Should more cross-country fences collapse on impact? [H&H VIP]

  • A leading figure in eventing safety has called for the sport to take a more proactive approach in approving and implementing new deformable cross-country fence technology.

    The recent deaths of Benjamin Winter at Luhmühlen and Jordan McDonald at Nunney (14 June) reignited the discussion as to whether more cross-country fences should be collapsible.

    HorseandHound.co.uk published a sequence of photographs (one pictured top, taken by Richard Marwood/rfmequinephotos.com) showing Mary King escaping a potentially serious fall at Bramham last month (5-8 June) when a frangible pin was triggered, which has fuelled the debate further.

    Andy Griffiths, chairman of the International Event Officials Club, says that although steps have been made to reduce and eliminate the risk of rotational falls in the past few years, the sport’s governing bodies, especially the FEI, need to make the process of testing and approving new technology more user-friendly.

    “When we have the technology to make a variety of fences collapsible it seems ludicrous that it is not being used more widely,” he said.

    He is also calling for the FEI to follow British Eventing (BE) and the United States Equestrian Federation’s (USEF) lead and make the use of approved frangible technology compulsory on post-and-rails-type fences at international events.

    Types of pins and clips

    Currently, the BE frangible pin and the MIM safety clip and pin, manufactured by the Swedish company New Era, are the two leading technologies. The frangible pin works only on post-and-rails type fences, but the MIM clip (pictured below right) can be used on other obstacles, including tables.

    PICT5563Its inventor, Mats Bjornetun, told H&H: “The clip is different [from the pin] in that it responds to the horizontal impact of a load hitting a fence, which is what happens in a rotational fall. The fence can also be rebuilt in a matter of seconds, which would mean minimal hold-ups on the course.”

    The MIM clip has been widely used by course-designers on all sorts of different fences in national competitions in America and Australia. But although the technology is used on FEI courses for post-and-rail-type fences — it was employed in Aachen last weekend — it has not yet been approved for table fences or other such solid obstacles because it has not met the FEI standard for the minimum strength of frangible/deformable cross-country fences introduced last year. Neither has it been approved for use in the UK in any form because it does not meet BE’s own standards, which require it to collapse under a prescribed vertical force.

    BE’s safety officer Jonathan Clissold said BE has supplied New Era with its requirements. “So far the company has declined to put its products forward for BE testing,” he said. Similarly, the FEI says that a request for certification has not been submitted by the company for the use of its products on structures such as tables.

    The barrier, said Andy Griffiths, is expense. “It typically costs around £10,000 to test a new mechanism. The money has to come from somewhere,” he said. “So far New Era has funded its own research, but that cannot carry on indefinitely.”

    Should all fences be collapsible?

    The question many in the sport are asking is whether a solid obstacle should give way when a horse hits it.

    Various attempts have been made in the past 15 years to design solid fences that collapse or crumble on heavy impact. In 1999, a polypropylene log that could be moulded and shaped to mimic different types of material, but crumble when hit with serious force, was trialled. Neither this, nor its more technologically advanced successors, has really taken off, and now cannot be used under the new FEI testing criteria.

    A foam log called the Prolog was trialled at Glanusk, Wales in 2010. It broke three times — possibly preventing a rotational fall on one occasion — but took about 20min to rebuild. A similar obstacle was used in Kentucky. William Fox-Pitt remembers jumping it in 2010. “For some reason it didn’t jump at all well. I’m not sure why; it looked quite unnatural — maybe horses didn’t read or respect it properly,” he said. Nevertheless, William cautiously welcomes the development of similar concepts. “Anything that might improve safety should be encouraged, but there is a fine line between embracing new technology and changing the nature of the sport,” he said.

    Bruce Haskell, chairman of the Event Riders’ Association (ERA), agrees. “Fences such as logs and tables [where Jordan and Benjamin fell] are jumped successfully hundreds of thousands of times every year,” he said. “We need to be careful to be proactive rather than reactive [to recent events]. We need to be looking at how we can make the sport safer from every angle.”

    BE’s Jonathan Clissold said: “The solution has to be a combination of factors, including better education of course-designers and riders.”

    FEI should lead the way

    Bruce and William both agree with Andy Griffiths that making the use of deformable technology compulsory at FEI competitions should be high on the sport’s safety agenda. William said he believed it was “something than needed looking into”.

    Andy Griffiths wrote an open letter to the FEI last year asking: “If the two leading countries [Great Britain and America] in the eventing world are implementing this rule [that makes frangible technology on post-and-rails type fences compulsory] then should the FEI not be doing the same and leading the way?”

    The FEI replied that it “is of the view that all types of traditional fixed cross-country fences can still be jumped within an accepted and acceptable level of risk”.

    Catrin Norinder, FEI director of eventing, added: “The FEI is continuing investment in its eventing risk management policy and action plan, which covers every aspect of competing. “There are a number of national federations currently undertaking studies on wider research into devices.”

    First published in Horse & Hound magazine on 24 July 2014