Cross-country eventing risks laid bare in latest research

Researchers say findings should spark discussions around whether safety could be a higher priority in course design.
File image. © Steph Freeman

The riskiest cross-country fence types in top-level eventing have been identified by researchers, who suggest the most challenging obstacles should be placed near the start of courses.

Cross-country falls in eventing can be particularly hazardous, resulting in serious or fatal injuries for the horse and rider. The nature of cross-country courses, including fence design, are crucial in the safety equation for the discipline.

Euan Bennet and his fellow researchers, in a study to be published in the Equine Veterinary Journal, said rotational falls are of particular concern.

“Despite the sport’s long history, it was not until 1999 that safety in eventing achieved global attention, when five athlete fatalities in the United Kingdom that year prompted major reviews of safety,” they said.

The International Eventing Safety Committee, in a report the following year, concluded that “everything should be done to prevent horses falling”.

Since then, studies to identify risk factors have focussed mostly on course-level aspects of the cross-country, as well as behavioural factors around the horse and rider.

Bennet and his colleagues noted that rule changes have been implemented over the last 20 years around course design, fence composition and competition format. However, to date, no studies have examined the impact of the changes, such as the introduction of frangible fences, which are designed to break or deform to help prevent rotational falls.

In their study, Bennet, Heather Cameron-Whytock and Tim Parkin, all prominent researchers in eventing safety, set out to identify fence-level risk factors for horses competing in top-level eventing competitions worldwide.

They analysed records in the FEI’s Global Eventing Database for the 11 years from January 2008 to December 2018, covering every horse start in all FEI-affiliated international, championship, Olympic and World Equestrian Games eventing competitions.

The trio described the database as substantial and multifaceted, with details on each competition, along with information on the fences, horses, riders and falls. “A detailed fall report form is completed for every fall, so that the circumstances of the fall are recorded as part of the FEI database,” they said.

At a fence level, there were 204,399 unique fences used in 6450 unique FEI competitions during the time period, representing about 6,100,000 individual jumping efforts.

Of 202,771 eventing starts during the study period, 190,429 horses set off in the cross-country phase. Of these, 10,519 had a fall recorded, representing 5.2%. Of these falls, 89% occurred at a cross-country fence.

Some fences are designed to be challenging for horses and riders, and this was reflected in the likelihood of falls occurring at certain fence types, such as those stepping down into water.
File image. © Mike Bain

The researchers identified 10 fence types that increased the chances of a fall occurring compared to conventional square spread fences – the most common type of cross-country eventing obstacle. Seven fence types reduced the chances of a fall.

Fences with an approach downhill, or involving a landing in water, or those fitted with frangible devices, as well as the later elements in combined obstacles, were all associated with an increased risk of falls occurring.

Why would frangible obstacles carry a greater risk?

“Fences that are frangible rather than solid are perhaps more likely to be misjudged as the athlete thinks they ‘can get away with’ clipping it and may approach the fence with less caution,” the study team suggested.

“It could also be that course designers intentionally build more challenging fences when they know they will be including a frangible device.”

The later fences on a course were also linked with increased odds of a fall. “It is recommended that the most challenging fences are placed near the beginning of the course, and not in downhill or water settings,” they concluded. In addition, the complexity of individual elements in combined fences should be reduced.

At an event level, the chances of a fence-related fall were lower in the last three years of the study dataset, compared to the first eight years. This, they said, could be related to rule changes, such as adjustments to the eventing format and course design, including fence design, or changes to minimum eligibility requirements for qualification.

Fences in events at 3* or 4* level were more likely to be associated with a fall than fences in 1* and 2* events.

“Event levels at 3* and 4* must naturally include longer courses with more fences, and more challenging obstacles,” they said. “Therefore, it should perhaps be expected that fences in those events are more likely to have falls occur at them compared to fences in 1* and 2* events, even accounting for the fact that better quality horses/combinations are competing at the higher levels.”

An increase in the number of cross-country starters was also linked to a greater chance of falling, which they said could be related to deteriorating footing from the greater number of horses on the course.

Discussing their findings, the authors noted that some fences are designed to be very challenging for horses and riders, and this was reflected in the likelihood of falls occurring at certain fence types, such as those stepping down into water.

Bennet and his colleagues said the headline FEI statistics on falls, together with the results of this and other research, indicate that it is difficult to conclude that some aspects of eventing cross-country course design have become safer – at least in terms of reducing falls – since the International Eventing Safety Committee reported its findings in 2000.

Indeed, the current study has identified some of the same risk factors, including the competition level, certain fence types, downhill landings, water jumps, and frangible fences.

The latest results, they said, are a first step towards building a risk profile or score for each cross-country course in order to grade them. This would help inform athletes about the expected course difficulty. It would, they said, be a useful next step, with the potential to reduce the risk of serious injury.

“Course risk profiles can be used to support the development of horses and riders, and be included in qualification criteria to progress to higher event levels.”

The results should also spark a discussion around whether safety could be a higher priority in course design.

“It would not be desirable to look at these results and say, for example, that jumps in or out of water, corner, and trakehner fences should no longer be used. Rather, it should be considered whether it might be possible to design around these more challenging fences.”

Course design should aim to minimise the fall risk while also maintaining the level of challenge expected in eventing competitions, they said.

“An increased focus on safety for both horse and athlete with the goal of minimising inherent risks as far as possible will also positively impact public perception of the sport, and bolster the social licence of eventing in the public eye.

“This is a particularly important time for stakeholders to focus on the social licence to operate, both in the broader context of equestrian sports and for the particular case of eventing.”

Adopting evidence-based course design is crucial for reducing the number of horse falls and their associated injuries and fatalities, they said.

“We think the publication of this study has come at a very timely moment,” Bennet told Horsetalk.

“Safety in eventing has been high on the agenda in the community after recent high-profile falls in 5* events.

“We believe our results highlight factors which, if implemented into course design, would reduce the risk of falls during cross-country. In particular, this study shows the potential for course design that prioritises safety but which also, crucially, does not compromise on overall challenge.”

Bennet, formerly with Bristol University’s veterinary school, is now with Glasgow University’s veterinary school. Cameron-Whytock is with the School of Animal Rural and Environmental Science at Nottingham Trent University; and Parkin is with Bristol University’s veterinary school.

Bennet, E.D., Cameron-Whytock, H. and Parkin, T.D.H. (2022), Fédération Equestre Internationale (FEI) eventing: Fence-level risk factors for falls during the cross-country phase (2008-2018). Equine Vet J. Accepted Author Manuscript.

The study abstract can be read here

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