“The biggest obstacle to rider safety is riders, without a doubt,” said Jon Holling, United States Eventing Association (USEA) Cross-Country Safety Subcommittee Chair.
As a 5* rider himself, Holling is intimately acquainted with safety problems plaguing the sport.
“We’re all competitive,” he said, “we all want to win, we all push our luck. I’ve done it, everybody’s done it—whether they’re the most or least skilled rider, they all run around trying to be ultra-competitive.”
Rider safety has, once again, been thrust into the spotlight, with eventing enthusiasts everywhere asking: is eventing more dangerous than in the past? And, most importantly, what’s being done to fix this? What are the governing bodies, the sport, doing to prevent fatalities on cross-country, and, what can we do to help?
The USEA uses a qualification system, updated in 2019, that defines Minimum Eligibility Requirements for horse and rider combinations before they may advance to a higher level.
“[These measures] are in place,” explained Holling, “to ensure people are riding at levels they’re competent at [and qualified for], that everybody making decisions on where and what level to compete at has the skills in place to do that.”
When a safety incident does occur, both the USEA and the U.S. Equestrian Federation (USEF) launch an investigation, he continued. The Cross-Country Safety Subcommittee that Holling chairs meets 10 to 12 times a year to discuss trends, review incidents, and address concerns committee members have around rules and guidelines. The fruits of these discussions often lead to rule changes.
The USEA’s investigation into Jeffie Chapin’s death at the 2019 Green Mountain Horse Association horse trials, for example, led to rule changes regarding warm-up cross country jumps.
“What you’re looking for are very fine details of things that may or may not happen—that’s what the USEA did,” Holling said. “We had [Jeffie Chapin’s] accident investigated, found nothing wrong with the fence, necessarily, but the difference between the warm-up fence and [those] on course is the fences on course were decorated and had proper ground lines.”
Now, warm-up cross-country jumps at USEA-sanctioned events are required to have groundlines and be decorated like those on course.
But while investigations often lead to safety improvements, the results of each are not made public as they involve sensitive personal information. This lack of transparency has been a point of contention among USEA members.
Holling said he understands the frustration.
“I truly get it, because I’m a skeptic,” he said.
Information that can be released is done so through the USEA, typically as a press release.
One finding of the USEA’s ongoing research, he said, is a measurable improvement in safety.
Said Holling. “Since we started keeping track of statistics, the sport has gotten safer every year—it’s trending safer all the time.”
Still, the perception that eventing was safer in the past persists. Holling believes that the greater accessibility of information today is a contributing factor.
“In 1980, 1990, if somebody had an accident and was injured or, god forbid, killed in competition, it wouldn’t have been national news because it was a very small sport,” he maintained. “Now, we have social media and people know about it instantly.”
There remains much room for improvement, however. The current focus of the USEA is upgrading existing cross country courses in the U.S. with frangible technology. Developed by engineers, frangible technology uses pins and hinges that allow a previously immovable fence to break and swing down if hit by a horse, reducing the risk of a fall for both rider and horse.
The technology is not inexpensive. Holling estimated that a kit to build a frangible jump costs between “$200 and $400 to $500, depending on what you want to do. It’s very dependent on what you’re building.”
An MIM clip kit from MIM Safe New Era, a UK-based company, ranges from $137 to $344 once the price is converted from British pounds to US dollars, for example.
But, added Holling, “it’s not just the materials. You need somebody trained to build with this material, that’s the other piece. You could buy everything but if the people you’ve hired aren’t trained in building it, then it’s no good. You have to have a trained professional.”
With construction costs factored in, Holling estimates the cost of building a frangible fence to be “between $700 and $2,500.”
The USEA offers frangible technology grants to offset these costs for organizers; currently, about $26,000 is awarded annually. Some $500,000 is needed to update all US cross country courses to frangible fences within three years, he said.
To that end, Holling is spearheading a campaign to raise funds. Those interested in donating to the cause can do so via the USEA Foundation or the GoFundMe created by Andrew Bowles. Bowles’s GoFundMe has raised nearly $82,000 to date.
The response to the fundraising, Holling said, has been “completely overwhelming. [Recently] I was teaching a lesson. When I finished teaching, I picked up my phone and had 30 texts about [the fundraisers].”
Safer fences will go a long way in helping prevent accidents on the cross country course. But, ultimately, the onus lies on the rider.
“I think,” said Holling, “that frangible technology is working, generally—the reverse pins, MIM clip system, all of that is working great. Absolutely, statistically the sport is safer today than it was 10 years ago—[that’s] indisputable—it is a safer sport. The things that have been put in place [such as] rule changes have made it safe.
“We need,” Holling said, “a greater emphasis on responsibility.”
The USEA offers educational programs for instructors, course designers and the like. But equally important is a cultural shift that espouses safety over stickability.
Holling tells his students, “You need to go out and ride around the course and feel like you have control and are comfortable and confident the entire course. If you’re out there feeling like things are hairy and you got it done because your horse is a beast or is amazing and taking care of you, if you come off course feeling like, ‘Wow, that was lucky,’ you’re not ready to move up to the next level.
“We have to have coaches willing to tell students, ‘no, you’re not ready to go,’ or ‘yes, you’re ready’ and be realistic about their students’ abilities and not afraid of losing their paycheck.”