Eventing safety: A walk on the Wilde side

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mustangMany years ago, I spent a good deal of my time writing about motoring before my wife explained the error of my ways. I changed “horsepower” and the rest, as they say, is history.

Back then, I wrote a great deal about cars, the people who drove them, safety, and the road toll.

I used to have firm views on road safety and the toll, believing the answer lay squarely in building better roads, tougher enforcement, and more driver education.

And then one day I caught a news report about the work of Gerald Wilde, an emeritus professor of psychology from Canada’s Queen’s University. I telephoned Wilde and spent 90 minutes interviewing him about his hypothesis, called risk homeostasis.

A pin and blocks on a fence at Badminton.
A frangible pin and blocks on a fence at Badminton.

It changed my thinking entirely on road safety and accidents, quite simply because it all adds up – and I believe his theory has some very real relevance when it comes to tackling eventing safety.

Delegates to last week’s FEI General Assembly in Puerto Rico were given the findings of former Ascot Racecourse director Charles Barnett’s audit of horse falls in Eventing.

His analysis drilled down into different kinds of fences and looked for patterns, which revealed that some fence configurations were riskier than others. Other factors were also at play, including the age of the horse, the level of competition, and rider ability.

The audit covered four and half years of data, covering 2,184,489 jumping efforts across one-star to four-star events, with the number of horse falls totalling 1180.

What fascinated me was the finding in respect of frangible pins. Falls at jumps with frangible pins were found to be about 1.6 times more likely than at jumps without frangible pins. This was independent of all other factors.

So, what is happening here? Do course designers know which jumps are riskier, and feel the need to fit frangible pins? Or, do riders, realising that a particular jump has frangible pins, feel they can tackle it more aggressively because it is “safer”.

And therein lies the nub of what Gerald Wilde is saying: Risk perception is a crucial element.

Eventing could take home some valuable lessons from what he has to say. The answer may not necessarily lie in “safer” fences, technically easier obstacles, or more frangible pins.

Wilde has heard everything conceivable idea for improving road safety: Safer roads, tighter enforcement, harsher penalties, better education, tougher driving tests, raising the driving the age, even legislating younger drivers out of more powerful cars.

He believes most measures normally used to bring down the road toll have limited effect.

Wilde argues in his book, Target Risk, that all of us are willing to accept a level of risk in our driving – indeed, in many of the things we do (and that includes horse riding and eventing).

Action of the reverse pinned rail.
Action of the reverse pinned rail. © British Eventing

Behind the wheel, we continually adjust our driving depending on how we see the risk, allowing for weather, traffic, the risk of a ticket, changing road conditions, or the importance of getting to a destination in time. Most people are not even consciously aware of it, he says.

Wilde’s theory explains what happened in the late 1960s when Sweden and Iceland changed from driving on the left to the right. Carnage was predicted, but the accident rate dropped immediately. Sweden’s toll was down 17% in the first year, but had returned to normal two years later. Iceland likewise dipped but returned to normal after 10 weeks.

He believes the toll fell initially because drivers over-estimated the changeover risk and became unusually cautious. Once they assessed the risk was not as bad as first thought, they adjusted their driving accordingly and the toll rose.

What about young driver training? Wilde points to research where young drivers who undertook more comprehensive training actually had more crashes than those who had more standard driver driving. “Most likely, the difference was due to overconfidence inspired by having had the privilege of ‘superior’ instruction,” Wilde suggests.

Airbags may improve crash safety, but not the accident rate. A Virginia study found airbag-equipped cars tended to be driven more aggressively.

And young drivers? Wilde says risk-taking behaviour peaks in young men when their testosterone levels rise from puberty.

“Experience must be bought,” he told me. “Accidents are part of the price. Nobody can expect to be able to learn to play the violin and perform a piece at the required tempo without making many mistakes in the learning process. There is no royal road to learning.”

So what makes people accept less risk? From a driving viewpoint, he believes incentives for accident-free performance may be the only hope, perhaps with cheaper insurance or lower registration costs for staying collison free.

"Overall, we found enormous potential for reducing horse-related risk through the risk management strategy of mitigation," the researchers said. © Mike Bain
© Mike Bain

Wilde argues the traditional “Triple E” approach towards safety – engineering, education and enforcement – has failed to fulfill its promise internationally, and what he then says could equally apply to eventing: “Engineering can provide an improved opportunity to be safe and education can enhance the ability to be safe, but neither necessarily increases the desire to be safe.”

So, how could all this apply to eventing? Firstly, a demanding cross-country course may not necessarily be riskier, if it convinces riders to slow down and take care. Conversely, a less demanding course has the potential to be riskier if riders feel they can go faster and push the envelope more. And innovations such as air jackets may not necessarily improve the situation if riders feel they can take more risks because they have the latest safety gear.

There is no disputing that everything possible must be done to minimise the risk of falls – and rotational falls in particular – but it is not just a simple matter of building “safer” fences, in my view.

It is, after all, a cross-country course and, by its nature, the fences must vary to some degree in difficulty.

I’m strongly of the view that a major factor in eventing accidents is each rider’s perception of the risk. What does taking a fence too fast or attacking it from the wrong angle actually mean? Is it simply an error, perhaps fueled by inexperience? Or has the rider misjudged the risk, leading to a fall?

I’ve had an interesting email exchange with a former eventer, Ireland’s John Watson, on the issue. The views of Watson, a former member of the Irish Eventing Team and World and European Championships medalist, are well worth sharing.

He suggests it is probably impractical to rate every fence and try for any form of equalisation, given different horse types and unpredictable factors such as the weather.

“It is also a crucial part of the test that a rider can ‘read’ a track to adjust for the varying intensity. You need let-ups and breathers,” he says.

“We in eventing are getting better at anticipating the ‘law of unintended consequences’, based largely on a better understanding of the psychology that the competitive nature of riders means if you introduce any form of leveling rule or mechanism, they will do whatever they have to do to get themselves back to having an edge over their rivals.

“Plus, wherever there is an ‘edge’ someone is always going to push over it – a natural consequences of getting as close to it, or wanting to live on it, as possible.

frangible-deformable“Reduce the risk and the fear factors, and they simply go faster until they get it back up to their personal tolerance levels and needs. Road traffic science regarding improvement schemes are way ahead of us on that score.”

Watson said he liked the idea presented in Barnett’s audit that fence judges wear head cameras.

“Seriously, if rugby can put ‘telemetry’ on players – the ‘cigarette packets’ seen between the shoulder-blades under the jerseys during the recent World Cup – we can put it on riders.

“But a head-cam on a fence judge is the most likely way to capture a reliable and consistent view of every competitor over every fence. We would learn a hell of a lot.”

Watson opines: “We focus too much on the score and forget that the real purpose is to place the field in an order of merit.

“That’s why it’s actually bizarre and desperately unfair when a cross-country course fails to differentiate sufficiently for each and every rider, as for when, say, 20 percent or more get the same (zero) score.

“How silly would we think it is if the dressage marks put the field into ‘blocks’ … the first ten get the same mark, then the next ten get five more penalties, etc.”

He worries about “some bright spark of a marketeer demanding that we ‘sex up’ the Olympic format for eventing”.

“They have missed the point that it had taken generations of trial and error even to get to this stage.

“If you have something great which the multitudes don’t understand, its always better – even if harder – in the long run to educate the multitudes than dumb down the good thing … except in politics, of course!”

Well said, John.

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