Downed rails in showjumping are not random faults, researchers find

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Riders who had completed more starts in previous competitions accumulated fewer faults in first rounds and jump-offs.
Image by Trine Melinda Vollan

Faults in showjumping are not randomly distributed, researchers have found, with performance success dependent on different factors according to the type of round.

Researchers Klára Ničová and Jitka Bartošová, with the Institute of Animal Science at the Czech University of Life Sciences in Prague, sought to identify factors that influenced showjumping performance during top-level competitions in the CSI5* Western European League.

The performance data of 144 riders and 222 horses from 2017/2018 were obtained from video records of relevant events.

Horse-and-rider combinations in the study achieved a total of 9114 jumping efforts over 320 obstacles, including 142 oxers, 15 oxers with water, six triple bars, 136 verticals, 14 verticals with water, and seven walls.

Obstacles in the first round or in jump-offs were standing either as singles (6290) or as a combination of two or three fences in a row (2824).

The pair, reporting in the open-access journal PLOS ONE, found that the overall fault rate was 7.85% across the 9114 jumps at heights ranging from 1.4m to 1.6m. This included refusals or run-outs, as well as dropping rails.

The probability of a fault increased with the rank of the fence in the course during the first round.

The highest probability of a fault in the first round was found on vertical obstacles with water, while the lowest was on triple bars and walls.

The probability of faults in jump-off rounds decreased with a higher speed, but there was no significant correlation between the speed in jump-offs and first rounds in individual horses.

More faults were found on fences within combinations in both first rounds and jump-offs.

The highest probability of faults was found on the first fence or second fence of double combinations compared to the least probability of faults on single obstacles.

Variables such as the age of the horse and rider, breed, the sex of the horse or gender of the rider, horse experience or direction of approach to the obstacle did not affect the performance and success of the horse-rider pairs in first rounds or jump-offs.

“The results of the study show that faults in the first round and jump-off of elite showjumping competitions were not randomly distributed,” they said, in discussing their findings. “They were driven by different factors in each of the two rounds of a showjumping competition.

“Factors of general influence were the experience of the rider and whether the fence was a single obstacle or part of the combination.” In both first rounds as well as jump-offs, more faults were found on fences within combinations than on single obstacles, especially on the first fence of the combination.

The obstacle type was relevant only in the first round, they noted.

Riders who had completed more starts in previous competitions accumulated fewer faults in first rounds and jump-offs.

“Riders’ experience could be associated with a better estimation of jump effort and easier adaption to various courses of competitions, as well as with a better-balanced position during the jump compared to the less experienced riders.”

Further studies focused on the effect of the rider’s experience on showjumping performance are needed to better understand the development of the skills of the rider, they said.

In their study, later fences in a course increased the probability of a fault in the first round.

The likelihood of a fault also tended to increase in the jump-offs, which corresponds to the results of previous research showing a knocked-down fence was 2.8 times more likely during the second half of the course during the second round of European FEI Nations Cup competitions.

On the other hand, in regional competitions, the 3rd and 4th fences within the course elicited the most knock-downs and run-outs while the 1st, 10th and other later fences caused the least faults.

“These findings,” they said, “may reflect the aim of the course builders to put easier and more comfortable jumps at the end of the lower level competition courses to motivate horses to perform further.”

The researchers noted that vertical obstacles with water trays are often reported as being the most susceptible to faults. “The water element was still challenging even for the top sport horses in our study, either when accompanying vertical obstacles or oxers.

“Various reasons could cause the increase in faults on the obstacles with water trays,” they said, “such as the fear elicited by the shadow of water, complicated jump estimation, the obstacle’s contrast with the surface of the arena, or the colour of fences.”

A crucial question among trainers and riders has been, what type of obstacle is the most difficult for horses? Vertical obstacles generally seem to be the most prone to failure on a regional level, in the European FEI Nations Cup, and in the current study.

However, the most common run-outs were on the walls.

Among studies, failure differs on jumps over single or combined obstacles. In the current study, the researchers found that the most faults appeared on the first fence within the double combination, while the easiest was a single obstacle.

The pair found no link between overall speed and the probability to make a fault in the first round. That said, the probability of faults decreased with increasing speed in the jump-offs. Horses ran, on average, one metre per second faster in jump-offs compared to the first rounds.

“Thus, high speed thus likely did not compromise precise jump estimation, and/or even enabled bigger jumps in the decisive phase of the competition.”

In jump-offs, mares ran slightly faster than geldings and stallions.

The authors said their findings may encourage riders and trainers to focus on more complicated jumps during training. “The results can also help the course designers create competitions of varying difficulties.”

Ničová K, Bartošová J (2022) Still beyond a chance: Distribution of faults in elite show-jumping horses. PLoS ONE 17(3): e0264615. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0264615

The study, published under a Creative Commons License, can be read here

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