Rolex Cross-Country: Creating a Safer but Challenging Course

Michael Etherington-Smith (left) and Olympian David O’Connor |

Rolex Kentucky course designer Michael Etherington-Smith lost the traditional pre-cross-country sweepstakes at this spring’s CCI**** when he wagered that six riders and horses would come home double-clear on Saturday. The final total was sixteen.

But he won accolades from riders and spectators alike for the quality of the new course in which even familiar permanent fixtures such as The Bank and The Quarry (renamed The Hollow) were jumped from a different direction and incorporated new questions.

“If it had been wet, we would’ve had a different competition,” he said on Sunday. “But we had the most perfect conditions and the horses wanted to run on it. I watch the last half-mile of the course to see if the horses are coming home well (which is what I always want), or look as if they’ve been to war. Not only were so many still full of run at the end, but they trotted out really well the next day.”

The rising standard of riding at the top of the sport “keeps me on my toes,” he says. “Skinny fences are no longer a challenge for the good riders. Offset fences? No longer a challenge. I look at the cross-country both as a package, and as part of a bigger competition. It’s about achieving a standard from the rider’s viewpoint: Can they go at the right speed? Can they jump these fences? If the answer is ‘yes’, fantastic–they’re at the right standard. Course design is not about pushing beyond the perceived, acceptable standard. I want riders to have the opportunity to show me what they’re capable of, rather than trying to find out what they can’t do.”

Even riders still working their way up to the CCI**** standard had a good go at this year’s Rolex, he says of an endurance day blessedly unmarred by serious injuries to rider or horse. “Okay, they may have had a couple of stops on the way, but they had a real good time and that’s what this sport is about. It’s a sport, and people have got to enjoy it.”

One of the new features of this year’s course was not immediately apparent, however: Two of the jumps (#6, The Oxer, and #7, Rails/Ditch/Rails) were constructed using the new frangible (breakable) pins designed by Britain’s Transport Research Laboratory (TRL) and produced by Barriers International. A British Eventing committee hired the laboratory to study common factors in fatal falls on cross-country after several eventers in Britain were killed in 1999. Intensive research included analysis of filmed footage of falls, and creation of a “crash test dummy horse’ that could reproduce the sequence of events that occurs when a horse hits a fixed obstacle.

According to Tim Hadaway, Sport and Technical Manager of British Eventing, the research proved scientifically that fatalities are often the result of “impact injuries, when the horse lands on the rider as a result of a fall.” Those falls often happen when the horse hits a fence with its upper legs. “TRL discovered that when a horse hits a fence with that area of its legs, with a certain force, there’s a high chance of creating a ‘rotation’ or somersault-type fall. The speed is low enough that the rider doesn’t get thrown clear, but comes down on the other side of the fence. The horse rotates and comes down, unfortunately on top of the rider.”

The research also indicated that “if they could cause the top rail of the fence to drop a certain distance, the horse would have split seconds to free its forelegs and stop the rotational movement from continuing. There may well be a fall of the horse and will almost certainly be a fall of the rider, but the horse is less likely to fall on the rider.”

The aluminum frangible pins are only usable in certain types of post-and-rail fence construction. They have broken several times while in use at British events. Tim Hadaway described a fall at an Advanced corner fence this spring in which “the horse came down in the middle of the corner and the back rail gave way. Unfortunately the rider had a broken leg. The horse was uninjured. Eye-witness accounts suggested that the pins’ use avoided what could have been a more serious fall.”

While pointing out that other eventing countries in addition to Britain are working on technology to make cross-country fences safer, Michael Etherington-Smith predicted that there will be more fences built with frangible pins at Rolex 2004. “But I shan’t design to accommodate pins,” he said. “These pins only work on a certain diameter and weight of rail. If we can use them within what I’m trying to achieve, I’ll definitely use them.”

See the August 2003 issue of Practical Horseman magazine for “Law and Order,” a feature story about British Olympian Leslie Law, who finished in the top ten with both of his horses at this year’s Rolex Kentucky CCI****.

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