Eventing accidents: Rider risk and frangible fence safety in spotlight

© Mike Bain

New devices and systems for cross-country fences in eventing are being studied, with a focus on frangible and deformable technologies, as stakeholders work to reduce accidents in the sport.

But are fences that are easier to “break” causing riders to go faster and take more risks while on cross-country?

Discussing course design theory and trends at the FEI’s recent Eventing Risk Management summit, leading international course designers Mike Etherington Smith and Mark Phillips said massive timber had been less used over the years for risk management reasons and the result was softer profiles and athletes going faster over fences with less respect.

© Adam Wynne

“More open corners, open oxers, vertical type of fences and slightly deeper water were recommended to try to get more riding skills into the athletes, starting at the lower levels to educate athletes and horses,” they said.

Earlier in the summit, leading international rider Andrew Nicholson had commented on the training of horses and a “lack of understanding of the basics of cross-country riding“.

Frangible fences were designed to reduce the possibility of a serious fall not compensate for a wrongly designed or sited fence, they said, but it was felt that there was a moral responsibility to use the available frangible mechanisms whenever adequate.

Horses were energy conservative, they always tried to use a little energy possible to get over fences. When a horse made a mistake it was generally due to either standing too far out on takeoff and then hitting the fence, or getting in too deep to the fence, adding an extra stride and hitting the fence, and rotating over the fence.

The equine survival instinct was that when rotating, a horse would try to throw up its back legs to slow the rotation, and move the head down to prepare for a rollover.

Sweden’s national federation representatives Anders Flogard and Lars Christensson said a recommendation was given two years ago to use the MIM system on all uprights, open oxers and open corners, gates. This would be compulsory in 2017 for one-star and upwards.

“From the studies done with MIM as well as the National coaches and Course Designers at events, it was demonstrated that horses came too close to the fence,” they said. To prevent this, ground lines were used for all fences not fitted with a MIM clip.

In Sweden, they said, a system was in place where riders needed to be signed off by their trainer before staring their first 90cm, as well as their first national one-star competition. “The approval of a national coach was necessary before entering an international event. At national events, showjumping was before the cross-country, and riders with more than 16 jumping penalties could not go on to the next phase.

Dr Rob Stevenson, Cardiologist, Equine Canada High Performance Manager, former Olympic Eventing Athlete and National Safety Officer for Canada, also said it was important to concentrate on horse and rider training, and build the safest courses possible. He pointed to research from Israel, which indicated that humans were poor at determining the risk of bad outcomes. “The risk was underestimated by athletes and the main reason was regret for not having tried hard enough, driving athletes to make choices which were not always appropriate.”

New fence system plans and devices were presented at the summit, along with research on eventing falls and injuries.

© Mike Bain

A show jumping wall was being studied in the UK with blocks sliding back into the fence. It was going to be tested by (frangible device maker) MIM in the near future. An air bag fence idea was being studied in Australia.

Other new fence systems outlined included a new table fence was developed in Warendorf developed with Aachen University. At this point the table is quite heavy, and will collapse only when hit on the front. It was easily rebuilt and there were no broken parts. Another version of a table fence was the Haiber, which is built with iron rings, and no ropes on backside rotation bar.

A corner collapsible fence was shown that was built like a show jumping fence, while the Klengel system is built as a classic fence, with a post and pole, a rope was rolled around the pole. When the horse slid over it, the device didn’t break but if the horse hit it on the way up it broke. It was necessary to add another rope to prevent the pole going up.

Another system was tested with a quarter of a log which was removed from the log and built in with small wheels to allow it to slide down.

The use of front pins was discussed, it was felt that the front pins should gradually phased out and reverse pinning and MIM devices should be used.

FEI Technical Delegate and  IT programmer Rob Ramsden explained that a horse jump model was developed to evaluate at what speed the horse needed to come to jump a fence. It it also calculated how many kilojoules were used to get over the fence. A horse jumping was filmed, and it showed that the horses needed more energy to get over fences at slow speed as opposed to a higher speed.

He said speed was very important and needed to be related to the fence type. Ramsden presented, as an example, Ingrid Klimke’s ride in Lühmühlen to demonstrate that the first fence was jumped at 608 meters per minute. “It shows how important it was to have the right fence at the right place and the right speed.”

Delegates to the summit agreed that a global fund needed to be created to promote the use of frangible technology in countries where the technology was not available.

After the introduction of (BS)EN 1384 in 1996, some 15% of all equestrian injuries were to the head and face, a drop from the 33% prior to the standard.
After the introduction of (BS)EN 1384 in 1996, some 15% of all equestrian injuries were to the head and face, a drop from the 33% prior to the standard.

Concussion and horse falls

Delegates to the summit agreed that a world-wide system to track athlete’s concussions was to be found, and a concussion protocol needed to be developed. Information sharing on both rider and horse injuries was recommended, and horses how had fallen should be monitored.

This could be done only by communication between national federations, and in the case of concussion, deny entry. “A system could be implemented to penalise the athletes who competed with a concussion and were discovered after the event.”

Dr Rob Stevenson said that in Canada, a database was created to list the athletes ineligible for competition following a concussion until they were cleared for return to play.

In Britain, a safety helmet bounty system was implemented to test the hats of riders who fell at a horse trials or racing event, where a doctor diagnosed a concussion. The helmet is sent off to BETA (British Equestrian Trade Association), and in exchange the rider receivei a £100 voucher to buy a new helmet. The helmets are being analysed as part of a European funded PhD project at University College Dublin looking into the type of fall and how that relates to the damage the helmet sustained and how the rider was affected.

It was noted that communication and education was needed on the initial effects and long-term effects of a concussion.



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