June 14, 2008

A horse and rider take a tumble at the 2006 World Equestrian Games. © Evalyn Bemis

An Australian project which delved into the circumstances of eventing accidents found that a majority of riders shouldered the blame for their accident.

Ms Denzil O'Brien and Dr Raymond Cripps, both from Research Centre for Injury Studies at Adelaide's Flinders University, asked riders involved in falls during a five-year period to fill out a detailed questionnaire about the circumstances surrounding each mishap.

O'Brien and Cripps sent out 1519 questionnaires to riders who fell, and received 891 responses (59%).

The questionnaire asked riders whether their fall had been preventable, and if so, how it could have been prevented.

"We received 873 responses to this question, with 611 riders indicating that the fall could have been prevented," the researchers said.

"It is worth commenting here that only 60 of these 611 riders assigned responsibility for the fall to anything other than their own riding.

"Forty-two assigned the cause of the fall to outside factors such as poor course and/or jump design, inappropriate jumps at a particular level, interference and distraction by spectators, illness, the weather, and equipment failure.

"Only 18 said the horse was the cause, because it did not jump, or was going too fast, or was not suitable for the task, or in one case was too fat.

"Overall, however, 551 riders identified their own riding as the cause of the fall, and were clear about what aspects of their riding caused the fall. For example, 40 simply said 'better riding' as the way in which the fall could have been prevented, with many variations on this theme, some of them very specific."

The research showed a high number of those in falls had been wearing a back protector. Over 90% (827 respondents) said they were wearing one, despite there being no regulation requiring it.

A square spread with ditch, on the Badminton CCI**** course in 2007. © Evalyn Bemis
"Of further interest is the riders' perception that their back protector was effective at reducing injury - 344 riders who were not injured stated that their body protector was effective at reducing injury, and a further 213 riders who were injured also indicated that their injuries had been reduced because of their back protector."

In all, 67% said the body protector was effective at reducing injury, with only 6% stating it was not effective; 27% selected 'not applicable' in response to the question.

"It appears that regardless of the EFA's concern about effective regulation of body protectors, the riders overwhelmingly voted in support of their use."

Helmets, which are compulsory in cross-country, were also considered by those in falls to play a significant part in injury reduction in their fall: of 892 responses, nearly 60% indicated that they believed their helmet had been effective in this regard.

Of the 1347 individual falls described, just 160 (12%) were "head first".

"A surprising number of riders (141) actually landed on their feet."

Only 15 falls were attributed to gear failure, with six riders injured as a result.

O'Brien and Cripps said some of the findings may not surprise administrators of the sport, but the database provided the opportunity for policy decisions to be made on verified information.

"Several EFA officials have commented during the life of this project that we have not told them anything that they did not already know: that jumping into water is risky; that a horse flipping over on top of a rider is likely to injure the rider, and possibly kill them; that falls are more likely at the lowest and highest levels of competition; that overall not many riders are injured when they fall off; that most falls are of so little consequence that many riders do not even refer to them as falls, but more likely as 'stepping off'; that very, very few horses die during a cross-country course; and so on.

An ascending brush spread with ditch, Burghley CCI****, 2005. © Evalyn Bemis
"Our research supports these assertions in almost every respect. However, the difference lies in the detail: we have been able to provide data which means that these assertions can now be made based on facts, not just on experience and observation. Fact-based policy must be preferable to assumption-based policy."

They said the research project, and the data collection and analysis system developed out of it, both have implications for equestrian sport, particularly for eventing.

"It demonstrates that it is possible for a national federation to manage the collection and analysis of a substantial range of information about the sport and its participants, and then to make informed decisions about the risks associated with the sport and what will be done to minimise these risks."

Among their suggestions, the pair urged the EFA to ensure full compliance in reporting on all safety aspects of the sport, the adoption of a data system which can provide detailed analysis of accident information, and the use of a revised scoring system for all event organisers.

"This will provide the EFA with complete information about all falls of riders and horses, particularly rotational horse falls."

They urged the EFA to review the current rules which permit a horse continuing in competition after falling if its fall is not related to a jump. British Eventing has recently introduced a rule requiring elimination for all horse falls. The United States has recently introduced a similar rule, and such a guideline is in place for the Beijing Olympics.