Looking back at how far safety has come in the past 10 years, it’s easy to pick out the big things. We see pictures of cross-country fences dismantling thanks to frangible technology, the “then and now” of Becher’s Brook. But what else has happened and is equestrian sport really getting any safer?
While riding will always come with dangers, breakthroughs in technology, data analysis and science have made significant leaps in reducing that.
“We have to accept the fact that as soon as you get on a horse, there is a risk. As soon as that horse jumps a fence, the risk is even higher. It is a matter of managing that risk,” says British Eventing’s (BE) national safety officer Jonathan Clissold.
He adds that serious injuries have “without a doubt” dropped, and BE is always looking at ways to continue to reduce those.
Medical cover requirements have increased in the high-risk disciplines, with BE announcing more stringent requirements for this season with a view to enhancing these further in 2021. Equestrian-specific trauma training has proved popular, and this has been mooted as a requirement to come in potentially from 2021.
The evolution of personal protection equipment, including hats and body protectors, has proved a major part in making equestrianism safer.
“We have seen many developments over the past decade, some in the area of equipment, but more importantly, we have seen a real change in attitude towards safety,” says Claire Williams, executive director of the British Equestrian Trade Association (BETA).
“Developments in equipment safety include body protectors becoming more flexible and sleeker in design. This is thanks as much to design and construction developments and the materials now available to manufacturers, as to the standards themselves, which although updated have not changed the degree of protection offered to any great extent.
“On the air jacket front we have started on the writing of a standard to give a benchmark for performance and assurance to riders.”
She adds in terms of hats, the last decade has seen the withdrawal of the EN1384 standard and the introduction of the VG1, which resulted in the introduction of a mechanical strength test, already integrated into the PAS015 standard.
“This innovation has made hats safer, especially in the case of crushing type falls. We have also seen the first hats incorporating MIPS (multi-directional impact protection system), designed to reduce rotational forces that can result from certain falls,” Claire says.
“More changes are on the horizon, with new testing methods being developed to replicate different types of falls and hopefully a new, improved European standard. The very topic of safety has seen a real shift in attitude, moving from being something rather tedious that riders often addressed with reluctance, to something they now take ownership of and responsibility for.
“Thanks to the work of BETA and its ongoing cooperation with disciplines in helping them write up-to-date and accurate rules, riders are now much more aware of the importance of regularly checking hats and body protectors, not only for the standard they meet but for their suitability in terms of fit.”
Claire adds BETA has also heavily invested in educating riders of the importance of replacing hats after falls, and helping with this through a helmet bounty scheme.
Increasing rider awareness
Rider training, assessment and using data to self-analyse have been key to improving safety, with education for jockeys a major focus.
“The industry as a whole is unrecognisable now as to how jockeys are treated and are treating themselves as elite athletes, and a big part of that approach is that fitter and stronger jockeys are less likely to get injured,” a British Horseracing Authority (BHA) spokesman says.
“There has been a massive amount of work done on physical and mental health and nutrition. A joint-funded PhD led to catering guidelines for racecourses, there has been increased provision of warm-up equipment for riders and, more recently, increased provision of physios on racecourses. There is a massive amount of research ongoing on this point, too.”
Increasing rider awareness and helping them to raise their own standards is a major breakthrough in eventing.
Minimum eligibility requirements are now required across the levels, and BE is using data collected through EquiRatings to help target rider training and enable them to use self-reflection as a tool. In 2019, BE brought in the reverse qualification system, which means competitors who repeatedly have cross country eliminations must drop down a level or, in the case of the rule being triggered at BE80, have some training before stepping back up to the level at which they were previously competing.
“I think this really highlights to the rider what the horse’s form is, as they sometimes don’t realise unless it is pointed out to them,” explains Jonathan.
“It’s fairly easy to make an excuse — ‘I had a stupid run-out there’ — but actually when you look at it, it could be that perhaps you and your horse are not quite ready for that level.”
Gone are the days in point-to-pointing where riders could deem themselves capable.
From last season, new riders were required to meet with a level three BHA jockey coach at least a month from their first race and assessed at walk, trot, canter and over fences. The move has been widely welcomed, including by their weighing room colleagues.
“While it is difficult to judge, anecdotal evidence indicated that first-timers — and their mothers — were looking much more confident going down to the start,” says Point-to-Point Authority (PPA) chief executive Peter Wright. “We are now building on that, offering training days with the assessment as well as continuation training.”
Peter adds when looking at the whole picture of changes made to improve safety in the sport, the outlook is good.
“All of this has come at a cost to both fixtures and individuals, which causes some grumbling, but I have to say the results are looking impressive,” he explains.
While specific figures are not available, Peter says: “The drop-off of serious accidents is looking very positive, as in up to 50%, particularly compared with 10 years ago or more. Racing is inherently dangerous but the risks are increasingly mitigated.”
Understanding and improving surfaces
Fence design and equine vision have been increasingly in the spotlight. Frangible devices are now compulsory on certain types of fences for all four- and five-star and championship eventing tracks.
Strides have also been made in understanding more about equine vision, with research by Exeter University helping to inform fence design in racing and eventing.
“In eventing we have three types of fall — horse fall, rider fall and rotational horse fall. We know from the data that the rotational fall is the most dangerous of those,” says Jonathan. “Since the fatalities in 1999/2000 [six within a year in Britain], we’ve spent a lot of time collecting data on all the fences we jump.
All the falls that happen at those fences is analysed to make sure we can identify any fence, or types of fence, that are causing big problems.
“Safety is about every aspect; training, data collection is obviously important, protective equipment has got better, such as body protectors and hats, but prevention is always better than cure.”
He adds that work into understanding and improving surfaces is ongoing, but believes this is an area where more education is also needed for riders.
Surfaces, layout, hurdles and fences continue to be a focus for racing.
“Obviously there are strict criteria that all courses have to conform to in order to be licensed and to hold fixtures under Rules,” says the BHA spokesman.
“Our team of course-inspectors check every course’s surface and obstacles at the beginning of the relevant season as well as regularly throughout the season, too, and courses are also subject to veterinary inspections.
“There are extensive guidelines that ensure every aspect of the racecourse environment is as safe as it can be — from surface management [the going stick became mandatory in 2009 to ensure more consistent and, therefore, safer surfaces] to the qualification of groundstaff, right down to record-keeping.”
Questions surrounding why padded hurdles are not used at all courses arose in November 2019 following Buveur D’Air’s splinter injury while jumping a wooden obstacle. Padded hurdles were first introduced in 2013, and 13 courses in the UK and one in Ireland use them.
“The roll-out has been phased in order to ensure there are no unintended consequences,” explains the BHA spokesman.
“They are proven to reduce faller and injury rates but they haven’t removed injuries entirely and it is still possible that a horse can pick up a splinter going over a padded hurdle, though it is significantly less likely.”
There is an ongoing project to develop a new design of collapsible hurdle, which is also drawing on the equine vision research.
Peter adds pointing continues to provide better surfaces and courses.
“Course-building, including the fences and surfaces, continues to improve, with much more awareness of what the risks are and how they can be mitigated,” he says.
While equestrian sport can never be risk-free, the cumulative effect of many changes are clearly having an effect, and if science and technology continues to progress at an ever-increasing rate, it will be interesting to see what the next decade will bring.
An extensive review of the Grand National was carried out following the race in 2011, which led to 30 safety recommendations being adopted.
These included altering the fences’ cores to a more forgiving, rubber design and levelling off the landing sides of fences, so horses take off and land at the same level. Significant investment in the racing surface, introduction of misting fans to cool horses and moving the start away from the grandstands for a calmer atmosphere were among further changes.
The BHA also undertook a review following the 2018 Cheltenham Festival, which led to 17 recommendations ahead of the 2019 meeting. These featured pre-race veterinary examinations, reduction in maximum field sizes in certain races and changes to conditions of others, and further work set out to continue to understand and reduce risks.
Safety in numbers
5.4% of jump racing falls resulted in jockey injury 2015-2017, down from 17.7% in 1992-2000
0.39% The equine fatality rate in jump racing (2014-2018) — lowest period on record
32% The Amount the long-term injury rate in National Hunt horses has dropped from 2004-2018
30% The reduction in faller rate in National Hunt horses from 2014-2018
1/746 The chance of having a rotational fall at an international event in 2018, which is down from 1 in 228 in 2007
Ref Horse & Hound; 30 January 2020
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