Minimizing Horse and Rider Risk Factors on Cross-Country

The cross-country phase of eventing comes with risk, but new research aims to keep horses and riders safer.
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The risk of a horse and rider falling decreased when they had more experience at the FEI level at which they were competing. | Photo: Anne M. Eberhardt/The Horse
Researchers now know that eventing riders are more likely to fall off during cross-country if they lack experience or they’ve had a poor dressage score at the same event. Risk also increases at higher levels or when riding longer courses. And a horse that’s fallen before is more likely to fall again.

In a recent study, researchers examined more than 200,000 eventing starts in Fédération Equestre Internationale (FEI) competitions over 10 years. Their data could lead to the development of “risk profiles” for each horse/rider combination prior to entering an event, which could ultimately improve safety and welfare for participants, said Euan Bennet, MSci, PhD, of the University of Glasgow School of Veterinary Medicine, in Scotland.

“We’re not talking about massive changes,” Bennet said. “We’re just saying that the evidence that we’ve got here could inform the Minimum Eligibility Requirements (MERs, a series of checks that permit athletes to move up to higher star levels) to make sure people are competing at levels appropriate for them, to minimize the risks.”

Bennet and his fellow researchers at Glasgow, Nottingham Trent University and the University of Bristol, both in the U.K., collaborated with the FEI to analyze the full data set of their FEI Global Eventing Database, from Jan. 1, 2008, to Dec. 31, 2018. The database includes detailed records of every start in FEI eventing competitions, at all levels. Their research was based off the previous FEI level system of one to four stars. (Current FEI regulations recognize difficulty on a scale of one to five stars.)

This was the first extensive evaluation of risk assessment on cross-country in more than 20 years. In that time, despite various rule revisions, an estimated 50 human athletes and 109 equine athletes have died on cross-country courses worldwide during competition or training, he said.

Bennet and his colleagues found that from 2008 to 2018 and across all FEI levels, 3.5% of rides ended in a rider falling off the horse, and 1.5% ended with a horse also falling. This correlates to 11.7 rider falls and 5.1 horse falls for every 10,000 jumps.

When Horses Are Less Likely to Fall

Using multivariable logistic regression models, Bennet’s team identified factors affecting the likelihood of a fall occurring.

Horses were slightly less likely to fall when:

  • Their most recent FEI eventing competition was at least 60 days earlier;
  • They had already competed at least five times at the same level in the past
  • They had never fallen in competition before;
  • They were geldings or stallions, as opposed to mares;
  • Their riders were women;
  • Their riders were older—athletes aged 37 and older being about 15% less likely to have horses fall than riders aged 21 or younger;
  • Their riders had more lifetime eventing experience—with athletes that had ridden in at least 46 prior FEI events having about 8% lower odds of falling than those with a history of only four or fewer FEI starts;
  • Their riders had more recent experience, having competed within the past month; and
  • Their riders had completed their most recent event.

When Riders Are Less Likely to Fall

Riders were less likely to fall off their horses from 2008 to 2015, compared to 2016 to 2018, Bennet said. That might be due to compounding factors—such as the 2014 addition to the rules of a precise definition of what qualifies as an “unseated rider” (a rider separated from the horse to the point of needing to remount).

Riders were less likely to fall when:

  • They were men;
  • They were competing at the one-star level as opposed to higher-level events;
  • Cross-country was the final phase of eventing, compared to the second phase;
  • Courses were relatively shorter;
  • Competitions had more riders, with at least 65 eventers starting, compared to 27 or fewer.
  • They had more lifetime eventing experience, with riders having at least six years of FEI competition experience being about 18% less likely to fall than those with only a year of FEI competition experience;
  • They had more recent eventing experience, with odds dropping for each additional competition within the past 30 days and within the past six months;
  • They’d never fallen off in an FEI competition;
  • Their horses had more lifetime eventing experience, with horses having at least 11 prior starts being about 23% less likely to have an unseated rider than those having only competed once;
  • Their horses had breaks between competitions and had less recent eventing experience, with odds increasing with each additional competition in recent months;
  • Their horses had never fallen or lost a rider in competition, with odds of an unseated rider increasing with each time the horse had fallen or the rider had become unseated; and
  • Their horses had begun their FEI eventing career by age 6.

More Rest for Horses, More Practice for Humans

“Horses that are competing more frequently are more likely to have a fall, but riders that are competing more frequently are less likely to have a fall,” Bennet said. “So that suggests the horses need appropriate rest and riders need appropriate practice.”

In addition, with each start for a specific horse-and-rider combination came an increased risk of a rider fall for that combination. However, that wasn’t true if the horse-rider combination stayed within their same FEI level, he added. Risk of falling reduced for every additional competition at the same level for that team.

Another risk factor was a poor score in the dressage test, Bennet said. Higher dressage scores were associated with a greater likelihood of a rider fall later in the cross-country phase. In eventing dressage, scores represent the number of penalties—meaning higher scores reflect poorer performance.

“One of the things that may come out of this study is a recommendation, not for disqualification, but that athletes who performed really poorly in dressage might be competing at too high a level and consider retiring before cross-country,” he said.

While this study focused on the human and horse factors, Bennet and his colleagues recently completed analyses of risk factors related to jump types, as well.

Overall, the series of studies aims to keep horses and humans as safe and healthy as possible, said Bennet.

“Obviously there are still going to be risks somewhere, right?” he said. “We’re unlikely to ever get to a place of having zero falls. But we can reduce those risks as much as possible.”

The study, Fédération Equestre Internationale eventing: Risk factors for horse falls and unseated riders during the cross-country phase (2008-2018), originally appeared in the Equine Veterinary JournalW in 2022.


Written by:

Passionate about horses and science from the time she was riding her first Shetland Pony in Texas, Christa Lesté-Lasserre writes about scientific research that contributes to a better understanding of all equids. After undergrad studies in science, journalism, and literature, she received a master’s degree in creative writing. Now based in France, she aims to present the most fascinating aspect of equine science: the story it creates. Follow Lesté-Lasserre on Twitter @christalestelas.

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