Enhancing Safety in Horse Sports: Addressing the Risk of Traumatic Brain Injuries

While the dangers of traumatic brain injuries (TBIs) in sports like American football are well-documented, horse sports also present significant risks. Recent research highlights that equestrian activities are a leading cause of TBIs, raising urgent questions about safety improvements.

Fatal injuries often occur during falls involving the rider, the horse, or both. The tragic death of British event rider Georgie Campbell at the Bicton International Horse Trials in Devon, England, has brought renewed attention to this persistent issue.

Jonathan Holling, a prominent figure in equestrian safety at both national and international levels, discussed the inherent risks of horse sports with NPR’s A Martínez. “There’s always an element of risk when dealing with horses, whether in high-level competitions or recreational riding,” Holling explained.

“The risk in equestrian sports isn’t necessarily higher than in other sports,” said Holling, who serves as the U.S. national safety officer to the International Equestrian Federation (FEI). “However, the consequences can be more severe due to the involvement of a 1,200-pound animal.”

Holling participates in three-day eventing, an Olympic discipline that includes dressage, showjumping, and cross-country. The cross-country phase is particularly demanding, requiring horse and rider to navigate solid obstacles and water hazards at high speed. “It’s exhilarating but comes with significant risk,” noted Holling.

Marie Vonderheyden, a French-American rider, experienced these risks firsthand in 2015. A training accident left her with a severe TBI, resulting in a two-month coma and extensive memory loss. Over two years, she relearned basic skills and returned to riding for therapy. By 2019, Vonderheyden was competing in para-dressage and is now training for the 2024 Paralympics.

Holling, who chairs the U.S. Equestrian Federation’s Eventing Sport Committee and serves on the U.S. Eventing Association’s Cross-Country Safety Subcommittee, emphasized the suddenness of these accidents. “Incidents happen in split seconds, leaving little time to react,” he said.

To enhance safety, regulators focus on accident prevention. Holling highlighted the importance of fitness, appropriate competition levels, and advanced safety training for riders. Programs like Landsafe, led by Keli and Danny Warrington, offer essential safety training.

Regular veterinary checks for horses are also crucial to identify and address chronic issues, minimizing the risk of injury. Innovations in safety equipment, including improved helmets and protective vests, have further increased rider protection. Technological advancements, such as frangible pins and MIM clips that allow fences to collapse upon impact, have significantly reduced rotational falls by 55.5% since 2012, according to FEI statistics.

Despite these improvements, no measures can entirely eliminate risk. “Preparation is key—ensuring the right equipment, thorough training, and a fit horse to navigate courses safely,” Holling stressed.

Following Campbell’s death, British Eventing launched a new research initiative to explore the relationship between speed, performance, and falls in cross-country events. This project, formalized in April, will have riders wear sensors to collect data, aiming to enhance safety protocols in the sport.

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