Grit and Glory—the State of Safety in Eventing

It’s the question whispered in tack rooms and posted on Facebook, buzzed about at local and premier shows alike: Is eventing safe? It’s a simple query with a complicated answer. Following the disquieting death of up-and-coming rider Philippa Humphreys at the Jersey Fresh International Horse Trials in May of 2016—along with numerous other cross-country deaths overseas—Equine Journal talked candidly to top riders and officials at the heart of the sport about the state of safety. Here, the good, the better, and the ugly.

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What’s the current state of safety in eventing?

Will Faudree, four-star eventer, 2003 Pan American Gold Medalist, 2004 Olympic traveling reserve: I think the [state of safety] is improving. It’s always improving. I don’t think anybody in the eventing world, whether it’s a competitor or a spectator point of view—there’s never a complacency about “we’ve done enough.” We can always do more. If you look at the numbers, they are going in the right direction. The sport is improving—the sport is becoming safer.

Carol Kozlowski, upper-level eventer, coach, judge, and cochair of the USEA Safety Committee: If you look at the statistics over the last 10, even 15 years, you’ll see the trend is very encouraging. It’s the nature of our sport—there is risk involved, and we are not going to be able to eliminate all of the risk. It will no longer be eventing if we make sure everyone is going to be 100 percent safe all the time. There’s no guarantee in any equestrian sport.

Has the rise of new technology (i.e. inflatable vests and frangible pins) helped advance safety measures?

WF: We can’t emphasize it enough that we’re still dealing with a 1,500-pound animal and we’re galloping at high speeds and we’re jumping big jumps. So, no matter what vest you put on or what helmet [you put on], the minute you step into the stirrup you’re taking a risk. Every day you step out of bed and put your feet on the ground you’re taking a risk. I do think that with the technology that has come about and the focus of ever-improving the sport, we have made it safer.

CK: I’m very, very supportive [of frangible pins and research such as the USEA collapsible fence study]. I think that this is a trend we’ve got to follow. [Frangible pins aren’t] going to always prevent a horse or rider from going down. What we are trying to prevent are the rotational falls, because those are the ones that tend to kill. Those are the ones where the riders have no opportunity to eject themselves. It tends to be not a very happy outcome for the horse, either. What we’re trying to do with the frangible technology is create jumps that have a little give. Whether they’re horizontal or vertical forces such that the horse is going to fall down, there’s enough give in the upper part of the jump that it will allow the horse to break that arc of rotation. There’s still a very good chance that the horse or rider might go down, but it might not be catastrophic.

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How do jump and course design play a role in safety on cross-country?

WF: I think that design of the jumps is very important. I think the placement of the jumps is very important. I think the placement of the decorations is very important. [At] Jersey Fresh I heard someone say “well, that table had archways cut in the front of it and they had hanging baskets that created a false ground line.” It was a big, wide fence and I came around the turn to it on my horse and saw a good distance to it and she jumped it great. I think the designers and the decorators do everything that they can to present a good picture. I don’t think there’s one person who’s like, ‘Oh, I’m going to design a trap.’

CK: Certainly we do what we can to make sure that if horses or riders make a mistake, the end result is not a catastrophic one. We can try to mitigate those circumstances. But it goes way beyond that. In my mind it is not ultimately the course designer’s sole responsibility to make sure everyone stays safe around the course. The rider has to take responsibility for ensuring that they’ve done their homework, they’re riding at their level capably, they have good instruction, and they are on a horse that can get the job done. You try to control the factors that you can.

Are today’s courses too technical? Just enough?

WF: I think that the sport is ever changing. I’ve been in the sport long enough now—I did Badminton in 2005, and that was the last year it was a long format. That was a big, huge, gallop-y track. If you looked at that track today, it’s huge. I get really defensive of the sport today because we’re all fighting for it. We’ve fought to stay in the Olympic Games, we’ve fought to stay an Olympic sport, and we’ve fought to stay relevant with modern technology. If you took a horse from the ‘70s or ‘80s and tried to ride them in this sport today, very few horses would be here, and vice versa.

CK: To me, it’s a very, very fine line between the course designers looking to constantly sort the division so that the best horse and rider on that day comes out on top and sort of measuring that against what we call “level creep,” which to me is very real. What they do now at every level is what we did 10 years ago at the next level. The jumps aren’t bigger, the jumps aren’t wider, and we’re not necessarily going faster; the questions that we’re asking are now coming up at lower levels. I’m not saying course designers are heading out to ask the wrong questions, but I think that we do have to be careful that we don’t keep upping the game adnauseam. I always go back to the fact that 80 percent of the USEA membership competes at Training Level or below. They are not interested in having questions get harder and harder. They’re doing this sport because they love it.

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What are your thoughts moving forward?

WF: There are no masters in this sport. We’re always learning and always improving. An important thing to remember is that you have to respect the sport as a dangerous sport and you have to respect the animal as an animal—they’re not machines. We have to continually look at ourselves and look at our programs and look at our riding the horses we campaign and understand that there’s a risk there and take all the precautions we can to help prevent tragedy from happening.

CK: I think it can be argued that there are trends toward being more technically difficult. But in the same token, it is also the coach and the rider and the parents and everyone else—it’s their responsibility to make sure that the horse and rider are competing at the level at which they are competent.

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