The Future of Horse Sports: The first two weeks of the coronial inquest into the deaths of Olivia Inglis and Caitlyn Fischer, who died while competing at separate horse trials events in 2016, have been challenging and the process widely reported by mainstream media. The social media commentary has been polarised and emotional, sometimes derailing into personal attacks but mostly driving people to take sides.

And it’s not just affecting individuals, the peak sports bodies are being subjected to the same levels of hostility.

Equestrian Australia (EA) has been feeling the brunt of the public disdain whilst dealing with a series of internal conflicts and a perceived lack of engagement with its constituents, particularly in the context of the current coronial inquests.

The concept of Social Licence to Operate now looms very large on the horizon for horse sports of all types, and while horse welfare has been a main focus in different disciplines, like endurance, dressage and all forms of racing, rider safety and risk management in eventing are currently under the spotlight.

In the last decade we’ve witnessed a growing hostility toward the international peak body for equestrian sport, the Fédération Equestre International (FEI), whether it’s for failure to manage the sport of endurance appropriately, or the lack of action on certain practices like hyperflexion and tight nosebands.

These aspects mirror the changing ways in which opinions and trust are formed, changed, and even destroyed in a social media-driven world. The negative discourse continues to test the public’s tolerance of equestrian activities and it is precisely now that we need good leadership and an evidence-based plan to secure the future of horse sports.

Denzil O’Brien has spent many years investigating horse-related injury risk management. Now retired, she has been involved with horses and contributed in a variety of guises: as a rider, owner, competitor, sports administrator (she served a five-year stint as CEO of Equestrian Australia), and most recently, as an epidemiological researcher in the areas of spinal cord injury, and research into horse-related injury, focussing on injury risk assessment and management in the sport of eventing.

I spoke to this advocate for horse sports’ sustainability about the current challenges, her research findings and whether this moment could become an opportunity for positive change to secure a thriving and safer future for all horse sports.

When did you start looking at safety issues in horse sports?

Since 2002, I have been actively engaged in research into the sport of eventing, collecting and analysing data on injuries to riders and horses, and exploring ways in which to make the sport as safe as it can be.

I have co-written two research reports into the establishment of a national injury surveillance system in eventing, and in 2016 my paper ‘Look before you leap: What are the obstacles to risk calculation in the equestrian sport of eventing’ was published in Animals, a peer-reviewed journal. In 2008 I was also a junior co-author of two reports on the safety of jumps racing in Australia, commissioned by Racing Victoria.

What did you learn from your research?

Concerns about eventing focus primarily on safety for the riders. In 2016, when my Animals paper was published, I was able to report on 59 known rider deaths in eventing between 1993 and 2015, and the alarming correlation between rider deaths and rotational horse falls.

This correlation was already well-known, the alarm having been raised when, during a brief 4-month period in 1999, 6 riders died, 5 in the UK and one in the USA, 5 of them as a result of a rotational horse fall.

The FEI responded very promptly to this crisis, appointing a high-level committee of inquiry (the Hartington inquiry) to examine the what’s and the why’s. The 2000 Hartington Report stated categorically that: “A fundamental conclusion which pervades every detailed recommendation is that everything should be done to prevent horses falling: this single objective should greatly reduce the chances of riders being seriously injured, as well as significantly improving the safety of competing horses.”

I must stress here that the vast majority of rider falls in eventing result in slight or no injury to the rider. Some would argue that the current rules which prohibit remounting even after a harmless fall, are too tough and that remounting, even with an injury, should be allowed in certain cases.

Australians Bill Roycroft and Gillian Rolton would certainly agree with that statement, having both won Olympic Gold Medals by continuing on after sustaining serious but not life-threatening injuries. However, in the context of the current discussions taking place in contact sports such as rugby union, rugby league and AFL about the long-term effects of undiagnosed and untreated concussion, it would be a very unwise move to back away from these stringent rules about continuing after a fall cross-country.

How did the sports’ governing bodies respond to the crisis?

Since the Hartington Report, much has been done to determine more precisely just what the risks are in eventing, and how they can be managed and reduced.

The FEI has led the way in these developments, including commissioning considerable research, and changing the rules by preventing a rider from simply re-presenting their horse to a jump after a refusal (something which was identified as greatly increasing the possibility of a rotational horse fall), since the horse may lack sufficient momentum to clear the jump, may hit it with its chest or with its forelegs, and tumble over, usually landing on the rider in the process.

Eligibility requirements have been revised, aimed at increasing a horse and rider’s skills and experience as a combination.

Safety Officers have been appointed in all eventing countries, and they collect and report fall and injury data annually to the FEI, which in turn collates these data and reports annually. These reports over the years from 2002 to 2018 provide a valuable picture of the rates and circumstances of both rider and horse falls, and any consequent injuries to riders.

There have been significant changes to the construction of jumps, including the development of a technical device known as a frangible pin, which allows jump components to drop to the ground when hit with force, such as when a horse fails to clear the jump and collides with it instead. (Interestingly, the number of rotational horse falls rose sharply but briefly after the introduction of these frangible pins, but I am not aware of any research identifying any reason for this.)

Other significant changes included automatic elimination of horse and rider for any fall on course, no matter how ‘harmless’; changes to the entire structure of the sport, with the steeplechase and roads and tracks components being phased out; research into improved body protectors and helmets; and annual FEI safety forums.

Did Equestrian Australia follow suit?

Yes, EA followed the lead of the FEI, establishing its own safety committee and to a certain extent exploring the ways in which they could implement the FEI’s recommended changes. However, it is my observation that EA’s reactions were relatively slow. For example, it was only at the beginning of 2018 that frangible pins were made mandatory at appropriate fences.

EA publishes a safety report compiled by their Safety Officer, but these reports were only introduced very recently, and there is no baseline data (data collected earlier) from which to compare current numbers and rates of falls. They also do not report on overall injury numbers or rates and so, my opinion, they are of limited use.

How does a lack of baseline data affect decision-making in terms of eventing safety?

In managing risk in eventing (or indeed in any situation in which there are unwanted outcomes), data are everything!

Without data, we may not know the circumstances of riders’ or horses’ falls and injuries.

Generally, full details about rider deaths are available because there is usually an inquest, and even before an inquest, eyewitness reports are available to everyone online. But without comprehensive data about non-fatal falls, we cannot know whether the fact that no eventing rider has died since 2017 is the result of innovations and improvements in safety, or just chance and luck.

In fact, there have been a further 6 rider deaths since that of Sabrina Manganaro in 2015, who was the last to be included in my reported data. In the 10 years from 2008 to 2017, 25 riders died, 20 of them in rotational horse falls (in three cases, there is insufficient information to determine whether there was a rotational horse fall involved).

Two of these deaths were of young women in Australia in 2016, and the fallout from these tragic deaths is far-reaching, both for the sport and for its peak body.

While it is inappropriate to comment directly on the circumstances around these deaths as the coroner is still examining the matter, their deaths have certainly brought into focus, once again, whether there is actually anything that can be done to prevent eventing fatalities, or whether we should be having a discussion about just what level of risk we will accept as ‘normal’.

Should equestrian bodies look at other sports for guidance in terms of risk management and minimising fatalities?

Other sports have initiated discussion about acceptable levels of risk for their participants, but since there are very few sports in which participants actually run the real risk of dying while competing, the discussions are usually about acceptable numbers of concussions or fracture, or the like.

Of course, horse sports are the only sports in which two sentient beings are united in a common purpose, so assessment of the risks involved is a more complicated matter.

Thoroughbred racing authorities around the world have been tackling the issue of injury and death for both jockeys and horses for decades now, and most of the leading racing authorities have well-established data collection systems, and sophisticated data analysis processes.

As Research Fellow Dr Peta Hitchens puts it, taking an epidemiological approach to identifying cause and effect is like being a detective: “An epidemiologist investigates the reasons for injury or disease occurring within populations. They are most popularly associated with investigating disease outbreaks. But as an equine veterinary epidemiologist I focus on investigating risk factors for injuries and fatalities in racehorses with the mantra that “prevention is better than a cure.”

We have been talking a lot about rider risk but, what about horse injuries?

Of course, it is not only riders’ deaths which occur in the sport. Horses die too, and in surprising numbers.

I have been compiling as-yet unpublished data on horse deaths in eventing over the last 20 years. But simple numbers don’t tell the whole story, because there is no central reporting system which records the fate of eventing horses or what happens to them when they leave the competition. Their story ceases when they make their last appearance.

Racing Victoria has taken a lead in this matter of tracking racehorses after their competitive life is over, with adoption of a system which will track racehorses from birth passed retirement. British Racing has gone further, adopting a system that will take responsibility from birth to death.

One of the complications facing the non-racing equine community in terms of data collection is that horses are simply not counted in any systematic way. Performance horses may be registered in many different jurisdictions; leisure horses may not be registered at all. Breeders report to their own studbooks, but there is no overall counting system for horses. We know exactly how many cows there are in Australia because they are registered under a national system, so it seems silly that we don’t know how many horses there are!

How important is transparency in terms of horse sports’ social licence and are the governing bodies meeting public expectations?

Transparency is a hot ticket item in the corporate and political worlds at the moment, and equally so in sports’ management.

In relation to rider injuries, the FEI does indeed issue a comprehensive annual report, a process begun after the Hartington Review, but it does so in a way which combines ‘serious injuries’ with ‘deaths’, thus hiding the actual number of deaths while at not defining ‘serious injury’ specifically.

In 2016, for example, the FEI annual report reveals just five ‘serious or fatal’ injuries as a result of a rotational horse fall. Three of these five ‘serious or fatal injuries’ were in fact fatalities. Further, the FEI reports only on international level events. Reporting on rider injuries or deaths at the hundreds of national level events held around the world (more than 250 in the USA alone each year), remains the responsibility of the country itself.

I think that sports governing bodies need to be seen to be doing what they say they are doing in relation to important matters such as welfare and safety.

Sometimes, equestrian governing bodies give the appearance of trying to hide facts, or respond defensively to questions. I am not suggesting that this is deliberate, but the appearance of lack of transparency is certainly contributing to the active and sometimes corrosive debate which is occurring right now on social media about the state of equestrian sports’ governance.

What about recording and researching horse injury risk factors; are the sports’ governing bodies doing enough?

In relation to reporting horse deaths in eventing, neither the FEI nor EA do anything at all. In my research into eventing horse deaths, I was able to access the FEI horse database, which records each FEI-registered horse’s performances at FEI events.

In a number of cases, I was unable to match a particular horse whose death was reported on reputable websites with an FEI record of that horse’s entry at the event at which it died. So, in some cases, the dead horse ‘disappears’ from the records, and its last appearance is the one before the event at which it died.

In the past, this was a similar situation in jumps racing in Australia. Stewards’ reports of a fatality at the track could often not be reconciled with the recorded list of starters: the dead horse had disappeared.

If there were a national database of horses, with all equine bodies connected with it, and with each other, we would not only know how many horses there are, but we would also know what happens to them. This would be transparency at its best.

How does the quality of reporting affect horse sports’ sustainability and future?

In the context of the current public abhorrence for anything which appears to affect safety or relate to cruelty or mistreatment of animals, a lack of transparency about equine injuries and deaths threatens the retention of the sports’ social licence to operate.

If anyone in the world can find and republish a photograph online of a horse being euthanased after breaking a leg on the racecourse, it is no use for racing officials to remain silent on the matter, or to retreat behind euphemisms such as ‘broke down in racing’.

Similarly, if anyone can find an online report of an eventing horse dying during cross-country, it does the governing body no credit to remain silent about the number of horses which are injured or killed eventing. If the current backlash against jumps racing and endurance were to be turned against eventing, the sport would have difficulty maintaining its position as an Olympic sport.

Thoroughbred racing jurisdictions around the world are increasingly recognising that their sport is, if not endangered, at least under threat from a poor image and a public perception that racing exists only for people to gamble on and that the horses are mistreated and used as commodities, then discarded after their use-by-date, often to a less than satisfactory end of life.

In Australia, several racing jurisdictions, both Thoroughbred and Standardbred, are beginning to recognise that their responsibilities for their ‘product’ begin at birth and end only at death. Supporting this relatively new concept is a national horse traceability register, to track all horses from birth to death. The FEI supports the introduction of a Unique Equine Life Number (UELN) for all horses, and national horse sport organisations could learn from this.

I do not believe that either the FEI or EA have, to date, managed the issue of rider or horse deaths and injuries in a transparent manner, and both organisations sometimes exhibit that ‘bunkered-down’ attitude which characterises an organisation on the defensive against perceived and sometimes imagined threats.

Defensiveness is understandable, but in today’s instant transmission of facts, theories and outright falsehoods, it can be a dangerous posture to adopt. Transparency obviously comes at a cost, but increasingly, organisations are recognising that the cost is worth it in the long run, since the greater cost of having one’s social licence abruptly withdrawn can be devastating.

So, what could be done better?

First, data, data, more data. Unless we know how many, how often, and in what circumstances, it won’t be possible for authorities to develop rational, evidence-based solutions to the issues facing the sport of eventing.

Standardised record keeping and an accepted methodology for analysing data will lead to increased transparency, and help to protect equine sports’ social licence to operate.

Transparency comes with risks and costs, but it is clear from examining those organisations which have hidden behind opacity and inaccessibility that the outcome is usually unfavourable for those organisations. The FEI and EA, as well as other horse sports, should initiate an open conversation about safety, not hide in the bunker when asked challenging questions.

Research will prove of greater value to an organisation than public relations. Public relations merely distracts attention from the problem, and offers no solution whatsoever. It simply delays the inevitable, once the public eye focusses on the problem and not the spin.

The newly reconstituted EA Board offers a great opportunity for the organisation to step up, take the initiative, and lead and manage the discussion. The Board has inherited many problems and a poor organisational reputation. Failing to confront this head-on can only threaten the future of the sport. I urge EA members to get behind their new Board and support them in managing the complex issue of safety in eventing.

This article about transparency and research and the future of horse sports was published in Horses and People July-August 2019 magazine.