Technological advances are making a thrilling, but often times injury riddled sport, a bit safer for both horse and rider.
New materials that create solid looking jumps for the cross-country phase of eventing have lessened the inherit risk of catastrophic falls. Huge logs, as well as other custom-made obstacles, constructed of a frangible (breakable) material, disintegrate when impacted with the same force that would cause a horse to flip over on top of the rider. These sorts of falls often cause irreparable harm to both the rider and horse – neck and spinal cord injuries the most common and these are, without question, devastating – the horse generally euthanized and the rider facing fractures, pain and possible paralysis.
Also in use are frangible pins – those things that hold the jumps in place. The breakable pins allow a hit with a hoof but will also allow the top rail to come down when the same force is applied as would cause a “head over heels” fall with similar consequences as described above. Both have the potential to minimize serious and life-threatening injuries that plague this popular equine activity and are a welcome addition to the sport.
Inflatable safety vests worn in conjunction with the body protectors already worn by all event riders offers a substantial increase in spine support as well as a better cushion from impact trauma along the torso. This gives the rider a greater level of protection from crush type injuries where the horse rolls over on to the rider after a fall. The inflatables work by an attachment to the saddle and inflate as soon as the rider in unseated from the horse.
Wearing a safety helmet is, of course, an essential ingredient in protection for all riders. Helmets worn for cross-country jumping must be fitted with precision and must be secured in place with adequate strapping. The new helmets with the latest safety approval rating will meet the requirements but other considerations should be comfort as well as proper fit.
Course designers have, finally, found innovative ways to challenge both riders and horses without creating dangerous combinations of jumps. After far too many serious falls resulting in unacceptable injury and equine deaths in the upper levels of competition committees were gathered to re-examine the questions posed to our equine athletes. Jumps have become lower and the combinations interesting but not beyond the capabilities of most horses. Accidents will still happen but minimizing unnecessary risk is a very good step in the right direction.
All the safety equipment in the world will be of no use without a properly trained and conditioned horse. Eventing is not for weekend riders nor is it for hunters that become bored with the ring and run out to event without proper preparation. Eventing requires a large commitment of time and physical preparation for both rider and horse. Jumping tired horses over obstacles is never a safe proposition. Conditioning must include endurance as well as muscle. To compete in the three phases of a horse trial or the five phases of an upper level event takes stamina and know-how.
Pony Club offers a great beginning for the would-be eventer. Training for such an activity may mean three trainers – one each for the dressage, cross-country and stadium phases. Preparing correctly for this challenging sport should not be taken lightly as the potential for injury is higher than most equestrian endeavors. Horses that are not schooled with the knowledge of what it takes to finish all three phases of a horse trial can suffer chronic muscle, tendon and ligament stressors. Riders that are not sufficiently trained to handle horses at speed and over jumps are accidents waiting to happen.
Horse trials and events are a great all-around equestrian activity – challenging both riders and horses in various disciplines. Challenges do not need to be scary or rife with potential for injury to be interesting. As the sport evolves so too does the level of excitement without the threat of serious harm.