Equestrian sports can be dangerous.  In fact, horse riding is statistically one of the most hazardous sports around and the discipline of horse trials (more usually known as eventing) has been in the news recently for all the wrong reasons.  Eventing is exciting to watch and exhilarating for competitors but it is also at the extreme end of horse sports.

What is 'eventing'?

Eventing consists of three elements of competition; 


Competitors ride a set programme of movements in an arena and are judged on their performance.  Marks are awarded for each movement and these marks are then converted to penalty points which are carried forward to the next phase of the event.  The idea of the dressage phase is to test, amongst other things, the horse’s obedience, balance and the harmony of the partnership. 



In one day events the next phase is the
show jumping.  In the more advanced three day events, the dressage is
followed by the cross country phase and the show jumping is the final
discipline which is held on the last day of the competition.

Show Jumping

The show jumping phase is designed to test the horse’s accuracy and obedience.  A short course of coloured obstacles of various types is jumped with penalties incurred for knocking down a fence, refusal to jump an obstacle, failure to complete the course within the prescribed time limit or fall of the rider.  If the horse falls during the show jumping phase, the partnership is eliminated.  Any penalties incurred are added to the combination’s dressage score and carried forward to the cross country phase.

Show jumping

Cross country

The final phase is the cross country.  The cross country course consists of a variety of solidly built obstacles of natural appearance; timber, stone walls, hedges, water etc and is designed to test the bravery of horse and rider, the horse’s fitness and athleticism.  There is a time limit for completion of the course and penalties are incurred for every second over the time allowed.  In the event of a fall, the combination is eliminated.  Penalties will also be incurred for refusal to jump an obstacle. 

The overall winners will be the horse and rider who have accumulated the lowest number of penalties over all three phases.

Cross country

Safety concerns

Falls during the cross country phase are common and all too often result in very serious injuries to either horse or rider.  In recent years, a number of riders have been killed or very seriously injured during the cross country phase of low level events, prompting the sport’s governing body to take action. 

Measures were put in place to try to reduce the risk of accidents.  Fences were redesigned to ensure that they collapsed more easily if a horse hit them; the depth of water jumps was reduced, cross country courses were shortened and more emergency first aid training was provided to course officials.  Unfortunately, accidents still occur.  A horse weighs upwards of 500 kilos and gallops across the country at about 25mph.  Add solidly built fences and a hefty dose of adrenalin into the mix and it’s not surprising that when falls occur the injuries can be serious. 

Rotational falls 

Virtually all rider fatalities have occurred as a result of injuries sustained during rotational falls when a horse catches his front legs on an obstacle during take-off and his momentum causes him to somersault over the fence.  Usually, riders are thrown clear and no serious damage is done to either party but occasionally the rider is crushed beneath the horse as it falls; sustaining catastrophic and often fatal injuries.

Rotational fall(158137)

Safety equipment

All event riders are required under the rules of the sport to wear an industry standards approved crash helmet and body protector.  Following the recent death of young New Zealand event rider, Tom Gadsby, as a result of a rotational fall, there have been calls for a further rule change regarding compulsory safety equipment. 

The latest innovation is a hybrid of a standard body protector, designed to offer protection for the shoulders and upper torso, but with the addition of airbag technology.  The air vest is attached to the saddle by a lanyard.  In the event of the rider parting company with the saddle, a trigger is activated that detonates a canister of Co2.  This causes the vest to inflate, just like a car airbag.  Immediately, the rider’s vulnerable spinal column, neck and torso are supported before they hit the ground.  Bruising is prevented and in the event that the horse rolls on them, some protection is offered to the upper body.

How The Air Jacket Works

The air jackets are catching on fast across many equestrian sports; hunting, show jumping, point to point racing and eventing are all opting for the improved safety device.  Modified versions are also available for motorcyclists.  

A number of high profile event riders have already attributed their full and quick recovery from injuries sustained during rotational falls to their air jackets.  

The air jackets might be more expensive than the standard alternative, but how do you put a price on something that might just save your life?