With Badminton in full swing, thousands of people will be ascending on the South Gloucestershire area to watch horse and rider partnerships take on the 30-fence cross country course, tackling oxers, water jumps and Trakehners. The event is also broadcast on National television, with many more spectators watching from the comfort of their home. With all the media coverage, Badminton, and other such events, inevitably raises welfare issues for some people, especially when they see a horse and rider take a fall.
As a rider myself, equestrian welfare issues are very important to me. While I do not believe basic horse riding and training to be a welfare issue, as long as riders are respectful and the horses are not mistreated through their training, I do find myself questioning the welfare implications of competing at top-level events, in particular cross-country.
Cross-country is one of the 3 disciplines which forms the equestrian sport of eventing. In cross-country, horse and rider must navigate a course of obstacles inside a certain time limit. Obstacles can include water jumps, banks and ditches. Unlike Show Jumping, where the slightest knock to a poll can end with a fence down, the jumps in a cross-country course are solid fences, some of which cannot be knocked over. British Eventing (BE) acknowledges the dangers of cross country, and state that:
“Both horse and rider must be in excellent physical shape to complete the cross country test. The horse and rider will have practiced or ‘schooled’ over several different types of cross country fences before competing to develop braveness, experience and trust.” -British Eventing
The obvious welfare problem with cross-country competing is harm caused to horses when they knock or fall at a jump. According to BE Guidelines, as horse is deemed to have “Fallen” when:
“Both its shoulder and its quarters have touched the ground, or the obstacle and the ground, simultaneously. ”- British Eventing
A study into injuries sustained while training vs. competing found that hitting a fence accounted for 35% of equine injuries in the study, and the second commonest cause was a horse falling at a fence (19%). Most injuries were reported as bruising or cuts to the horse, however it was reported that career-ending or life-ending injuries to equines were caused by the horse falling at a jump (2% of all injuries). It is therefore justifiable to raise welfare concerns over the sport of equine cross-country, and steps should be taken to improve horse safety (Singer at al, 2008).
Many studies have focused on the particular factors causing a horse to fall when competing. Research in 2005 (Murray et al, 2005) highlighted 3 main causes:
- Riders who had no refusals during cross-country events prior to the study were more at risk of falling. Researchers explained that riders with a greater competitive nature were more likely to attempt fences despite a sub-optimal run up, and would use leg, whip and voice to encourage the horse to jump, and risk a fall, rather than to refuse. It is also apparent that some horses would rather jump than refuse, with little or no encouragement from their rider and with little regard for their own safety.
- Landing and taking off in water also increased the risk of a fall, which could be due to the horse becoming unbalanced due to the water drag, or perhaps misjudging the width/height of the jump if the base was covered with water.
- Riders who knew they were in the top scoring positions were more likely to fall in the cross-country stage. There are two explanations highlighted here, one that the horses scoring highly in dressage are less suited to cross-country jumping, and two, the riders in top positions may be more likely to take risks to remain in those top positions.
However, even before this research, BE had started to make changes to the cross-country stage of eventing. In 2002, frangible fences were brought in to reduce the occurrence of a rotational fall (where the horse knocks a fence with its legs/chest and the hindquarters are lifted into the air, resulting in the horse landing on its back or side), and the depth of water jumps was reduced by more than a metre.
Although some believe certain fence types are more likely to cause rotational falls, FEI (Federation Equestre International) denies this after their survey found that fence type can only contribute 10% on the occurrence of rotational falls, and in fact it was speed on approach that was a bigger factor. However they did acknowledge there must be more research into the other factors making up the 90% occurrence for falls. (Barnett, 2016).
Cross country is undeniably a dangerous sport, with riders often being at greater risk of injury and death than their horses, and it is true that horses are at risk of being injured when competing, and in some cases, a horse has to be euthanized. While BE is always looking to improve equine safety and welfare, with Eventing being a popular sport and with a growing number of competitors, where should we stop when it comes to the difficulty of the courses? If you walk the course at badminton, you realise just how big these jumps are, and just how huge the challenge is for horse and rider. But how greater can the challenge get? Is our competitive drive putting horses and riders alike at risk?
When reading BE Guidelines, it is repeated that dangerous riding can increase the risk of horse and rider injury, and as such there are strict rules in place to discourage such behaviour. The section below is taken from the British Eventing Rule Book 2017:
5.6 Dangerous Riding. A Competitor who at any stage of the competition rides in a way which may adversely affect the safety of himself, his Horse or any third party to a greater extent than is inherent in the nature of the sport is guilty of dangerous riding and is therefore in breach of these Rules.
The following are some examples of conduct which may constitute dangerous riding:
- Riding out of control;
- Riding fences too fast for the fences in question;
- Riding fences too slowly for the fences in question. This can include jumping a fence when a Horse has slowed down so much, or come to a standstill, so that the loss of momentum will seriously reduce the prospects of the Horse jumping the fence safely.
- Repeatedly standing off fences too far;
- Riding the Horse with excessive force to the foot of the fence;
- Riding an unresponsive Horse;
- Repeatedly being ahead or behind the Horse movement when jumping;
- Riding without regard to these Rules.
Breaching any of the rules, including those above can lead to disciplinary action against the competitor. This can include penalty points, elimination from further events or a £500 fine. All disciplinary actions are recorded on the competitors card as well as being displayed on the BE website for a year.
It seems that BE puts more weight on the risks of dangerous riding or riding above experience rather than the difficulty level of competitions, suggestion it is the skill of the rider rather than the course/jump level which has a bigger impact on injury risk. It would be interesting to look at the variation in injury occurrence/type between high-level eventing such as badminton, vs. competitions at lower level. Although the course will be more challenging at the higher level, and the jumps will be bigger, those horses competing at lower levels are less likely to receive the same training, have the same purpose breeding, or the same skilled riders, so may be more likely to be injured.
Animal welfare is a personal subject, and we should appreciate that people will have opposing views. On the one hand, these horses would not be facing these injuries if they were not competing. On the other hand, a study looking into traumatic injuries in equines reported that only 13% of injuries reported occurred during ridden exercise, with 68% occurring when the horse was in the field (Owen et al, 2012). However, this sample may not have included horses competing at high level cross-country. BE has taken steps to improve equine safety following conclusions from scientific research, and BE Rules highlight the importance of horse welfare during their competitions. For example
“The BE Safety Administrator will investigate any Horse which has two falls in a 12 month period and, in conjunction with the owner and rider, seek to ascertain the reason for the falls and steps which may be needed to prevent further falls.”- British Eventing
Overall, taking part in cross county events can lead to animal injuries, but in BE registered competitions, steps are continually being taken to reduce the risk of injury. Higher level cross country competitions do raise more questions as they are often broadcast on national TV, and viewing horse falls, especially rotational falls, can be shocking to audiences. However, with a horse more likely to be euthanized in their field than on the cross-country course, there is not a great risk to horses when competing, and injuries very rarely result in euthanasia. That does not, however, mean we should be slack regarding their welfare during eventing. The best way to ensure horse safety is to make sure riders are properly trained and in control of their horse, do not attempt courses beyond their experience level, and understand the risks involved in dangerously navigating a cross country course.
- Ellen R. Singer, Jane Barnes, Fiona Saxby, Jane K. Murray, Injuries in the event horse: Training versus competition, The Veterinary Journal, Volume 175, Issue 1, January 2008, Pages 76-81, ISSN 1090-0233, http://doi.org/10.1016/j.tvjl.2006.11.009.
- K. Murray, E.R. Singer, K.L. Morgan, C.J. Proudman, N.P. French, Risk factors for cross-country horse falls at one-day events and at two-/three-day events, The Veterinary Journal, Volume 170, Issue 3, November 2005, Pages 318-324, ISSN 1090-0233
- Barnett, 2016, “An audit into Eventing Incorporating an Analysis of Risk Factors for Cross Country Horse Falls at FEI Eventing Competitions” Federation Equestre Internationale (FEI).
- British Eventing, 2017, “British Eventing- Members Handbook 2017”.
- OWEN, K. R., SINGER, E. R., CLEGG, P. D., IRELAND, J. L. and PINCHBECK, G. L. (2012), Identification of risk factors for traumatic injury in the general horse population of north-west England, Midlands and north Wales. Equine Veterinary Journal, 44: 143–148. doi:10.1111/j.2042-3306.2011.00387.x