Making the Rules

Yesterday kicked off the annual USEA convention (virtual this year, although I’ve always watched online anyway) and the first session right out of the gate was one of my favorites – RULES! Coming changes, rule change proposals, all that good stuff. It’s not that I like having lots of rules per se, it’s more that I really like knowing and understanding them. Who has actually read the rule book cover to cover? (me. it was me.)

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Anyway, like I said the Rules discussion is really interesting, and it never fails to give me some thinking points. This time the one that stuck with me was the proposal that, at shows where stadium happens before cross country, IF a horse and rider have 5 or more rails it equals automatic Retirement and they are not allowed to run XC (applied at Training level and above). Reason being that they have seen a correlation between a high number of rails and cross country falls. They didn’t provide said correlation data in that discussion, so I don’t know if it’s a tiny correlation or a large one, or how consistent it is, or how far back this data goes, or what it looks like at each level. Interestingly enough they DID say that while they saw a correlation at 4 rails and 5 rails, once you got to 6 rails and above there did NOT seem to be a correlation between the rails and the XC fall rate. That part just raised more questions for me.

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I’ve gone back and forth on my thoughts about this. As the owner of a horse who does not give a flying F how many rails he pulls but is an exceptionally good and safe XC horse, my knee jerk reaction was no. Granted, he’s never pulled 5 or more rails (but we have pulled 4 rails a couple times) so this never would have impacted us anyway. Unless of course I found myself riding around with the thought in my head of “OH NO WE CAN’T HAVE ANY MORE RAILS” and then I massively choked and murdered the whole rest of the course. Which is entirely possible.

But I can also easily sit here and think of several upper level horses who pull lots of rails but are some of the best XC horses I’ve ever seen. Quick and safe and smart on XC, but tap their way around stadium because they know the difference (ironically – or not – most of the ones I’m thinking of are Irish or TB). One in particular locally… if they R’d him every time he had 5 or more rails, he’d rarely make it to XC. He doesn’t plow through them, he just taps every single one and it’s a matter of how many stay in the cups. That horse is a BEAST on cross country though.

On the other hand, I definitely don’t think that exceptions should guide rulemaking, especially in regards to safety. So if there really IS a significant correlation, and if 5+ rails equaling retirement WOULD prevent accidents in a large number of cases… it’s hard to argue with that.

fun fact, we actually had 4 rails in this round

Back on the other side of the coin, I have some concerns about the ripple effect a rule like this would have, on the horses and industry and the sport. For the horses: are the less careful ones suddenly going to find themselves out of work and unwanted? What happens to them? For the industry: is it going to become completely impossible to sell horses that consistently have 2 or more rails on their record, no matter how good they are on XC? Does this mean that people could be more likely to resort to shady tactics behind closed doors in an effort to make horses jump more cleanly? For the sport: is this going to sway a heavier emphasis toward people buying horses that are more careful jumpers (much as how the FEI scoring that made dressage more influential had an impact on the types of horses that were being sought out)? Because carefulness is definitely not always a safe quality to have in a cross country horse. If we end up inadvertently swinging the pendulum that direction, could we actually inadvertently make the fall rate higher and the sport more dangerous?

I guess a lot of my opinion hinges on the details within that correlation data, but I’d love to hear more pros/cons discussion too.

There is another proposal to increase the number of MER’s required to move up the levels, which I am 100% wholeheartedly in support of. I’ve always thought the current MER’s were quite easy to meet as-is, and I think asking people to do more shows at their current level before moving up is reasonable. MER’s cover a particular number of rails in stadium as well, so even by this rule alone, horses who pull a lot of rails would take longer to achieve their MER’s and thus be forced to move up more slowly. They just wouldn’t be forced to retire from the competition.

What are your thoughts on this one? Other potential pros and cons that you can see within this proposal?

13 thoughts on “Making the Rules

  1. I’m not an eventer. I enjoy jumping itty bitty XC jumps (like, a 2’6″ jump is “big” to us), and about the same in stadium jumps, but I do love dressage.

    I can totally see all of your points, especially the one about carefulness NOT being good on XC! I definitely have one of those careful horses; she rarely touches anything and usually clears things by at least 6″ (see above, we’re not jumping big though!). And she’s also one who will look at a sketchy-looking XC jump and say, “Uh, no Mum, this isn’t safe!” and then usually run out. A lot of that is inexperience on both of our parts, but I can totally see how this quality would be undesirable and start to create real safety issues in an upper level horse!

    So I’m with you: I’d want to see the actual numbers before making that a rule. But if there IS a strong correlation, across multiple shows/levels/horses/locations around the country/etc, then it definitely merits further discussion.

    Further possible result you didn’t mention: would this mean the format of Training level and above events would all be pressured to change so there ARE no events where Stadium comes before XC? I don’t know how this would affect how events are run (or how many events there could be, or where they would be located, etc), but it’s interesting to think about.

    You’re also not the only one who reads rule books cover-to-cover! I do too. Because in my opinion, being DQ’d because you didn’t follow a rule is a dumb way to lose (both a class AND the money from entering the show) when the rules are there, in print, and not that hard to find.


  2. Also one who reads the rule book cover to cover, but not in the last couple of years, need to do that again. 😀

    Definition of “Fall”: Assuming they mean rider falls. To me it would make a difference if the correlation were with horse falls. That would re-define the issue, in my mind. Statistically horse falls have the potential for more frequent serious outcomes.

    As a volunteer who has watched lower-level stadium round after round after round, for years, I have seen very few rounds that pull five or more rails. Caveat that this is LL here in Area V, unscientific data.

    So if 5+ rails is not a common occurrence, possibly most riders will feel that this change does not affect them. It may not change much behavior.

    I also would like to see a deeper dive into the statistics to see if it is the same horses, at one event after another, who routinely pull so many rails in stadium and go on to a rider fall on xc. Or, is it a scattered “bad day” situation across random horses. The second random scenario is a one-weekend safety concern. The other habitual scenario is a concern for filtering out horses that aren’t safe eventers. But are there such horses? They haven’t said if that’s what the statistics tell us.

    Without a great deal more statistical detail, it’s not clear to me if this is a necessary rule or not. On the one hand, I am very glad to see that the statistics are being gathered. And that the statistics are being used to try to make the sport safer.

    But should this be a rule, or a teaching opportunity? Eventing is very much about rider judgment and forward thinking. I think I would rather have had them use this as a learning tool rather than another rule.

    To your point, rules do tend to have unanticipated consequences. Making a new rule might be using a hammer to fix something that requires a specialized allen wrench instead.

    Just an early take without a personal look-into.


  3. A couple of thoughts –

    I wonder if they didn’t see a correlation at 6 rails or higher simply because statistics start to break down because your pool is so much smaller. Realistically, across all recognized events, how many horses pull 6 rails in stadium at all? How many pull 6 rails and have a rider who is still feeling okay to run XC? That’s a lot of rails!

    I wonder if the rule might make for another/different selection bias – to put XC first again? I’ll be honest, I don’t like the swapping of XC and stadium. I get that it can make schedules easier, but it seems a bit contrary to the idea of the sport.


  4. As a trained statistician and data scientist, proposing this without making BOTH the data and methods available is fairly useless. Would also need to see their reasoning behind their methods; opinions can vary a lot and despite what people like to think, data is inherently NOT objective and many subjectivities are baked into every step of the process. I think especially given the caveat around 6+ without an explanation of why they think that is or what they did to get that result, it’s hard to take this proposal without several grains of salt. Then again, I’m guessing statisticians aren’t their key audience 🤷🏼‍♀️


  5. Over here in the UK, you get eliminated in SJ for more than 24 penalties, and that had been the way for a while now. At all levels too. I’ve been reading for a while now, and it is so interesting to me how the 2 countries differ in the same sport!


    1. So that would be 6 rails instead of 5. Which then just makes me want to see the data in regards to the correlation at 4 rails, 5 rails, and 6 rails. It all just raises more questions lol.


  6. So, I had a friend with a horse like Henry. Cross Country machine. She ran Intermediate with him and never had a xc jump penalty. They were a safe pair who were tons of fun to watch. However, no matter what level she did SJ he ALWAYS had rails. He DID NOT CARE about hitting rails. One time, he had 6 rails, but I would say 4 was about average for him. The only time it was ever concerning, was after a particularly hot day on XC and he was TIRED the next day. She almost just pulled him up in SJ, and probably should have in retrospect.
    The reason I bring this up is two fold. There’s a reason SJ traditionally follows cross country. Horses are tired, and SJ tests their stamina and strength following a tough day. This is why the rails fall. So it is less dangerous. Nowadays though, in many parts of the country, SJ runs BEFORE xc, and it all runs in the same day, and it’s almost like SJ is a warm up for xc, despite the fact that they need to be ridden very differently.
    I’m really opposed to SJ being before xc. I feel doing this defeats the entire tradition of the sport, and how each phase tests the horse. Like others have said, I would like to see the data behind the rails before making any rule changes. Hell, I’m pretty sure it was data that got more riders to get rid of silly top hats for dressage.
    And…speaking of dressage, this might be an unpopular opinion, but I think dressage should play a larger role in if riders can move up levels or continue to jumping. I see far too many horses who are, quite frankly, out of control in dressage or just not schooled at all to be prepared to answer the questions in a dressage test. These horses will then go on and fly through xc without any adjustability, minimal steering, or, quite frankly, any understanding of what is being asked of them other than “it’s in front of me I’ll get over it somehow.”
    Seeing as Dressage is subjective, it’s hard to say “a score above xx means you can’t go jump or have a qualifying round for an MER”. Because, lets be honest, some horses get better scores because they are just better suited for the sandbox. I do think Dressage plays more of a role in how some of these horses do in stadium jumping, tho, than we care to admit. And each Dressage test does have aspects in it that set you up to have a safe and capable horse for that level of xc.
    So, really, I feel like there are tons of things to look at. I appreciate you bringing the topic up, as it definitely got me thinking!


    1. Good points there too. I’d also wonder at the correlation between x dressage score and cross country falls (I tracked this VERY informally at 5* last year and it actually trended the other way – horses with lower dressage scores were slightly more likely to have XC falls). Eventing is complicated lol.

      I do think its kind of funny (not haha funny…) though that we’re looking seriously at rules like this but we can’t even make BETA 3 vests mandatory. I mean, we’ve missed plugging some of the most obvious gaps.


  7. One of my biggest questions is what percentage of starters have 5+ rail SJ rounds in the relevant divisions, when SJ comes before XC? Is this rule affecting a relative few, or is it more than that?

    Also what timeframe is this data? Lots of years? The last 2-3 years?

    And so on …

    To me it would be more valuable to understand why the fall happened on XC, rather than just make a rule. It could be that the apparent correlation isn’t really there. Especially if there aren’t many data points in the 5+ rail category.

    Speculating that there will be additional official statements in the future about this rule, when feedback starts rolling in.


  8. I believe it is also if SJ is after XC too? It also includes stops right? I think it is just 20 penalties in general not including time,

    I’m supportive of it. In Ontario there are a few riders who continuously get 20+ pp in SJ then go on to fall on XC. If the science says there is a correlation than I support it. Hopefully the science is good science.


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