Researchers in Britain who undertook the first study of horse falls in Eventing in more than 20 years hope the FEI will use the findings to introduce evidence-based rules for the discipline, which they say will improve safety without compromising competitiveness.
The University of Bristol academics say they have identified simple interventions to reduce the risk of injury for both horses and riders.
Their study, reported in the Equine Veterinary Journal, pinpoints characteristics associated with an increased risk of Eventing falls, such as higher-level competitions, longer courses, more starters at cross-country phase, and less experienced horses and riders.
Identifying these risk factors allows riders and event organisers to assess the level of risk for individual horse, rider and event combinations.
The FEI-funded study recommends simple mitigations such as adjusting minimum eligibility requirements to ensure horses and riders always compete at a level appropriate to their ability.
The study, led by Bristol Veterinary School’s Dr Euan Bennet and Professor Tim Parkin, with Dr Heather Cameron-Whytock of Nottingham Trent University, is the first large-scale study using a global data set of every FEI eventing competition over an 11-year period.
This data included every horse start worldwide in all international, championship, Olympics and World Equestrian Games competitions between January 2008 and December 2018. This amounted to more than 200,000 horse starts, allowing researchers to specifically analyse the cross-country phase and identify any common factors.
Of 202,771 horse starts during this period, 187,602 started the cross-country phase. Of these, 1.5 percent recorded a fallen horse and 3.5 percent had an unseated rider.
At least 50 riders and 109 horses have died since 2000 across all levels of competition worldwide.
“Eventing is an exciting equestrian sport,” Bennet says, “but horses and riders sometimes get injured during competitions. Occasionally they are very seriously injured, even fatally.
“We have gained a detailed understanding of the risk factors that make horses more likely to fall, so that we can provide actionable advice to governing bodies on how to reduce the number of horse falls, and therefore injuries and fatalities among horses and riders.
“This data is about probabilities and we would never say don’t ride because you’re going to have a fall, but we might say what we can see is according to your risk profile you’re in the top 5% at risk of a fall.”
The study identified the following factors as contributing to fall risk:
- Horses competing at higher levels;
- Horses competing over longer cross-country course distances;
- A higher number of starters at the cross-country phase;
- Mares were at increased odds compared with geldings;
- Horses whose previous start was longer than 60 days ago;
- Horses who had previously made fewer starts at the level of their current event;
- At the human athlete level, male athletes were at increased odds of experiencing a fall, compared with female athletes;
- Younger athletes were at increased odds compared with older athletes;
- Less experienced athletes were more likely to fall than their more experienced counterparts;
- Athletes whose previous start was more than 30 days ago were at increased odds compared with athletes who last started within 30 days;
- Athletes who did not finish their previous event, for any reason, were at increased odds compared with those who successfully finished their previous event; and
- Horse-athlete combinations who recorded a score in the dressage phase that was higher than 50 (that is, a poor performance) were at increased odds of falling during the cross-country phase compared with combinations who recorded a dressage score of 50 or less.
The authors said the risk factors for falls were modifiable through regulatory changes, providing the rationale for adjusting minimum eligibility requirements (MERs) in competitions. Qualification up through national and international competition levels requires a certain number of MERs to be earned at each stage of progression.
“There is scope within this system to alter either the number of MERs required at each level, or to alter the performance level required to earn an MER — or indeed some combination of the two, with variation from level to level.
“Furthermore, these results could be used to build a scientific, statistically validated risk profile for each horse which could inform athletes, trainers and governing bodies and contribute to data-driven decisions about whether individual horses or combinations are ready to step up to the next level of competition without exposing themselves or their horse to unnecessary risk.”
They noted that data-driven rule changes have already been implemented for Endurance, and there is no reason to believe the same approach could not be used for Eventing. “However, this type of work should not only be aimed at influencing regulation,” the researchers said.
Significant reductions in risk could be achieved by improved knowledge exchange, ensuring athletes are aware of how the history of their horse — that is, their risk profile — contributes to the likelihood of a mishap such as a fall or 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.”
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 study can be read here.