Safety: What Have We Learned In The Wake Of Tragedy?

Author: Troy Anna Smith troyannasmith@gmail.com

A Look Into Equine Safety Evolution & Advocacy Within The Community

The equestrian community, and more specifically, the hunter/jumper community, is a curious group to follow. A majority of the riders compete individually, representing themselves and/or their barns. At times there are opportunities to compete as a team, but in general show jumping is an individual sport. The irony of it all is the brotherhood behind the group. From ring to ring the riders and coaches look out for one another. Though they must compete in the show ring, everyone seems to have an equal understanding outside of the arena – a bond that is shared over the love of the sport, the horse, and the labor it takes to stand at the in-gate.

In support of the Kevin Babington Foundation, and the awareness of the spinal cord injuries that can occur from lack of protection when riding, we spoke with a variety of prominent contributors in the field to discuss the topic of equine safety and its possible lack of progression. Over the past decade, we have witnessed many of our top riders (and many others, too) suffer close to career ending injuries, including Kevin Babington and David Beisel most notably.

Though the sport is represented in the Olympics, it is underfunded and is off the charts when it comes to major body injuries – only to be lacking in developmental research compared to competitive sports with similar data like football, gymnastics and rugby. 83.4% of horse-riding injuries are caused by the rider falling off the horse. So, the question is, how can we better protect the show jumping community, specifically? The tragedy is we can have technology if only everyone chooses to deploy it.

We are talking serious money in the show ring. The uniform, horse, travel … it all requires a fat pocket book. Beyond the competition itself, who can we turn to for financial sponsorships when we need it the most? As the sport progresses, it is imperative to provide the necessary data and research to provide better protection. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), sports-related traumatic brain injury (TBI) is affecting 1.7 to 3.8 million people annually in the U.S. Additionally, a 2016 study by the journal Neurological Focus found that horse-related accidents cause the most traumatic brain injuries in the U.S. 

Incidentally, according to the latest studies at Virginia Tech University Helmet Lab Research, equestrian helmets do not have a rating system on safety at the moment. In other sports like football, helmets not only have developed based off of research but have a 5-star rating program.    

Several studies over decades are concluding that the rate of serious injury per number of riding hours is higher than motorcycling, skiing, or football. The study analyzed National Trauma Data Bank data between the 10-year period (2007 to 2016) and found that during the study period, 74.83% of equestrian deaths were caused by head and neck injuries. Thoracic injuries were the second highest with 18.44% – Head and neck injuries were significantly associated with longer ICU LOS and more ventilator days. The horse-riding deaths statistics also found that head and neck injuries were also associated with a ninefold increase in the risk of death. (sourced)

The more recent equine air vests have become a critical choice for safety, yet still a controversial topic. The pertinent question for the group: why aren’t we all wearing more protection? With substantial statistics and a reality of risk, what is holding some back from making the decision to wear a vest? The board of the Kevin Babington Foundation views a mandate as necessary; others ask if they are dangerous. Though the newer air vests have come a long way, there is a bit of reluctance with minimal data and the possible vanity issue. We turned to some of the best in the business to see how they felt about the newest protection measures. 

Irish Olympic show jumper and team player of the Spy Coast Spies for the Major League Show Jumping roster, Shane Sweetnam believes, “A suitable equine safety vest could be a big solution, and it’s great to see a lot of people wearing them. But I do still see flaws – I believe more research and tweaking on the vest is important.” The Foundation agrees but let’s employ what we have now.

Owner and publisher of the publication The Plaid Horse, Piper Klemm comments on the certification and mandate of helmets back in 1990 to 2000, “We had all this data and ASTM certification, and then it took 10-11 years for it to be even a mandate for the juniors just to compete in the show ring,” she says. “I remember how oftentimes riders would switch their helmets in the schooling ring and replace with their certified helmet when it was time to compete, whether it was habitual, or vanity, it took a long time to arrive to where we are today.” Piper continues, “Like the helmets, I believe that the vests will need data, research, and implementation.” As of today, the new air vests do not have any published scientific studies, certifying efficacy. “I support vest wearing as a choice for protection. I don’t believe that people should not wear one, but I don’t believe anecdotal information is proven – we need a standard in the field,” Piper clarifies.  

Helite Airbag Vests are developed in France, and offer research developed by engineers who have tested the vests through individual protection systems:

The HELITE research department develops innovative solutions to integrate the airbags into HELITE brand products or HELITE partner brands. Our research department also creates special airbag systems for B2B customers in a wide variety of sectors. We invent and design each airbag component. Ideas come to life in our prototyping workshop. All prototypes are made and tested before going into production. Many parameters are studied and tested during the development phase of a product (materials, pressure, etc).​​We put our airbags in real-life situations and simulate dozens of accidents or crash test configurations. These tests enable us to collect the data needed to improve or validate our technologies. For example, the “guillotine” test enables us to check the airbag’s shock absorption. The simulation of accidents allows us to validate the detection time of our electronic systems. (Helite 2022)

A horse safety enthusiast herself, Victoria McCullough is well known for her work in the community, recently having a hand in passing Nicole’s Law for the state of Florida. Nicole’s Law requires children younger than 16 to wear a helmet while riding a horse on public land. Parents of children who break the law can be fined $500. 

A woman who wears many hats – a diplomat, equestrian loving and dedicated equine rescue CEO, Victoria furthermore is a donor at the Miami Paralysis project. She additionally has always loved working on her foundation for the enrichment of lives of children and research on the focused dimension on eradicating blindness and also paralysis. Her determination for better protection for her friends and this sport comes through clearly, “something has to be done, the statistics are overwhelming,” she says. “You can never second guess the opportunities you might have eliminated by wearing a helmet. We don’t always think about it when we are young and wild, or only when we have had a close call or it happens to our friend – maybe it takes that wisdom before we take a real good look at it,” Victoria exclaims.

Victoria has been a strong friend and advocate for Kevin and the Kevin Babington Foundation. This past February the McCullough residence hosted a “Babington Benefit Grand Prix” for spinal cord injury support for the recovery of equestrians suffering, and the promotion of safety air vests, as well as research and communication. Victoria comments on the affair, “everyone simply joined together and became one beating heart at the same time, it was incredible! This particular event was my favorite. We opened the farm in the morning and joined back later for cocktails and a silent auction. Even Bruce Springsteen gave a guitar!” 

Victoria plans to wear a vest during her driving. She mentions her horses can be “electric” and also values the safety of the air vest, “there’s nothing worse than a carriage wreck.” 

International show jumper Brooke Kemper out of Shadow Pond Stables speaks from personal experience, “I was prompted to get a vest after witnessing an accident at Tryon International Equestrian Center. A horse and rider had a rotational fall and the horse broke its neck and died on impact, and the rider was partially stuck under the horse. My husband and I were first in the ring and helped get the girl out from under the horse’s body. I don’t know if the vest would have helped in this particular situation, but it prompted me to think that accidents can happen any time and we should take precautions where we can.” 

Show jumping is a rare sport and one of the only to compete in the Olympics with a live animal. Riders are often vulnerable to high risk and a reason why the community often wholeheartedly embraces one another for every triumph and fall. Even at the top one can so quickly walk away with a major injury – so we often must ask how we can continue to support and do better? “It can happen to anyone,” Brooke remarks.

Caroline Culbertson, Editor-in-Chief at Noelle Floyd and host and producer at Equestrian Voices podcast, wears an equine safety vest. “As an eventer myself, this is standard practice when schooling or competing cross-country, but I am very happy to see this technology begin to expand into other disciplines and rings as well. As long as the science supports it, we should always be culturally accepting, as a sporting community, to take on the newest technology or protocols that support rider safety and health. I chose the Point Two air vest because of their affiliation with the USEA. I tried the vest on and tested the inflation and it felt comfortable to me, and I’ve never had any issues with it.” The statistical data correlating between thoracic injuries with equestrian sports are alarming. Knowledge is potential, but knowing when to apply the knowledge is true power. Caroline continues, “I think every time we hear or see this (injury) happen to a fellow rider, whether a high-profile competitor or local barn acquaintance, it’s truly the realization of a nightmare. We do this sport understanding the risks, but until you see the cost of those risks, we can’t fully understand their magnitude. I don’t think that wearing a vest or not will always prevent serious injuries from happening – and I certainly don’t think that riders who have been badly injured weren’t doing what they could to keep themselves safe – but it does give you a bit of a mental check-in on whether you’re doing all you can to reduce your own risk, and wearing a vest might be part of that.” 

“I’ve fallen off a couple times – once in Europe where I landed on my back after I had flipped.” Ashlee Bond of the Israeli Olympic team and Helios player for the Major League Show jumping roster. She recalls her fall, “I would have severely been injured, but I am sure my vest kept me safe. It felt as though I landed on a cloud. Truthfully, no one is invincible, so I question … why not wear a vest?” Ashlee shares more, “I think it makes me ride better, it takes away the second guessing and questioning/fear of falling off. I ride more confidently; I feel like a better rider in my air vest.”

Deloise Noble Strong, trainer and equine professional for over 30 years also wears an equine safety vest. Deloise addresses the naysayers after having experience with her vest, “In the media, including social media, we do hear a few stories of failed air vest units, but I certainly have witnessed many falls of experienced and inexperienced riders who were unharmed in a crash while wearing an air vest.” She goes on, “There is no proof that wearing either a body protector or air vest impedes your ability as a rider to train well, or win in the show ring. It merely shows a rider who is conscientious about their health and wants to stay out of the hospital when an accident occurs.” 

Overall, regardless of horse or country, a clear vision and pursuit are of the utmost importance: diligent protection backed by scientific data and research. Riders want to be protected and want to protect each other. 

On March 12, 2022 Grand Prix rider David Beisel suffered a severe neck injury after a dangerous fall in the $10,000 Future Prix at the World Equestrian Center–Ohio in Wilmington. David snapped his C3 and C4 vertebra going into spinal shock. He eventually had to replace a disc and have a cage surgically and permanently placed in his neck. During our interview, he was attending his first horse show again, happy to be up and around horses – eager to discuss equine safety progression. “If I could get my hands on a better jacket to wear, for myself, my children and my wife … I would absolutely do it.” David has noticed how the pace of his sport has been slow to upgrade any of the safety standards. “I am very interested in the research backed by all the football technology that is out there and what they can offer,” he says. 

“The equestrian community is something else unto its own. The support has been overwhelming and I am blown away in every way imaginable,” David exclaims. “The neat thing is, there does not seem to be any type of social stigma behind the safety movement in the hunter and/or equitation world. It is a dangerous sport, I don’t think anyone is going to pin a round differently today because of the uniform in regards to the safety vest, safety is important,” he comments.

Jeff Papows has an over-educated perch through which he views this issue. “I’ve had my share of falls over decades of riding. I started wearing an air vest after Kevin’s fall. Today’s air vests are so light, I hardly notice I have it on. In fact, I’ve had the odd “senior moment” when I’ve dismounted without disconnecting so I can tell you they inflate in a microsecond. Much to my shame at the time, in one case with Dianna Babington coaching me!”

“Kevin and I are brothers of a sort. I’d trade places with him if I could, and I marvel every day at the tenacity, selflessness, and positive mindset he maintains. Kevin’s concerns day to day are for those around him, never himself.  I honestly don’t know how many of us have that inner kindness and courage … so let’s wear the vests and we will find out less often.  The foundation, while in Kevin’s name, serves the sport as a whole and the website is there to provide research and at times financial support when circumstances dictate. It’s an honor to chair the foundation and a puzzle to me why we aren’t all employing this protection and why the Federation isn’t codifying the issue and enacting a requirement across the sport!” 

The push for better protection within one of the most dangerous sports in the world seems like a no brainer. Riders, publishers, editors, and trainers, must continue to be their own advocates in order to obtain the funding, research and data and acquire the best tools for their community. Constant outreach, networking, and exploration for now, seems to continue as the pathway for this Olympic pastime to reach its cap in progression and safety. 

The Kevin Babington Foundation has become a safe haven for funding and support as our community continues to suffer from the progression it desires. The non-profit continues to be a stronghold for the family of riders who seek education, research, and timely intervention.

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