion Bruce Davidson agreed that age was irrelevant "if you're educated, experienced and properly mounted", commenting further that self-confidence in ourselves and our horses is what gets us around.

Some in the audience felt that many young people these days need to put in more time to gain more experience, and that's what is necessary to participate in the sport.

Instructor Certification and Licensing

Instructor certification and licensing was discussed. "Coaches ought to be licensed in this country, and that will go a long way to improving safety in the sport," said Phillips.

The discussion of competency and loss of qualifications as a result of a fall went hand-in-hand.

"There are lots of layers to this," said Olympic rider Darren Chiacchia, himself the victim of a recent life-threatening fall at a jump. "Don't think there's one answer; there are many answers. Sometimes in life there are things called accidents."

Watch List

The group discussed instituting a system where if a specific combination of horse and rider have a certain number of falls they must move down a level.

Another possible solution came from Phillips and Baumgardner regarding a watch list that the British system uses. Riders on the watch list will be personally contacted by a top coach and given advice on how to improve their riding and increase their education, and if subsequent improvement is shown, they may be removed from the watch list.

Additionally, officials at events will be made aware of riders on the watch list competing that weekend. There was a broad consensus to move forward with the watch list concept, with implementation including USEA Area level as well as national involvement.

Cultural Shift

The point was repeatedly made that a "cultural shift" needed to occur in thinking. If someone makes a responsible decision to pull up and retire when they're having a bad day, then that needs to be viewed as a positive action. There is no shame in pulling up if you're having a bad day, it's a responsible decision to make.

Riders should not feel pressure from parents to move quickly up the levels, simply because their parents' bought them an expensive horse. Rather, they should concentrate on perfecting their dressage or show jumping or simply becoming more well-rounded horsemen.

"It's not about completions but competency," said O'Connor. One of the possible solutions he mentioned, and the audience showed interest in, was a system of having yellow and red flags - red to pull someone up for dangerous riding, and yellow to give them an indication that their riding is dangerous and needs to change or they will be stopped.

Equestrian sports are unique in many ways, but the fact that amateurs can compete against professionals on any given weekend makes it extraordinary. The number of falls per starts does increase as you move up the levels, and that is something that will be studied more closely in the future to get all of those numbers down.

Education

Education was the final topic of the summit.

Baumgardner said the Instructor's Certification Programme (ICP) is the flagship programme for the USEA and has by far been the most successful in terms of scope.

There are currently just over 135 certified instructors and five are from the sport's Mexican partners, and the goal/commitment that came out of the summit was 500 in the next two years.

Rider licensing met with mixed results. Some felt it was more appropriate for preliminary levels and above; some felt it should start at the top and work its way down, if even at all.

USEA vice-president of competitions, Malcolm Hook, commented that roughly 5-10% of the riders represent those that need to be licensed, and this is obviously based on the data the USEA collects.

Creating a point system was another alternative to rider licensing. Points accumulated would allow a horse and rider combination to move up through the levels, with possible "negative points" for eliminations, horse falls, etc.

"Why don't we think about rewarding the picture we want to see," said Phillips. He mentioned an idea he had seen used in the United Kingdom where a judge would judge a select few fences and give extra points to whatever rider he/she felt rode those fences best.

He raised the concept of a technical merit award to promote responsible riding.

The responsibility of officials was mentioned as an important part of education. Officials need to take responsibility for what is going on out on a course, but more eyes are nmeede. Ground juries need to listen to concerns that rider representatives bring forward.

Data Collection

Data collection, consistency, analysis and transparency was an important focus. First, accident record-keeping and timeliness of accident reports was discussed.

Detailed records can help provide data that can be analysed to reduce accidents in the future. However, privacy laws currently get in the way of releasing some of that information.

This is an issue that the USEA and USEF are currently working on as other sports have managed to justify the importance of accident reports. The point was also made that each national federation has a national safety officer.

Detailed veterinary data collection was also discussed. That is the subject of a study currently being outlined by a veterinary panel.

The discussion of rider responsibility began with many defining what they felt rider responsibility meant. Most everyone agreed this meant putting the needs of the horse above all else. Riders need to be held accountable and understand what their mistake was and why they made it.

Achieving the goal

The USEA and USEF committed to preserve the sport without intrinsically changing the nature and history of it, while at the same time recognising the need for a significant culture change.

Many top riders of today and of the past prepared themselves for the sport through experience - experience riding race horses, experience doing steeplechase, experience foxhunting.

These experiences are no longer readily available, and today's up-and-coming riders will have to replace experience with education.

"This sport will continue, and it will continue as the sport we know," said Baumgardner. "We have much work ahead, but we are up to the challenge and we'll keep everyone informed as we move forward."