For years now there has been a lot of debate around rider and horse safety when going cross country. It’s inherently dangerous to gallop a horse at a solid fence, and accidents will always happen, but much research has been done into fence design in order to try and reduce the rate of rotational falls. We’ve seen the advent of pinned fences using frangible pins, then reverse pinning, mim clips and even deformable and breakable logs. The profile of fences has changed so tables have to be higher at the back than the front. A fence which measures the force at which it is hit has been employed, and reams of data have been produced. The USEA even has a fund you can donate to for research into collapsible fence safety.
And yet the stark truth is that where there’s a fixed fence, there’s the possibility of human or equine error leading to rotational or otherwise catastrophic falls.
The recent announcement by BE that as of 2018 you will have to use a body protector which has passed the BETA 2009 test (or any later revision) has sparked off some controversy. Not because people don’t think using the latest standard kit is a good idea, but because this outlaws the only body protector which has been shown through testing to be effective in preventing crush injuries – the Exo. There are pros and cons to every form of personal protection, but that isn’t what this article is about.
The advent of this rule has highlighted the fact that all the research programmes are focusing on making fences safer, which is a laudable aim. What none of them have started to do is look at Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). Many years ago, when BE were first researching frangible pins (and moreover were selling them to events), the question was asked at the AGM as to why they weren’t also investing in PPE research, for example for things such as the Exo. The reply came back from the then Chair that BE could not do this research because they couldn’t be seen to be researching commercial products. The irony that they were at the time selling frangible pins seemed entirely lost on the board, and everyone seemed very happy with the answer.
But should we be happy with it? Or should we be pushing the various national governing bodies to step up and take some responsibility for looking at the efficacy of PPE? Is it enough to say ‘this BETA test exists, and market forces should do the rest?’
Market forces are a curious thing. There’s often no predicting what will tap into the zeitgeist and become popular or fashionable, and what, like the Exo, will fall by the wayside. They don’t result in the safest products coming to market, because often safest does not equal most affordable or most fashionable. And this is where I think the governing bodies and their safety research programmes have a role to play.
A body protector exists which will help prevent crush injuries. There is no doubt that there are some elements of the design which may need improving. The patent sits with the RDA, who are a charity and not a commercial organisation, so it feels like there should be scope for the research to be done.
But this isn’t just about the Exo. There could be all manner of innovations out there, either utilised in different sports or waiting to be discovered, which research into PPE would uncover. It doesn’t feel like just researching into fence safety is doing enough – there will always be accidents. Research into rider PPE is the next logical step – so why isn’t it being prioritised by the governing bodies, and why aren’t riders up in arms about the fact that it’s being largely ignored?
Currently (as far as we can discern), no governing bodies stipulate to the testing houses what the tests must cover. They rely on organisations such as BETA to develop a test, and then adopt it. This means that different standards are applicable in different parts of the world, despite horses and riders competing on an ever more global basis. Contrast that with Formula 1, where the governing body stipulates what must be achieved and it’s up to the teams to prove they can comply. Not only does this include safety features for the cars, but also PPE such as the helmets. Currently BE and the FEI can’t even agree on whether or not peaked helmets and helmet cams should be worn cross country, never mind adopting the same safety standards.
Isn’t it time that our sport’s governing bodies started working together to pool resources and develop research programmes into PPE? Helmet design, impact testing, neck protection, body protectors and even saddle design are all areas in which we should be looking to them to provide independent research rather than relying on commercial companies to invest into R&D which has no guarantee of making a profit. If there were internationally agreed safety standards, this would provide the incentive for companies to produce better PPE for riders. F1 recognised you can’t prevent crashes, but you can make cars, helmets and other PPE better able to withstand them alongside making tracks safer. Why are governing bodies in eventing so adverse to the idea that alongside making fences and courses safer, they have a duty to also look at rider PPE and see how that can be improved? And why aren’t riders pushing them to do so? Don’t riders deserve better than being left to the whim of market forces?