Three day eventing is a dangerous sport which has been plagued over the years by a string of both horse and rider fatalities, some of which have made headline news. Most accidents that result in serious injuries and fatalities occur in the cross country section of an event where riders negotiate a series of large, fixed obstacles against the clock. So why has this sport proved to be so dangerous and how is a brilliant new invention making a significant contribution to safety improvements?
The principle safety issue that distinguishes cross country from other forms of riding is the fixed nature of the obstacles the horse and rider have to jump. In show jumping, hitting a fence will knock off the pole and usually cause no harm. In cross country a horse even clipping a fence can result in it being capitulated forward over the obstacle in a rotational fall that can often have dire consequences.
Riders are often crushed under the falling horse as they both collide with the obstacle or the ground on the other side. Some safety measures have been introduced in recent years including the introduction of frangible pins on fences. Research discovered that if a horse struck an obstacle with a certain area of its leg the impact would result in the dangerous rotational falls, whereas hitting the fence with a portion of the leg above or below this point would not.
The amount of pressure the dangerous impacts generated was calculated and the new pins were evolved to support elements of the fences and would break when this kind of pressure was applied. The frangible pins are increasingly being used in competition which should lead to greater safety.
In addition to frangible pins other efforts have been made to improve the safety of evening courses. The depth of water jumps has been reduced and courses shortened. In addition riders now wear padded body protectors but beyond these there had been few innovations in rider safety until Lee Middleton, a former show jumper and equine dentist, invented a new kind of protective jacket. The body protectors are a variety of air vest which inflate in under a fifth of a second when a rider is thrown from their horse.
The new body protector is attached to the saddle by a lanyard. When a rider is thrown off their horse the lanyard triggers a metal bolt into a CO2 canister which rapidly inflates the jacket. The trigger mechanism is similar to that used in life jackets and the vest is a modification of a similar product developed for motorcyclists.
The jackets are designed to be worn in conjunction with conventional body protectors such as those produced by Champion, are now used by most professional riders and are becoming more and more popular with amateurs. Inflating jackets are currently marketed by both Point Two, the producers of the original model and Hit Air.
The vests shield the torso from sharp objects and angles, protect the body against heavy impacts and provide neck support. There is some argument about how much additional protection these vests actually provide with much of the evidence thus far being anecdotal but many people swear they have been saved from serious injury by the jackets and the testing that has been done tends to support such claims.
There are a couple of potential drawbacks to be aware of with these protectors. Firstly when they deploy, they do so with a load explosive sound which can spook the horse. This is of little consequence during a fall but can prove unfortunate if the vest is deployed by accident! Secondly, accidental deployments are quite common as riders can simply forget to detach the lanyard from the saddle when they dismount and then bang! The gas canisters are replaceable but this is obviously an expense you do not want to incur unless absolutely necessary.
Time Will Tell
I guess in the fullness of time we will discover whether or not these jackets have had a real impact on safety but it is hard to imagine that they will not make some degree of difference and they are unlikely to do you any harm!