Last fall was the first time I had ridden in a Beginner Novice warm up in 7 years. Legged up on my weedy, spooky, 4 year old, I was suitably horrified at the frantic warm up atmosphere. Horses crossed each other’s paths, coaches shouted from inside the warm up, and riders galloped frantically zig-zagging lines to fences. Finally, two horses crashed head on. One rider AND horse fell in front of me. Both were fine, but I decided to leave the warm up.  I had come to the realization that perhaps it’s time to tackle eventing safety at all levels.

Much of the safety precautions like frangible pins and air vest protection focus on the upper levels. I understand that the highest levels of eventing are the most risky, but it’s no secret that the lower levels also pose significant safety risks. If a Beginner Novice warm up is enough to make a seasoned competitor like me nervous, it may mean there are still opportunities to improve safety even at the lowest levels.

With a little research, I’ve found three very basic rules sanctioned by British Eventing that include all levels of sport. As you’ll read, and hopefully agree–they’re pretty common sense measures. Why don’t we have these type of rules protecting competitors in the USA?

1. All protective headgear must be inspected by an official and marked with “the visible current BE ‘hat tag.’” Ever notice those oddly colored tags on helmets worn by competitors in the UK? These colored tabs indicate the helmet met certain criteria established by British Eventing for that year. Although officials aren’t able to check whether a helmet is cracked or damaged, at least this rule insures competitors use head protection, each year, at the highest standards.

2. The only permitted cross country helmet is a “jockey skull” with “an even round or elliptical shape with a smooth or slightly abrasive surface, having no peak, peak type extensions or noticeable protuberances above the eyes or to the front.” I’ll admit, at derbies, unsanctioned competitions and occasionally cross-country schooling, I have opted for my hard brimmed helmet. However, it’s widely believed that a fixed brim can increase impact on the prefrontal cortex. Brimmed helmets also don’t sit around the lower part of the skull as securely as jockey caps. I’ve yet to see specific data on fixed brim versus jockey skull falls (I’m not sure we even have–or ever will have–such information), but it makes sense to me. From now on, I will be sure to only have a skull cap while jumping solid obstacles.

3. For cross country, protective vests must be both “British Equestrian Trade Association (BETA) approved and appropriately labelled Level 3 body protector, with the year 2000 or 2009 shown on the label manufactured in the year 2000 or after.” I wear a Point Two P2RS Combined Air Vest, but I’ll admit, I only plug it in when competing at the Preliminary Level. Some believe the benefits of the air vest probably only occur when traveling at high speeds. When galloping under 520 mpm, I personally don’t feel that the benefits of an air vest outweigh the potential costs (spooking a young horse, causing an unnecessary fall due to mistaken deployment, etc.). 

Additionally, “Air vests are not body protectors and should never be regarded as such. They do not meet any level of the BETA Body Protector Standard and British Eventing stipulates that competitors who choose to wear one should only do so in addition to a BETA Level 3 body protector.

A key difference between the two is the type of protection provided. A body protector offers permanent, static protection both on and off a horse. An air vest, meanwhile, provides only temporary, dynamic protection once the garment is inflated. Research has shown that air vests are most suited to flat falls on wider, load-bearing surfaces but offer little protection on impact from sharp or blunt smaller objects such as hooves, poles and edges” (BETA).

For any low level competitor or someone on a tight budget, it seems a body protector that meets a BETA Level 3 Standard should be the first priority and worn at all times cross-country. I find the rules the standard of body protectors of competitors in the USA pretty weak. I still see a majority of competitors wearing what would be considered by the BETA Level I body protectors at competition, and even with costly air bag attachments, this is likely not maximizing their safety according to BETA.

Although I have not been perfect, I am going to commit to hold myself to the highest standards of safety while riding cross-country moving forward. Will you join me? I hope the USEA will consider adapting such rules to protect all competitors, and try to minimize risk for riders at all levels.