Researchers behind a major study exploring Eventing falls suggest that a potential risk profile can be constructed for each horse-rider combination ahead of any given FEI-level competition.
The findings could pave the wave to evidence-driven decisions on whether horses, riders, or particular combinations are allowed to rise or fall in competition level based on their calculated risk of a mishap.
These risk profiles, based on the individual histories of the horse and rider, and course-related factors, could also warn of an increased risk for a horse or rider should they turn out for their next event.
The study by University of Bristol researchers Euan Bennet and Tim Parkin, together with Heather Cameron-Whytock from Nottingham Trent University, is believed to be the first major investigation of risk factors for horse falls during the cross-country of Eventing since studies published in 2005/06, all of which used data from the 2000/01 season.
The trio, reporting in the Equine Veterinary Journal, has described the first large-scale study of risk factors for Eventing falls, with the researchers having access to the entire FEI database from 2008 to 2018.
Falls during the cross-country phase can have serious, even fatal, consequences for both the horse and rider. Understanding fall-related risk factors is therefore essential for improving horse and rider welfare.
The researchers noted that most of the focus on Eventing safety has been on the cross-country, in particular falls at obstacles.
A major safety review was launched after five high-profile rider deaths in Britain in 1999. The following year the International Eventing Safety Committee delivered its findings, concluding that the primary safety focus should be to “prevent horses from falling”.
Since then, there have been many rule revisions and developments within the discipline. However, there have also been at least 50 rider deaths and at least 109 horse fatalities worldwide at all levels of Eventing.
“In the intervening years to today, there have only been a handful of academic studies published that attempted to quantify the risk factors associated with falls during cross-country,” the study team noted. All were published before 2009 and based on 20-year-old data from the 2001/02 season.
The trio analysed the data collected by the FEI on every start by an Eventng horse worldwide in all international, championship, Olympic, and World Equestrian Games competitions from January 2008 to December 2018. In all, they examined 187,602 cross-country starts. Of these, 2894 (1.5%) had a horse fall recorded, and 6557 (3.5%) had an unseated rider recorded.
The median number of jumping efforts per cross-country course was 30. The average number of horse falls per 10,000 jumping efforts was 5.1. The average number of unseated riders per 10,000 jumping efforts was 11.7.
The researchers used modelling to identify risk factors for falls related to the horse, the athlete, and the course.
They found that horses competing at higher levels were at increased odds of a fall when compared to those entered in 1* events. Horses competing over longer cross-country distances were also more likely to fall.
A higher number of starters at the cross-country phase was also linked to an increased risk of a horse fall.
Mares were at greater risk of falling compared to geldings, while the odds of a stallion falling were similar to those of geldings.
Horses whose last start had been more than 60 days ago were at reduced odds of falling compared to those whose last start was more recent.
Horses with a previous fall in FEI events were at increased risk of falling again when compared to horses that had never previously fallen.
Turning to the riders involved in horse falls, males were at greater risk than females. Older riders had a lower risk of falling, as did those with more Eventing experience.
Turning to incidents in which riders were unseated but the horse did not fall, there were fewer falls when the cross-country leg was the final phase, rather than the middle phase.
Longer courses and a higher number of starters in the cross-country also increased the risk of a rider tumbling.
The experience of the mount was also a factor. Each additional previous career start by the horse reduced the risk of an unseated rider, the researchers found.
The timing of the number of starts by the horse in the preceding half-year also increased the chances of a rider taking a tumble, with each additional start in that time-frame edging up the risk.
Each horse fall, and each tumble by a rider, increased the chances of its happening again.
The age of the horse also had a bearing. Those whose FEI Eventing careers began when they were aged over six were at increased odds of unseating the rider.
Male athletes were less likely to be unseated than females, and more experienced riders were more likely to stay in the saddle.
The researchers also found risk factors related to the horse-rider combination. Those with a high score in the dressage had a greater chance of being unseated during the cross-country.
Each additional career start as a specific combination increased the risk of the rider falling. However, if they continued to compete at the same level, the odds of a rider tumble were reduced.
Discussing their findings, the researchers said it is important that athletes and coaches recognise the potential ceiling of ability of a horse or combination. The data, they said, could potentially be used to indicate when a horse or combination has reached their optimal level of competition.
They said it is clear that appropriate management of individuals’ competition schedules is a key component of minimising risk. “Horses with more starts in the recent past could end up being overworked and tired, and more likely to make a mistake, refuse at a fence or otherwise unseat their rider.
“Horses could also be experiencing sub-clinical injury which may affect their performance.”
The authors acknowledged there were limitations to their study. The data covered only FEI competitions, not national federation events. Nor did the analysed information include any prior veterinary information or data on training or schooling.
The identified risk factors could be modifiable through regulatory changes, they said. For example, there could be evidence-based rules around the progression of horses and athletes to higher competition levels — and potentially demotion.
The results, they said, could be used to build a scientific, validated risk profile for each horse which could help athletes, trainers, and governing bodies decide whether individual horses or combinations are ready for the next level of competition without exposing themselves or their horse to unnecessary risk.
The authors noted that data-driven rule changes have already been implemented for Endurance. “There is no reason to believe the same approach could not be used for Eventing.”
Significant risk reductions could be achieved by ensuring athletes are aware of how the history of their horse — that is, their risk profile — contributes to the likelihood of a horse fall or an unseated rider.
“This work presents a real opportunity to better inform or direct athletes to their appropriate level of competition using an evidence-based approach, driven by appropriate use of risk profiling analytics.”
Bennet told Horsetalk: “We are excited to share the results of what we believe to be the first-ever large-scale, peer-reviewed study investigating falls during Eventing.
“We are continuing this work by looking at how fence and course design can better prioritise horse and rider safety without compromising on challenge or competitiveness.
“We have also begun a third study which will investigate factors for success in Eventing, and will aim to provide an evidence-based and validated model for determining when horses and riders are in the best position to progress to the next level.”
Parkin is professor of veterinary epidemiology and head of the University of Bristol Veterinary School, while Bennet is a senior postdoctoral research associate at the school. Cameron-Whytock is a senior lecturer for the equine courses at Nottingham Trent University, leading the Anatomy and Physiology, Applied Exercise Physiology and Dissertation modules.
Fédération Equestre Internationale (FEI) eventing: Risk factors for horse falls and unseated riders during the cross-country phase (2008-2018)
E. D. Bennet, H. Cameron-Whytock, T.D.H. Parkin, 04 October 2021 https://doi.org/10.1111/evj.13522
The abstract of the study can be read here.