Collapsible Cross-Country Fences to be Tried in Britain

In the wake of several fatal injuries to international-level three-day event competitors in 1999 and 2000, cross-country course designers began working to come up with safer fence designs, including fences which "give" on impact. Over the past three years, several designs for "frangible" (readily or easily broken) cross-country fences have been brought forward, and a few have been used on a trial basis at international competitions, but none has gained wide acceptance. Rider input has indicated that these collapsible fences reduce the risk of one type of fall only to increase the risk of another (generally because of large pieces of mobile timber potentially tangling with a horse's legs).

The latest innovation in collapsible cross-country fence design looks poised to address many of these dangers and could gain wide acceptance. British Eventing (formerly the British Horse Trials Association), in conjunction with the British Transport Research Laboratory, recently unveiled a fence "pin" that can be used to support the top rail of a vertical or oxer cross-country fence. Extensive research has revealed a telling commonality: Most serious falls of eventing horses occur when the horse hits a fixed fence from above with his shoulders and/or forelimbs, causing him to somersault. The new pin allows the top rail of such a fence to drop at least 20 cm (about eight inches) only when the fence is hit from above by a force of 460 kg (1,012 lb) or more. This represents a horse of 15.3 hands or better colliding with a jump between his chest and knee.

The idea, say the designers, is not to prevent the horse from hitting the fence, but to give him time to free his legs, keep from falling, and, most importantly, prevent the rotation that is associated with fatalities. To ensure maximum safety, each set of pins will be designed with the ground conditions of the individual course in mind, with limits set on the length, weight, and diameter of the rails they're meant to support. The collapsed rail will be prevented from rolling because it will be contained between two uprights, allowing it to drop straight down.

In addition to being incorporated into the design of some new cross-country fences, the pins also can be inserted in some existing jumps, a process which course builders say should not be difficult.

Several high-profile British events will give the pin a thorough testing in 2002. Northampton, Tweseldown, and at least two other spring events will install the pin in some of their post-and-rail fences, and there is a possibility that the Badminton Horse Trials, a four-star international event, might participate in the trial. If the pin proves that it reduces the incidence of serious falls, it might be introduced across the board at British events in 2003.

International course designer Hugh Thomas has noted that the "frangible" pin, while a step in the right direction, does not address all types of fences. At present, only jumps of post-and-rail construction can incorporate it; no workable collapsible design has yet been introduced for tables or stone walls, for example.

Funding for the development of the cross-country fence pin has been provided by British Eventing to the tune of £67,000 (roughly $96,000). Along with the pin will come a new set of rules encompassing the eventuality of a horse and rider hitting a collapsible fence; at the moment, it appears that either substantial penalties, or mandatory retirement (withdrawal from the rest of the competition), will be instituted. Designers say it should only take a few minutes to reset a collapsed fence for the next horse and rider to approach in competition.

Meanwhile, research continues into the risk factors associated with horse falls at eventing competitions. The Division of Equine Studies at Liverpool University recently launched a two-year study of cross-country falls, concentrating on equine injuries rather than human ones, using a mechanical horse from the Transport Research Laboratory. In addition, project leader Ellen Singer, DVM, DVSc, Dipl. ACVS, a lecturer on The University of Liverpool's faculty of veterinary science, intends to collect data from approximately 40 events across the United Kingdom in the 2002 season (data from 2001 is scarce due to mass cancellations because of foot and mouth disease).

British Eventing chief executive officer Peter Durrant hopes that the Liverpool University and Transport Research Laboratory projects will work hand-in-hand to reduce the risk of injury to horses and riders without destroying the "kick-on spirit" of the sport of eventing.

About the Author

Karen Briggs

Karen Briggs is the author of six books, including the recently updated Understanding Equine Nutrition as well as Understanding The Pony, both published by Eclipse Press. She's written a few thousand articles on subjects ranging from guttural pouch infections to how to compost your manure. She is also a Canadian certified riding coach, an equine nutritionist, and works in media relations for the harness racing industry. She lives with her band of off-the-track Thoroughbreds on a farm near Guelph, Ontario, and dabbles in eventing.

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