|Have Fun Cross Country But Be Safe|
Eventing has become very safety conscious over the last 5-10 years, and quite rightly so in light of fatalities that occurred in the preceding years. An Australian Assistant Technical Delegate, John Lechner, even devotes an entire blog to eventing safety, and so vehemently champions the safety mantle he’s known as “Eventing Safety John”. (he scares me!) Anyway on to my point for this post…..
A number of things in recent weeks have been discussed or published on the safety topic, and then there’s a visit I made to America earlier this year, and a somewhat eye opening spectacle at a one day event.
|Dressage | Not As Safe As It First Looks|
Firstly, the subject of hard hats in the dressage phase was raised again recently, this time by ECOGOLD. I have to admit, although I’ve not always worn a hat myself in the past (I do now) whilst working on the flat, I’ve always found it a little ridiculous that all the teaching and education we do from Pony Club right through to young riders, hammers home “always wear a hard hat”, yet in upper level competition (where our role models sit) we throw caution to the wind. Perhaps the safety forum planned for January by Riders4Helmets will tackle some of these points.
But then I have always found Eventing really doesn’t seem to take dress code seriously at all, my favourite gripe at the moment is the ridiculous bibs situation, in which case I really don’t see why we have top hats in the Dressage phase, so perhaps it’s time to make hard hats mandatory purely for dress sense!
On a more serious note, it [enforcing hard hats] really is an option worthy of serious consideration, each year at Badminton you can guarantee that at least one horse will rear, bronco or spin in the dressage arena. It would take only an unfortunate twist of fate for a rider to fall onto a fence paling or some such thing for it to be catastrophic. Overall I’m all for letting people make their own value judgements, so I’m not going to bang the drum in either camp, and I would like to see wider debate before anything was forced upon riders, we get too much of that already. The Americans are actually considering some significant rule changes
Now secondly, I remember ‘frangible pins’ being introduced many years ago, and I’m a real sucker for technology (I’m one of those ‘early adopters’ the tech companies love). Technology in this area has come along way in the last few years and particularly in the last 12 months, not all of it good, but all of it interesting and innovative. You’ve possibly seen this video before, but here’s Hugh Thomas (Badminton Horse Trials Course Designer) explaining some of what has been going on recently in the field of “Deformable Fences”:
Thirdly, this brings me neatly to cross country riding (safely), how bad are we all at it, what Lucinda Green has recently suggested is the answer to the safety issue, and some observations of my own, from a recent trip and the experience I have from playing host to a very busy cross country schooling facility.
These deformable/frangible fences bring with them some psychological challenges for the sport, I believe. Making a range of fences safer, I think, can lead to a false sense of security, and perhaps not leave a rider with enough correct respect for a fence. Also, Oliver Townend’s fall at Kentucky earlier this year demonstrated that these safety mechanisms are not all encompassing or fail-safe.
Remember fences are rarely the problem, it’s how they are ridden, or we’d see the same problem at the same fence time and time again, but I’m not a fan of dishing out penalties for breaking frangible pins. We need to constantly ram home the complexities of riding cross country, and how to evaluate the challenges being set. BE is not slack in this respect and quite often you will see course walks taking place across all of the classes, allowing amateurs to walk alongside professionals and learn. A lot more of this educational tactic would go a long way in reducing the number of accidents, along with more cross country clinics, forums etc. (which gives me an idea…)
In many ways I am really lucky, as we have a 40 acre cross country schooling facility at my yard, which on a busy day can have anything from 60-100 horses through the place, and I get to watch and chat with so many of the top professionals in the sport as they come schooling. I quite often warm up (even for flat work) out there so get to see a lot of what goes on, and I have to say I’m constantly amazed at how unstructured and unfocussed many are (mainly non-professionals) that come schooling. Although I’ve not ridden advanced in this country (or for some time), I do for a variety of reasons get to walk many of 1-4* tracks. There is plenty of variety out there particularly at 1 & 2 star level, so structured schooling is very important.
Cross country schooling is like any other schooling session, for the horse it should consist of a physical warm up, a mental warm up, and a set of structured exercises. So often I’ve seen people merrily trot out from the lorry park and head straight for the water, or worse still some of the drop fences. At least once a week we move the fences around the site to so there is always some variety and it helps preserve the ground. Yet with all this still so many come schooling without fore thought or planning, never looking for a line of fences to ride, or mapping out some combinations, all of which is available for every level and every stage in a schooling session.
|Lucinda Green | In Need of A Steeplechase|
What was my point in telling you this? Well, Education, Education, Education! Lucinda Green recently suggested that Steeplechase should be re-introduced to make the sport safer as a way of teaching riders to take fences at speed, and has often voiced her concern over the standard of cross country riding in today’s sport. I agree there is some shocking cross country riding going on, and Lucinda even suggested that since a number of horses at WEG were finishing the showjumping very fresh, adding 2 miles of steeplechase should be of no consequence.
Possibly, but I am a big fan of the short format and the positive effect it has on horse’s fitness for the final phase, and longevity. I also think that problems like this should be tackled head on. If the standard of riding needs to be raised, let’s tackle this in the class room, not in the exam. I’ve always thought that cross country warm-ups at 3 and 4 star level should include some brush fences, which I think would be hugely beneficial in what Lucinda is aiming to achieve.
Now, I wonder if Lucinda’s other pet hate of the modern sport will get some air time; how do we remove the dressage influence (or entire phase) from the competition? (because it’s too subjective)
Dressage supremo, Robert Dover, has also made some ‘controversial’ comments on eventing and the safety & wellbeing of the horses in his blog, which provoked William Micklem to pipe up over on the Chronicle of the Horse, which in turn set eventing nation off on a mission as well. Gosh! where will it all end……? I suppose the fact all of these things are talked about and debated is good….
|Showjumping | It’s About Agility Not Speed|
And Finally……There are several other safety issues that can occur at an outdoor sporting event, which involves horses, spectators et al. I’m not about to jump of the Health & Safety bandwagon as I detest the “PC”, over protective nature that the HSE adopts. However on a visit to an American One Day Event earlier this year, I was somewhat taken aback at the laissez-faire nature of the riding, particularly in the show jumping (Stadium jumping), where every rider I watched charged around the course with no attempt to ride lines, strides or related distances. Fences were ‘ridden at’ rather than ‘ridden to’, albeit the fences were under a metre in height. I’m told this is standard practice over there, but it made me a little nervous.
Watching dressage produced a fairly similar feeling, particularly in the warm-up arena, and I must admit I was a little surprised to see warm up fences in the cross country tackled with the same bravado! Having seen riders using ‘metre wheels’ at this level for the first time, I had expected a more considered approach to both warm up and the course itself.
But more astonishing, was the following:
|Not what you want chasing you on cross country!|
A rider in the Prelim Class (GB eq. of Novice) misses out a fence on cross country (fence 7 or 8, I think) eliminating himself, but not realising. Course Builder in big American pick-up chases rider tooting his horn in an attempt to halt him on course! Unable to attract rider’s attention, he eventually over takes rider, and parks in front of a fence blocking the rider’s approach, about three fences from home.
As entertaining as all this may have seemed at the time, it really was alarming!
In summary, I’m really glad so much is being discussed on the subject of safety, and my only hope is that we don’t take the sport down an overly cautious track where we lose sight of what makes this sport so popular (remember Badminton attracts 0.25M visitors!) and that is, an exciting and exhilarating cross country phase. Education, on so many fronts, is how we will continue to improve the sport, and I for one believe we can all play a small part in that.
I know only too well myself how easy it is to become complacent, or lose sight of what is needed to improve. In most cases it comes down to education, something that should be repeated. A wise person recently told me you cannot ride at advanced level without some help ‘on the ground’, I agree and would go as far as to say, you can never rise a level without some help on the ground. Improvement always requires fresh perspective. So, if you can, please help those less experienced than yourself and learn from those more experienced than you. We need to tackle all these things before the competition, not in the competition.
Before I forget [climbs aboard his soap box], in addition to banning ridiculous bibs, I put forward the motion to ban polystyrene logs, and throttle happy red necks in pick-up trucks from the cross country phase! (Kentucky 3DE please take note, in light of your new tailgating ticket)
I’m currently working on quite a big piece about cross country riding, course design etc, so keep half an eye on the blog over the coming month, as it will include plenty of comment from some very interesting people….
By all means share you thoughts on the reintroduction of steeplechase or anything else I’ve mentioned here.