The death of Maxime Debost at a one-star event in France last weekend was caused by yet another “rotational,” the type of fall when, having struck an immovable part of the fence, the horse tips in mid-air and, unavoidably, lands on the rider.
Maxime died at an ascending spread that the FEI tells me was not of a type capable of being “pinned” – the common term given to frangible devices.
According to one expert analysis of rotational falls, riders have 0.9 seconds to react. That is not much time to roll out of the way, or even realise you are in very serious trouble. I hope those who perish know nothing about it. But the absence of suffering by the loved one is small consolation for friends and family whose lives are changed forever. Maxime was only 29 and leaves a partner, Marie Gouëllo, and their young son, Raphael.
There is pattern to what then happens when someone dies. Organizers, national governing bodies and the FEI issue statements of condolence, promising a full investigation and that work will continue tirelessly to make cross-country riding safer.
But we never seem to hear about the findings, and where there is a public inquest, only if local media report it. How joined-up are the various investigations? A few years ago, I was at an event where someone sadly died. I later photographed the fence – a table – on my phone. Weeks later, I was contacted by the coroner who’d heard on the grapevine that I had a picture. I was surprised to learn he was unable to obtain a simple image of the fence concerned from the authorities more directly involved.
Statistically, FEI eventing is getting safer, but fewer deaths and life-changing injuries are not the same flag-waving achievement as none at all.
Despite the huge sums invested in safety research, frangible fittings and deformable fences – technical-speak for jumps that collapse upon heavy impact – remain far from widely used, despite being mooted 17 years ago.
In 1999, five eventing riders were lost in the UK and another four worldwide. Then, as now, experience was no barrier to vulnerability. Two who died that terrible year included members of the British senior team, Peta Beckett and Polly Phillips. Maxime Debost had been competing for 12 years, and completed the four-star at Pau, so was hardly a novice, either.
So, in 1999, Lord Hartington, a senior figure in British racing with personal interests in eventing, was tasked with examining safety. I attended his media briefing, where he pleaded that deformable technology be pursued without delay.
The first devices were trialled in 2002 at Badminton; 15 years later the pinning of 14 jumping efforts at Badminton 2017 is a CCI record. Is that the level of usage Lord Hartington had in mind?
A couple of years ago, another British racing figure, Charles Barnett, was commissioned by the FEI to research falls. Barnett is a former CEO of the world renowned Ascot and Aintree racecourses, introducing key safety reforms in the Grand National, although there are clearly differences in the “architecture” of racing and eventing falls.
He had access to the mass of FEI statistics collated since Hartington, though his findings mostly endorsed what many knew instinctively. What didn’t really help the “pin-everything” lobby was Barnett’s conclusion that falls are 1.6 times more likely at fences with devices, from which you might infer that pins don’t actually help; but that is hardly surprising as the risk-factor attached to those types of fences was precisely why the designers pinned them in the first place.
It has also struck me, on and off, that progress has been slower than it ought due to petty rivalries.
The original frangible pin was invented in the UK by the Willis brothers, whose family firm constructs the Badminton fences. The rights were acquired by British Eventing (BE) who continued to develop the pin, spending hundreds of thousands on research, which is now benefitting a lot more people and organisers worldwide than their own members. BE also works closely with the Transport Research Laboratory, a former UK government agency that branched out from highways into helping with a raft of safety projects, including riding helmets and the Point Two inflatable vest.
A similar pin, the MIM, was simultaneously developed by eventing enthusiast Mats Björnetun, whose “proper job” is manufacturing safety devices under licence for the automobile industry at his large factory in Sweden. His collaborator, Anders Flogård, designed the first “female” dummy that became an industry standard for car crash testing. MIM looked more into the aspect of pinning rails behind rather than in front, to react to horizontal as well as vertical forces, and invented a clip to complement the limited applications of the pin.
BE and MIM promptly passed the rigorous technical specification introduced by the FEI early in 2013, with MIM’s deformable wall and table passing in 2015. Curiously, though, BE de-recognised MIM devices at any national or FEI event in the UK till 2016, for reasons I have never really grasped.
In February this year, there was a major seminar in Ireland, curated by David O’Connor, who has made safety his life’s work. He sat on the original Hartington committee and now leads the FEI’s risk management steering group.
A couple of months later the FEI issued advice that has not been widely publicised beyond FEI officials. NFs were told that “FEI certified frangible devices releasing from horizontal force on ALL [my emphasis] open rails, gates, oxers and oxer corners is strongly recommended for ALL national and international events. The list of approved devices can be found on the FEI website under Eventing/Risk Management. In addition, the development of new frangible technologies is encouraged at national level.” The FEI prefaced this recommendation with a sentence saying this was a “very strong” recommendation.
This is a significant shift in thinking; when launching its technical spec in 2013, the FEI was at pains to state that frangibles were still not compulsory, but where they were used, they must meet met the new spec. The FEI shrunk from using the term “FEI-approved,” I guess because of legal connotations. Its new, stronger stance was probably unavoidable after the US Eventing Association (USEA) announced its own “extraordinary rule change” along similar lines.
How fast have NF’s reacted this year? The FEI says there has a been strong take-up “with variations from country to country on how much frangible devices are used.”
Take-up may indeed long vary, for in the developing equestrian world the expense of compulsory pinning might be enough to force organisers out of business. Given that Longines has signed up for the (allegedly) biggest monetary deal in history, can’t they help? Eventing is not Longines’ favourite discipline, though a pin subsidy for every CCI and CIC would be small change for them, surely?
There are misgivings about the “cons” as well as “pros” of pinning among some designers and senior riders. Pins are just one cog in a very big safety wheel, and many would prefer pinning go hand-in-hand with education, to improve peoples’ cross-country skills and make them accept some personal responsibility for their fate.
Do frangibles encourage course-designers to ask questions they would not have dreamed of had that fence not been knock-downable? Can pins actually discourage riders from striving to ride better, instead taking a flyer because if they “miss” it will collapse anyway?
Do people still not realise a frangible is not intended to prevent falls, but instead to stop that fall escalating into a fatal rotational? Alas, the science has never attracted huge media coverage. It is one of those important-but-boring topics, which is far too complicated for writers, never mind readers, to invest time in grasping the nuances, especially in this age of the small sound-bite.
There are lots of reasons riders may have become more casual about cross-country aside from misunderstandings about pinning. I know of one UK organiser who will no longer put course pictures on his website because competitors stopped bothering to walk it in real life. At the February seminar, Andrew Nicholson gave a salutary talk about his concerns for the generation that prioritises drilling for dressage over honing skills in jumping at speed, and for whom “cross-country schooling” means trucking over to the same facility week in and week out, where familiarity breeds contempt.
The FEI itself has encouraged too many people of moderate ability to get ideas above their station by broadening the base of “international” participation. We have already seen how easily riders who can barely steer can compete “internationally” in endurance, while the show jumping community is increasingly vexed at a system which enables the mega rich but moderately talented to “buy” invitations to shows for which they would never, in a million years, qualify on their ranking level alone. Changes in eventing classifications mean you can compete “internationally” over cross-country courses of smaller dimensions than I, a rider of no notable courage, jumped 35 years ago at UK riding club regionals.
The stable door has already shut on voluntary self-improvement, in my view. Whether we like it or not, riders need saving from themselves or from the one time in hundreds of starts that the very best get it just a weeny bit wrong. We now have the technology. Let’s stop finding reasons not to use it.