Sixteen factors increase likelihood of a successful Eventing cross-country – study

Researchers examined data around 107,348 horse starts worldwide, involving 16,640 unique horses, in FEI competitions between 2008 and 2018.
© Mike Bain

Sixteen factors, including a better score in the dressage phase, improve the likelihood of safely completing the cross-country in Eventing, a fresh study shows.

Researchers Euan Bennet, Heather Cameron-Whytock and Tim Parkin, well known for their work on Eventing safety, set out to identify factors associated with running clear in the cross-country phase in FEI Eventing competitions.

The study team, writing in the Equine Veterinary Journal, noted that risk factors for cross-country falls reported in research and industry reports include higher Eventing levels, poorer dressage scores earlier in the competition, less experienced athletes and horses, the number of recent competition starts, the age and sex of the horse and rider, and whether the horse or rider had any prior falls.

Course-related factors for falls include the fence type, composition and setting.

But what are the factors that improve the chances of completion? The study team hypothesised that a combination of horse, athlete, and course-level factors would be associated with the overall likelihood of running clear.

The researchers examined data from 107,348 Eventing horse starts worldwide, involving 16,640 unique horses, in all FEI competitions between January 2008 and December 2018.

Two groups were examined — a general group of horses followed from the beginning of their international careers, and a subset of those horses observed when they stepped up to compete at a level higher than their previous FEI start.

For a start to be included in the analysis, a horse had to at least start the cross-country phase of competition. The authors also needed each horse’s full recorded career in FEI competitions in order to conduct their analyses.

In all, 76,883 of the 107,348 horse starts resulted in a clear cross-country run, representing a completion rate of 71.6%.

Across all years, the incidences of clear runs were 73.0% at event level 1, 71.1% at level 2, 68.2% at level 3, and 58.0% at event level 4. (The researchers used the four star levels of the old system, which was updated in 2019 to a five-level system.)

The study team identified 16 factors associated with running clear.  An increased likelihood of cross-country success included a lower event level, a better dressage score earlier in the event, fewer recent FEI event starts, and more clear runs in their previous three FEI events.

For horses who had stepped up an event level, all but two of these factors were still associated with running clear.

Compared to 1* competitions, each increase in event level was associated with a reduction in the likelihood of a combination running clear. Horses who stepped down in level were more likely to run clear, and those who stepped up a level were less likely to run clear.

At the rider level, men were more likely to run clear than women, and younger riders were more likely to run clear compared to those aged 51 or over.

Riders whose previous FEI competition was within the last seven days were associated with better odds of running clear.

Riders who rode more than once at their current event (on different horses) were associated with better odds of running clear.

Discussing their findings, the authors noted that the factors identified in their study are broadly consistent with those identified previously as risk factors for falls and the unseating of riders.

“Many of the factors in this study mirror those previously reported for falls, with associations in the opposite direction.

“For example: higher event levels; higher dressage score earlier in the competition; older horses and athletes; horses starting their career later; and horses with more frequent recent starts were associated with reduced odds of running clear.

All of these factors have previously been associated with an increased risk of horse falls and unseating the rider.

“Among athletes, men are both at increased odds of running clear and of falling, previously, tentatively linked to either sex differences in risk-taking behaviour or sex differences in body mass, with higher loads potentially affecting equine jumping kinematics.

“It is critical to remember that although mutually exclusive, these two outcomes are not diametrically opposed.”

The horse-age variable is not entirely straightforward, they said. Certainly within levels 1 to 3 this relationship may not be clear cut, with the youngest and oldest horses being most likely to run clear, and non-statistically significant differences in the likelihood of running clear for horses aged between 7 and 12 years.

Very high dressage scores have previously been found to be associated with increased odds of falling during the cross-country phase, they noted.

In the current study, combinations scoring 30 or fewer dressage penalties were more than twice as likely to run clear during the cross-country, compared to those scoring over 60 in dressage.

“It should be noted here that a score above 60 is considered in the community to be a fairly poor performance, and above 70 would be exceptionally poor.

“Dressage scores in the range of 40–60 could be a horse/athlete combination having a ‘bad day’, but scoring above 60 indicates a consistently low-scoring round.”

One contribution to such performances could be the horse experiencing pain, stress, or subclinical injury, they said. “Any of these potential contributions to a high dressage score could naturally influence cross-country, both in terms of impacting performance and potentially increasing the risk of falls.”

The researchers said one potential route to implementing their study results in the rules of the Eventing is by using them to inform future changes to Minimum Eligibility Requirements (MERs).

Both riders and horses, in order to qualify for higher Eventing levels,  must achieve MERs.

Options for the sport’s regulators include changing the requirements to achieve an MER in each event, as well as changing the MERs that must be achieved in order to qualify for higher levels.

Fewer than 0.5% of starts achieved an MER without also achieving a clear run of zero obstacle penalties. Governing bodies may wish to consider simplifying the requirements for MERs to match the colloquial definition of running clear — that is, zero cross-country obstacle penalties, they said.

At present, MER rules differ for each level of competition, and as such the flexibility to implement recommendations arising from this study already exists, they said.

“For example, the results show that horses stepping up a level with three clear runs in their three previous FEI starts were significantly more likely to run clear again.

“A recommendation following this study could be the requirement that a horse must have achieved an MER in at least one of their previous three FEI starts before stepping up a level for the first time.”

If this had been implemented during the study period as a requirement for first qualification to level 2, 8.7% of horses would have had slightly delayed progression.

A stricter requirement of at least two MERs in the horses’ previous three FEI starts before stepping up to either event level 3 or 4 for the first time would have affected 10.4% of horses.

Given clear differences both in course design and in risk factors identified in this study, an additional recommendation could be made with regard to qualification requirements for the highest competition levels.

Horses competing at 3* and 4* levels were associated with significantly reduced odds of running clear compared to those competing at 2* level, therefore consideration could be given to stricter requirements of achieving MERs after the first time a horse steps up to one of the higher levels.

“An example recommendation here could be requiring horses stepping up to 4* level to achieve, perhaps, two MERs in their first four starts at 4* level in order to remain qualified for 4* competitions.”

The study team said their results can inform athletes and trainers about the readiness of horses and athletes to step up to a higher competition level and compete safely.

“Modification of requirements for MERs in combination with data-driven evidence-based prediction of likely success on stepping up a level can help horse-rider combinations to be competitive, as well as improving safety by ensuring combinations are competing at an event level commensurate with their skill level,” they said.

“Many factors identified here have previously been demonstrated to be associated with falls, with the opposite direction of association.

“With appropriate validation, predictive modelling offers the potential for further evidence-based recommendations that recognise the links between good horsemanship, safety, and horse welfare.”

Bennet is with the University of Glasgow, Cameron-Whytock with Nottingham Trent University and the University of Central Lancashire, and Parkin is with the University of Bristol.

Bennet, ED, Cameron-Whytock, H, Parkin, TDH. Factors associated with safe completion of Fédération Equestre Internationale eventing cross-country (2008–2018). Equine Vet J. 2023.

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

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