Innovation From Tragedy -- Eventing Fence Designs Emphasize Safety

Three-day eventing, at its highest level, always has been acknowledged as a high-risk sport. Having evolved from a military test for cavalry horses and officers, it retains its emphasis on versatility, endurance, speed, and bravery--and more and more riders are becoming hooked on the challenge, making it one of the fastest-growing equestrian sports in the world. But, with increasing popularity has come a disturbing increase in fatal injuries to horses and riders. This year alone, five international-level riders, two of whom represented Great Britain at the World Equestrian Games in Rome in 1998, have perished on Intermediate- or Advanced-level cross-country courses in the United Kingdom. Peta Beckett and Polly Phillips, Simon Long and Australian Robert Slade, all in their 30s, and Peter McLean, 20, each died when their horses failed to clear a cross-country obstacle and fell on their riders. Each was considered an experienced and skilled rider, and their deaths are particularly disturbing not only because they have come in quick succession, but because they happened despite eventing's diligent emphasis on safety and fitness.

Task forces in both the United States and United Kingdom, as well as within the FEI (Federation Equestre Internationale, the governing body for the Olympic equestrian disciplines world-wide), have been assembled to closely examine the circumstances of each fatality and determine whether there might be ways in which the sport can be made safer and tragedies prevented.

At least one top-level competition in the UK has forged ahead and implemented an innovation in fence design that organizers feel will save lives. At the Blenheim CCI***, an Advanced-level three-day event run in September, several of the fences on the cross-country course were altered so that they would give way if a horse gave the top rail a hard hit.

Traditionally, cross-country fences are constructed so that they are solid and not collapsible. Not only does that mimic what might be found in the natural countryside, but eventers feel solid obstacles encourage bold, safe jumping on the part of the horse. Course designers have incorporated several changes in cross-country fence design in recent years to make them safer, including rounding off any surfaces presented to the horse, putting solid table-tops on corner jumps (so that a horse cannot trap a hoof in the V), sloping vertical and "table" fences slightly away to encourage a good jumping arc, and roping, not wiring, fences together so that they can be cut apart almost instantly by anyone with a pocket knife if a horse should become "hung up." Blenheim course designer Michael Etherington-Smith (who is also responsible for the course at the Rolex Kentucky CCI**** and for the upcoming Sydney Olympics) has gone all of these safety features one better. On fences 7, 19, 23, and 24, he sawed the top rail of each jump halfway through. He then roped the fence together in the usual way, so that if a horse did hit and break the rail, he wouldn't be faced with dragging a substantial log along with him.

The precaution paid off at Blenheim, with no serious horse or rider injuries. The break-away feature worked just as planned; when UK rider Daisy Dick and her horse The White Sergeant hit one element of the "bounce" fence at #24, the top rail did indeed break, and The White Sergeant was able to continue on course without injury. Witnesses say if the rail had not given, horse and rider might very well have fallen. Another fence similarly rigged was hit and broken during the event by another competitor. The only down-side to the new arrangement was that each time, the competition had to be held up 15 minutes while frantic repairs were made to the jumps--a minor snag that no doubt can be smoothed out in the future.

Meanwhile in the Netherlands, course designers have been experimenting with a polypropylene compound that is used extensively in the film industry. It can be molded and shaped so as to mimic virtually any type of material, including stone or wood, but will crumble if faced with a serious impact. The Boekelo CCI*** in October featured two fences with top rails made of this polypropylene, which was painted to resemble ordinary timbers. In tests, the synthetic rails have remained firm when given a glancing blow by a horse, but have given way if hit hard. The hope is that if a horse does hit one of the synthetic rails at cross-country speeds, he will not suffer the lethal somersaulting responsible for the rider deaths in 1999.

Although this year's Blenheim CCI*** was not considered by riders to have been a particularly tough three-star course, the relief of having gotten through an international competition without any serious human or equine injuries was palpable. In a year when all the odds seem to be against the sport, the forward-thinking approach of the course designers at Blenheim and Boekelo might very well revolutionize eventing and help safeguard its future.

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