Four evidence-based recommendations have the potential to reduce the risk of injuries and fatalities in Eventing’s cross-country phase, according to researchers.
Their recommendations centre around a re-evaluation of qualification criteria, the use of risk profiling, a disqualification limit on dressage scores, and a complete review of course and fence design.
The proposals are put forward by Euan Bennet, Tim Parkin and Heather Cameron-Whytock, who have had three high-profile scientific papers published in recent years in the Equine Veterinary Journal on Eventing safety in the cross-country phase.
The researchers identified risk factors consistent with those reported previously, and also discovered new ones that are modifiable by sport governing bodies.
“It is now more important than ever that equestrian sport engages seriously with the ethics of risk management, as discussions about equestrian sports’ social licence to operate have become more frequent and prominent in recent years,” they noted.
Their first paper examined horse and athlete-related risk factors for cross-country falls and unseated riders in FEI events. They found, among other things, that there may be an aspect of optimal preparation in order to avoid falls, which is different for horses and athletes, with horses needing to avoid overwork while athletes require enough practice. “Finding the appropriate balance could minimise risks to both,” they said.
Their second paper centered on fence and course design-related risk factors for falls. The results showed it may be possible to design courses and fences to minimise the risk of falls without compromising on the challenge or competitiveness.
“It would not be desirable to avoid the use of certain fence or course design elements, but designers can avoid putting too many ‘risky’ elements together. In addition, course designers could strategically position high-risk fences in low-risk areas of the course.”
The third paper explored cross-country horse falls in British Eventing one-day competitions, in which 16 risk factors were identified. The findings indicated that, in line with their previous work, that Eventing horses may be vulnerable when competing very frequently. It also supports the findings that combinations who perform poorly in dressage are associated with a higher risk of a horse fall.
The trio, in a just-published editorial in the same journal, offered four evidence-based recommendations that governing bodies could implement relatively quickly to improve safety.
First, they propose that a full re-evaluation of qualification criteria be conducted and viewed through the lens of risk management. Currently, qualification is based on horse-and-rider combinations earning minimum eligibility requirements (MERs) in competition. Qualification up through national and international competition levels requires certain numbers of MERs at each stage.
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 some combination of the two.
“Prior modelling of the impact of different rule changes could be conducted to identify those that are most likely to result in maximal benefit to horse and athlete welfare, without significantly reducing the number of combinations able to make progress through the levels of competition.”
Consideration should also be given to requiring a certain number of MERs at 4* and 5* level to maintain eligibility. “That is, a ‘demotion threshold’ could be set to ensure horses and athletes compete at a level appropriate for their skill level.”
Second, they proposed the use of evidence-based, statistically validated risk profiles to inform athletes, trainers and governing bodies. This, they said, could contribute to data-driven decisions about whether individual horses or combinations are ready to move to the next level without unnecessary risk.
“Significant reductions in risk could be achieved by improved knowledge exchange, ensuring athletes are aware of how the history of their horse (i.e., their risk profile) contributes to the likelihood of a horse fall or unseated athlete.”
It is crucial, they said, that this is driven by good science and methodology, to minimise the risk for error and poor practice, which can ultimately be the difference between the life and death of a horse or athlete.
Third, they proposed a complete review of course design and fence design specifications. “This recommendation is emphatically not about removing certain fence types or challenges from cross-country courses,” they said. Awareness of the risk factors identified in the three studies can contribute to designs that seek to reduce the risk of falls, while also maintaining the level of challenge.
This initiative, they said, would also enable “risk profiling” of individual courses within levels, allowing riders to choose competitions with cross-country phases that are slightly more forgiving.
Fourth, they proposed a disqualification limit on dressage scores. Given the associations between poor dressage performance and the likelihood of cross-country fall, the researchers said a penalty cap rule to prevent poorly performing dressage combinations progressing to the cross-country should be considered.
The authors noted that data-driven rule changes based on peer-reviewed research have already been implemented in equestrian sports such as horse racing and FEI Endurance. “We strongly recommend that the same approach is used for Eventing,” they said. “We make these recommendations in the name of evidence-based policy, aimed at reducing the risk of injury and fatality to horses and athletes.
“We believe these measures would improve welfare, while also helping to protect the social license to operate for the sport.”
Bennet said he and his colleagues were grateful to the Equine Veterinary Journal for inviting them to write an editorial article summarising their recent work. He urged governing bodies to consider their recommendations.
“These are actionable and achievable interventions which are supported by evidence from our research, and we believe properly implementing them would contribute to making the sport safer for both horses and athletes.
“None of these are a magic solution: they will require considerable commitment and engagement from stakeholders across the sport.
“Other equestrian sports and certain racing jurisdictions around the world have successfully implemented similar evidence-based risk management strategies with positive results.
“Discussions of safety and risk management are a key part of public discourse around equestrian sports’ social licence to operate, which continues to be under increased scrutiny. Our work demonstrates that there are opportunities available to make eventing safer – it’s up to governing bodies to take the next steps.”
Bennet is with the School of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Glasgow; Parkin is with the Bristol Veterinary School at the University of Bristol, and Cameron-Whytock is with the School of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Central Lancashire.
Bennet, E.D., Parkin, T. and Cameron-Whytock, H. (2023), We have demonstrated the potential to make eventing safer: What will happen next? Equine Vet J. https://doi.org/10.1111/evj.13963
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