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Study identifies ways to make equestrian sport safer for horses and riders

In the first study of horse falls for over 20 years, researchers have identified some simple interventions to reduce the risk of injury in equestrian sport - making it safer for both horses and riders.

The study pinpointed characteristics associated with an increased risk of falls in eventing

The study, led by the University of Bristol and involving Nottingham Trent University, pinpointed characteristics associated with an increased risk of falls in eventing, such as higher-level events, longer courses, more starters at cross-country phase and less experienced horses and athletes.

Identifying these risk factors allows riders and event organisers to assess the level of risk for individual horse, rider and event combinations. The study, published in the Equine Veterinary Journal, recommends simple mitigations such as adjusting minimum eligibility requirements [MERs] to ensure horses and riders always compete at a level appropriate to their ability.

Led by Bristol Veterinary School’s Dr Euan Bennet and Professor Tim Parkin, with Dr Heather Cameron-Whytock of Nottingham Trent University, and funded by Federation Equestre Internationale (FEI), it is the first large scale study using a global data set of every FEI eventing competition over an 11-year period.

This data included every horse start worldwide in all international, championship, Olympics and World Equestrian Games competitions between January 2008 and December 2018. This amounted to over 200,000 horse starts, allowing researchers to specifically analyse the cross-country phase and identify any common factors.

Of 202,771 horse starts during this period, 187,602 started the cross-country phase. Of these, 1.5 per cent recorded a fallen horse and 3.5 per cent had an unseated rider.

At least 50 riders and 109 horses have died since 2000 across all levels of competition worldwide.

Bristol Veterinary School’s Dr Euan Bennet said: “Eventing is an exciting equestrian sport, but horses and riders sometimes get injured during competitions. Occasionally they are very seriously injured, even fatally. We have gained a detailed understanding of the risk factors that make horses more likely to fall, so that we can provide actionable advice to governing bodies on how to reduce the number of horse falls, and therefore injuries and fatalities among horses and riders.

“This data is about probabilities, and we would never say don’t ride because you’re going to have a fall, but we might say what we can see is according to your risk profile you’re in the top 5% at risk of a fall.”

Dr Heather Cameron-Whytock, a researcher in Nottingham Trent University’s School of Animal, Rural and Environmental Sciences, said: “As a percentage of starters, the occurrence of horse falls is low, however if a horse and rider do have a fall then the risk of serious or fatal injury is high.

“Our research is about identifying numerous areas for ‘marginal gains’ to enable reduction of risk, rather than finding one prominent discovery that explains and eliminates falls, which is unlikely to happen. Our findings have the potential to inform policy that could impact the risk of serious injury or in the worst cases, fatality, to riders and horses.”

The study identified the following factors as contributing to a fall:

  • Horses competing at higher levels
  • Horses competing over longer cross-country course distances
  • A higher number of starters at the cross-country phase
  • Mares were at increased odds compared with geldings
  • Horses whose previous start was longer than 60 days ago
  • Horses who had previously made fewer starts at the level of their current event
  • At the human athlete level, male athletes were at increased odds of experiencing a fall, compared with female athletes
  • Younger athletes were at increased odds compared with older athletes
  • Less experienced athletes were more likely to fall than their more experienced counterparts
  • Athletes whose previous start was more than 30 days ago were at increased odds compared with athletes who last started within 30 days
  • Athletes who did not finish their previous event, for any reason, were at increased odds compared with those who successfully finished their previous event.
  • Horse-athlete combinations who recorded a score in the dressage phase that was higher than 50 (i.e. poor performance) were at increased odds of falling during the cross-country phase compared with combinations who recorded a dressage score of 50 or less

The researchers now hope the FEI will use this new evidence to implement evidence-based rules for eventing which protect the safety of athletes and horses without compromising on competitiveness.

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    ‘Fédération Equestre Internationale eventing: Risk factors for horse falls and unseated riders during the cross‐country phase (2008‐2018)’, by Euan D. Bennet, Heather Cameron-Whytock and Tim D. H. Parkin in the Equine Veterinary Journal.

    Nottingham Trent University was named University of the Year 2019 in the Guardian University Awards. The award was based on performance and improvement in the Guardian University Guide, retention of students from low-participation areas and attainment of BME students.

    NTU was also the Times Higher Education University of the Year 2017, and The Times and Sunday Times Modern University of the Year 2018. These awards recognise NTU for its high levels of student satisfaction, its quality of teaching, its engagement with employers, and its overall student experience.

    It is one of the largest UK universities. With over 37,000 students and more than 4,000 staff located across four campuses, the University injects £1.6bn into the UK economy. It has been the largest recruiter of UK undergraduates in each of the last four years. With an international student population of more than 6,000 and an NTU community representing around 160 countries, the University prides itself on its global outlook.

    The university is passionate about creating opportunities and its extensive outreach programme is designed to enable NTU to be a vehicle for social mobility. NTU is among the UK’s top five recruiters of students from disadvantaged backgrounds and was awarded University of the Year in the UK Social Mobility Awards 2019.

Study identifies ways to make equestrian sport safer for horses and riders

Published on 10 November 2021
  • Subject area: Animal, equine and wildlife
  • Category: Press office; Research; School of Animal, Rural and Environmental Sciences

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