Article and photos by Katherine O. Rizzo

Of all the equestrian sports, eventing has historically been considered one of the higher risk sports simply because of the high rate of speeds and non-moveable jumps on the cross-country course. However, as many horse enthusiasts will attest to, injuries can occur at any level and in any equestrian discipline. So, why all the hoopla surrounding safety in eventing?

In 2007, there were nine rider deaths internationally, all related to cross-country falls. This number is staggering and prompted an FEI Safety Forum, held in Copenhagen, Denmark this past January. Chaired by U.S. Olympic gold medalist (and former Marylander) David O’Connor, the forum looked at data collected over the last five years and began initiating steps to promote the overall safety of the horse and rider.

At the national level, Malcolm Hook, Chair of the — USEF Eventing Technical Committee, proposed a rider qualification rule change that was approved in February and will go into effect on December 1, 2008. The intent of the rule is to “require riders to develop a more solid base of experience before moving up to the next level of competition” and although the official rule only directly affects the move from Training level to Preliminary level, the trickle down effect is hoped to lead to more qualified riders at all levels.

Ready for Prelim?
Under the new rule, in order to move up to the Preliminary level, riders will be required to obtain four National Qualifying Rounds (NQRs) at the Training level in — USEA recognized competitions. NQRs are completed horse trials scoring less than 50 in dressage, no more than 16 penalties in show jumping and ZERO cross-country jump penalties. One of these NQRs must be obtained within the last two calendar years.

What does that mean to you? It means that if you plan to move up to Preliminary in 2009, then it is your 2008 scores that will matter!

“People need to remember that this is for rider qualifications, not horse and not horse/rider combinations,” Hook said. This means that those that are already competing at Preliminary and above can continue their normal schedule. “This rule is intended for the newer members of our sport,” Hook remarked, “to ensure that they are properly prepared for the jump from Training to Preliminary.” These NQRs do not have to be obtained on the same horse either.

Equiery Readers Speak Out
Hook was pleasantly surprised that “most riders at the — USEA convention were very much in support of this change.” And it looks like most of our Maryland eventing community is in support as well! The Equiery asked our readers: “Do you feel that this rule is appropriate for the jump from Training to Preliminary? Why or why not? And should the — USEA enact a similar rule at the lower levels?”

Here is what you had to say!
“It should be made more difficult! There is a large gap between the Training to Preliminary levels (and Preliminary to Intermediate; Intermediate to Advanced), and the number of riders who struggle with that gap is sometimes all too obvious in the warm-up. Perhaps there could be different requirements for riders who are moving up for the first time with or without experienced horses; and a lesser requirement for riders already competing successfully at that level or above (i.e. professionals). Jack LeGoff always said that a rider should do 10 events at a level before trying a 3 Day; so increasing the number of successful efforts to go up a level doesn’t seem to be a bad idea.” 
– Ami Howard (Olney Farm, Joppa)

“I support the change. A few years ago there were no qualifications for a rider to go Prelim. Then they began to require that people simply “complete” four Training level events. The move from Training to Preliminary is huge for riders who haven’t done it before. It puts you into the big leagues where you start planning for your first CCI*. It means you’re an “international competitor.” It’s a life-altering experience! Preliminary cross-country courses are dangerous if the horse and rider are not in balance and communicating well. The extra four inches combined with the speed and the technical nature of the combinations are not conducive to a partnership that relies only on bravery and scope. Some will argue that this rule should only require the clean cross country, but not the dressage and show jumping standard. The dressage standard might keep some people from moving up, but I’m not too sympathetic. I can’t think of anyone I know who cannot score consistently better than 50% in a Training level dressage test, but belongs on a Preliminary cross country course. And if you’re pulling five rails in show jumping at 3’3”, do you really want to be competing at 3’7”? I also do not support the creation of qualifying standards to ride at the Training level or below. A brave horse with a less skilled rider can still have a blast going around a Training level course. Some people ride at that level who also foxhunt and do hunters or jumpers. Those folks should not have to spend hundreds of dollars and months of work getting their qualifications at Novice if they are lucky enough to be able to have fun at Training. Let ‘em ride.”
– Steuart Pittman, Jr. (Dodon Farm, Davidsonville)

“As a previously long-listed event rider, a GP dressage rider/instructor, licensed trainer of both flat track and steeplechase horses, and a two term president of a GMO, I think I’m qualified to ‘read between the lines’ in this rule change. I think it’s for multiple excellent reasons…1) It will certainly separate “the men from the boys ” and ensure that the physical training of the horse and rider is up to the “jump” to Prelim; 2) It will lessen the amount of entries to a manageable level for the organizers, 3) It will also, with a little bit of luck, lessen the potential for injuries to both the horses and riders by insuring they’ve “put in the time and training,” 4) And lastly, ‘the dressage rule’, will hopefully insure that the riders put in the training necessary to perform a half-way decent dressage test. Hard to do on a dead fit horse, but definitely a 50% should be possible! Shoot, I know it’s seemingly way more fun to jump than ‘do the gymnastics of the dressage’, but the elasticity and control achieved by correct dressage training always helps the way the horse jumps, and his ‘ratability’. It will also protect delusional riders (and there are a few) from entering their horse in a level that’s inappropriate and unsafe for the horse, and therefore themselves. Hopefully the dressage world will follow suit, as they do in Europe. It would really benefit the USA to ramp up their training and trainers, which this rule would gently do.”
– Tracey Hurline (Baldwin)

“I agree with the new rule. The element of risk rises significantly when moving from Training to Prelim and having and “demonstrating” the requisite skills is necessary. Too often, riders with more heart than skill or young riders with driven parents (sometimes competing vicariously) make the move up to Prelim very prematurely. That is not to say that the rider will never move up, I just think that too many riders move up precipitously. I say “good on ya” to the — USEA board for making the hard choice and I think it only holds competitors accountable for quantifying their skill level.”
– Dale Clabaugh (Walkersville)

“As the Organizer of the Marlborough Horse Trials, I think the requirements should apply across the board. We have had instances, very obvious, where a rider is not experienced enough to move up. Many of the penalties incurred on the cross country phase have been due to the lack of experience at the lower level and accelerated “move up”. This situation has been noted by the TD and PGJ and on more than one occasion a competitor has not been allowed to finish the trials because of a danger to themselves and/or the horse. I have polled some of the Board members and their response has been to concur with the above remarks.”
– Andrea M. Binkley (Millersville)

“As Eventing is a pretty dangerous sport for both the horse and rider, I feel that this new rule is in keeping with responsible stewardship for this sport. They should have the same thing through all of the levels unless their riding instructor is willing to sign off that they feel that their rider is capable of moving up without four of each level of competition, or unless the rider is a professional as defined by the sport.”
– Cheryl London (Starlight Acres, Woodstock)

“I think the new rule isn’t stiff enough. Allowing 16 penalty points in show jumping is pathetic at best. Eventing will and should always be the sport of cross-country riding. However, the other 2 phases should carry their weight as well. The Dressage phase, in recent years, has improved and become more competitive than ever. The Show Jumping phase still doesn’t carry much weight with eventers, and that is evident by the allowable 16 penalty points. Many a lead has been lost by knocking down too many show jumping rails, but the — USEA will still allow that rider to advance to the Preliminary levels. Most event riders haven’t attempted and/or mastered the technically challenging art of show jumping and don’t seem to care.”
– Karen Eaton (Woodbine)

“Yes, absolutely a good idea. If you can’t complete these requirements, you have no business going Prelim. Period. For lower levels I think the same type of rules – maybe with less qualifying scores (2?) to move up from novice to training. No requirements for entering novice.”
– Elizabeth Callahan DVM (Oxford) – (pictured below)

“I think it is about time the — USEA institutes some qualifications to move up a level. I think this is why we have a lot of the accidents that we do have. Competitors think they can just move up at will with little or no capability at the higher level. Just because they are bored at one level, many seem to think they can move on to a higher level. It would increase the experience of horse/rider combinations and make for a safer all around sport. It would also put a bit of a cap on the “puppy mill” trainers that just push their students to go up the levels without ever giving them competent instruction and experience.”
– Nellie Hanagan (Two Sisters Farm, Dickerson)

“If you are consistently getting 50 and above (in dressage) there is something wrong here. Not ready I would say. 50 is a lousy score, you better know how to ride better than 50/50 to face 3’6” fences.”
– Daphne Soares (Laurel)

“I think a number of riders move up to Prelim before they’re prepared, and their reasons may not demonstrate good common sense. Usually either the rider or the horse is not ready to make this step up, if not both of them. By making the qualifications tougher, it may lower the number of falls and horses won’t be over faced. I agree with the ruling. As to whether the — USEA should enact similar rules at lower levels, I think they should wait a season or two and see the result of the original ruling (Training to Preliminary). If it makes a substantial difference, then I’d consider enacting it for Novice to Training.”
– Pam Garst Dudrow (Hagerstown)

“I believe that this rule should be put into place. I evented when I was younger and moving from Training to Preliminary was a big step. If your horse is just making it through Training Level, then moving to Preliminary may be dangerous for horse and rider. I am glad to see stiffer rules to be put into place. To me, this will ensure safety for both horse and rider. As far as levels up to Preliminary, if rules are put into place it is for the regulation of the sport at all levels, although between the lower levels to Training, while the skill level needs to improve, the transition is not so overwhelming to the extent that Preliminary and beyond calls for.”
– Denise Girard (Baltimore)

“I am not in a position to know statistics regarding rider and horse injuries and numbers of penalties on the increase, but for the safety of both it sounds like a good idea.”
– Kathy Gibbons (Bel Air)

“I haven’t been eventing in any serious way for a number of years, but even in my day, the step from Training to Prelim was a big one. The proposed rule change doesn’t look like it would impose an undue hardship on horses and riders – basically a “sufficient” dressage test, clean jumping on cross-country, and 4 rails in stadium. If I were getting those results at Training level, I would not be thinking of moving up until I had ironed out a few problems – if only to save the cost of competing without a good result. Prelim requires some adjustability and scope, and the questions start to become more technical. Nobody likes to be told they’re not ready to move up, but maybe it’s better to stay at Training a while longer than realize your horse won’t take a half-halt in the middle of a Prelim “telephone poles stuck in concrete” combination.”
– Judy Strohmaier (Flying Change Farm, Upper Marlboro)

“I feel the rule change is a positive thing. Prelim is a big step to go to and the — USEA is making sure those who move up are ready to do so safely. If the person and their horse are ready the NQR should not be too hard of an obtainable goal and it will better prepare them for the step up. I am sure there are people who push their horses too fast to move up and falls or injuries have happened. It seems logical that if you have not won a few times at any level that you would not move up to the next. I do not believe it should be enforced for the lower levels because that might be making showing like ‘jumping through too many hoops’.”
– Rebecca Crown (Clarksburg)

“It sounds as if the — USEF has gone from wanting to make eventing safe to wanting to only let ‘perfect’ riders move on to Preliminary. In fact, a horse that is perfectly within the timeframe at Training may be way too slow to be competitive at Prelim unless the rider is riding circles on the course. The 16 points at stadium jumping is not a safety question, it’s mostly technique and/or sloppiness. The dressage, well, we’re all still working on our dressage, aren’t we? There is no safety question there. I think that the only thing the — USEF should concern itself with is ‘no jumping penalties at obstacles on the cross country test’. This is where the safety question lies. To control these other details is following the path of the IRS in micromanaging everything.”
– Debra Nissen (Takoma Park)

“I think the gap is real and significant for a pair who are both new to Prelim. I think Preliminary is hard enough that the notion that getting there may be arduous, time-consuming, and even expensive is perfectly reasonable. You can get killed or seriously injure your horse doing this sport in an unprepared way. 16 faults seems overly generous. I would make this 8 faults—this still allows the horse who is a bit careless in the ring but brilliant XC to qualify. Again, look at the scores for Training horse trials, and certainly well over 50% of the riders score better than this. Aren’t we trying to ensure that the better Training pairs move up, not just the mediocre ones?”
– Nancy Seybold (Washington, D.C)

“This is wonderful. One must remember that competing is testing your existing skills – to show off what you know. As a coach, I have already had similar requirements for my students. They must go comfortably clean around 3 or 4 cross-country courses at any level before considering moving up to the next. Along with this rule, I would love to see the Dangerous Riding Penalties used more often when competitors are on run-always, clearly have issues steering, or consistently get under (jump too close to the base) cross-country fences at Novice and Training.”
– Chrissy McKay-Donovan (Beaverdam, VA)

“I agree in concept with the proposed eventing rule change; however, I think the rule should also apply to the horse. Eventing is an inherently dangerous sport during which we ask our equine partners to trust us as they face immense obstacles. Appropriate training, conditioning and experience for the horse should be required as they advance up each level. As a former cross country jump judge at Menfelt, I saw too many horses that appeared dangerously unprepared for the level in which they were competing.”
– Leslie Raulin (Frederick)

“I think that anytime expectations become more difficult, it brings up the quality of riding in the lower levels and helps to improve safety.”
– Kathleen Hamlin (Elmington Farm, Berryville, VA)

“Seems strange to add a dressage score maximum penalty…Many of our talented younger riders and their families do not have deep pockets, and they may not have access to ponies or horses that are going have basic ability in dressage or be the best looking horse flesh around. If we could be certain that the dressage judging was going to be focused exclusively on the test and not the total appearance of the horse and rider, then I might be in favor of this. But I can’t tell you how many pony club events I have attended and heard with my own ears and read the test in the judges own writing telling these kids that their horses are not suitable for dressage. Predictably, the kids come out of the ring crying. The lower levels should be inviting as well as have all the reasonable safety requirements. Perhaps a more relevant safety maximum for the lower levels would be not exceeding the maximum speed on course by “x” amount. I usually see the older, more experienced riders suddenly get the idea that dressage is important, not only for getting a winning score, but because it creates so much power and control with your horse. Ultimately it is the drive to succeed that propels one to get serious with dressage.”
– Kate Pratt (Wolfrun Farm, Harwood)