Perspective: Improving Safety is Laudable, but is This the Right Approach?

A number of riders have shared with us their opinions about a recently proposed rule change by the USEA concerning the increased number of MERs to move up to Preliminary, Intermediate and Advanced You can read the latest updates on this proposal here, where you’ll also find a link to a survey soliciting member feedback. Nicole Austin, an adult amateur eventer, shares her letter sent to the USEA with us today. To read other Perspective pieces on this topic, click here.

Photo courtesy of Nicole Austin.

I am almost 20 years into my career as a chemical engineer. I’ve written dozens of risk assessments, participated in seminars and continuing education classes on safety, and am a member of a national trade association sub-committee on Safety and Risk Management in my industry. Consequently, I have some basic familiarity with the complexities and challenges of trying to make dangerous things safer. It’s not easy, and I empathize with USEA’s challenge and am grateful that they want to improve.

Reading through some of the small amounts of data that have been shared publicly, I think the USEA may be making a few common errors in data interpretation to support their latest proposal. Number one is SO common: confusing correlation for causation. I assume they are looking at data that says “horse/rider pairs who run more than X number of times at this level are less likely to fall, and horse/rider pairs who run less than that number of times are more likely to fall”.

That data is probably accurate, but it doesn’t tell you anything about WHY those riders who ran the levels more times are less likely to fall. Behavior-based assessments are very tricky. Those safer riders may be more cautious riders in general, they may have more conservative trainers, they may have more time and money to spend in general on all sorts of things that make them safer (like more educated horses, clinics, higher level trainers, away-from-home schooling experiences, etc.), they may have more flexible jobs that allow them a lot more time in the saddle, they may have more casual goals and not push themselves as hard…or any number of things I haven’t even thought of. The point is, we don’t know.

USEA is assuming that if you make everyone’s data look like the data of the safest riders that everyone will become that safe. That’s a hypothesis. It’s something they think might happen, but don’t know. If they are wrong and the actual most common cause of falls is something besides just the number of times a horse/rider pair ran a recognized event, then this sport will have become more expensive and less inclusive without actually making it safer.

According to a USEA Cross-Country Safety Subcommittee member, “When they looked at William Fox-Pitt, and they looked at Andrew Nicholson, and they looked at Michael Jung’s records, and how many times their horses ran at the levels before they moved up, these were the numbers they came up with.” I haven’t seen the data, but I suspect there may have been other factors besides the number of runs that made their record better than mine.

If they want to know that their hypothesis is correct and that it will work on everyone and not just Michael Jung, they need to run an experiment taking a random sample of riders and implementing these proposed rule changes among them (presumably with some financial support for the additional costs they incur, to demonstrate the organizational commitment to safety) and then see: did the rule changes reduce falls by a statistically significant amount? If yes, then I’m all for it, let’s go. Even better, create two or three different randomized groups and test multiple hypotheses on what might make them safer, and then invest time and money in the one that is most effective.

Speaking for myself, I know that just keeping my horse healthy, happy and in condition requires my full salary. Therefore, my horse “dream” budget mostly comes from my bonus, which varies yearly. That is my total budget for both educational opportunities (like clinics, schooling shows, and travel to study with advanced trainers) and recognized events. I have for three years spent that money with the singular goal of one day being able to ride safely and successfully at Prelim. It’s been a lifelong dream. If all goes well and we stay healthy and sound I think I might be able to get there in a few more years. My horse will be in her mid-teens by then, so I’m definitely praying for no more derailments due to injury or job changes before I have to retire her or the maintenance goes beyond what I can afford. I don’t have the time and money to support her in her retirement and maintain another horse of that talent (and I believe my commitment as a horse owner is a lifelong responsibility), so this is probably it, my one shot at my dream in the next two decades.

Knowing at the beginning of the year that I need to budget for more recognized events, there is less budget for educational opportunities. From my experience over the last year running a ton of recognized events (because I thought that was what I was supposed to do to get better at this), I can tell you that it didn’t work that well. Speaking only from my own experiences, but recognized events have not been great learning opportunities. No one is watching me out there, giving me timely feedback. No one can tell me if I went clean out of sheer luck and my horse’s jumping talent, or if I went clean because I was riding correctly. Being honest with myself, I know some of my successes were more good fortune than good riding. That’s why I haven’t moved up yet, and why I’m planning this year to invest in more clinics and schooling so I can try to get better. Recognized events are a test, but they aren’t the homework.

Improving safety is a laudable goal, and one that I am personally passionate about in my own career and life. What upsets me about this proposed rule change is: A – there’s no data indicating that it will actually result in a safety improvement, and B – it comes at a high personal and financial cost to your members, with no proportionate time or financial commitments from USEA to improve the educational experience at those recognized events.

This commitment could take so many shapes: making sure educated riders or trainers are on the ground on cross country to educate unskilled riders, making it easier to pull someone off course for hazardous riding, publishing a detailed list of skills that are needed to ride safely at each level, publishing educational materials, requiring trainers to submit a signed letter that their student has specific skills needed to move up, designating or certifying certain educated trainers/riders for such a sign off, sponsoring more clinics and/or requiring a certain amount of clinic attendance, creating designated “graduation” events where all riders will be observed and graded on their skills to be allowed to move up, actively supporting more schooling events at higher levels to allow for more affordable runs at those levels, or counting those types of schooling experiences toward the “safety” focused MERs.

The difference between the above ideas and the current proposed rule changes is not any data-driven demonstration of effectiveness at reducing falls. They are all just educated guesses. The difference is that they would require extra time, effort, or money from USEA as well as their members, whereas the current proposed rule change places 100% of the burden of this potential safety improvement on members. I think this is part of why people are annoyed.

These proposed rule changes have really made me stop and think, can I still achieve my dreams in this sport safely? Knowing that I will have to trade genuine learning opportunities for recognized events, is pursuing this dream still the healthiest goal for me and my horse? Should I just give up now? Switch to stadium? Go be a fox hunter full time?

I am exactly the kind of rider these rules are targeted at, exactly the kind of rider who really needs good education, practice and learning opportunities to be safer and better, and I just feel demoralized by them.

Reading the USEA’s most recent comments on the logic behind their changes, it seems like this is exactly the outcome they were hoping for. Amateurs simply aren’t good enough for upper levels, and if I don’t have the money to spend then I’m not welcome. This is not the sport for dreams. As the USEA subcommittee member said in their recent interview, “No one gives a s**t that I want to play in the NBA.”

They’re right that if I never run a recognized event again then I’ll never fall at one. Their numbers might look better, but it doesn’t actually mean that the sport is safer. That’s a classic misinterpretation of the data.