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Frangible Technology & Equestrian Safety with Jon Holling | Ride iQ

Victoria Clayton

Q: Is there a way to determine whether I am over-facing my horse in what I am asking them in the flatwork?

The big thing for me is the quality of the connection. If you can canter your horse with consistent contact and it stays reasonably round and connected, then you can start to play with leg yields in the canter. That might just be some spiraling in and out on a circle to start.  This can be a good exercise as long as the horse is happy and understanding the work. If the horse is fighting you then you are probably asking too much.

Q: What’s something that has changed in the sport that you think was super significant?

The biggest thing that has happened in the sport is the fundraising that was done to get frangible technology out on courses, specifically the frangible tables. My goal is that in short time we will have no tables on course that aren’t frangible. I think we can achieve that in two ways. The first is fundraising, but also equally important is to try to have fewer tables. They suck! They aren’t great to gallop up to, they are terrible fences, and we really shouldn’t be galloping across the field to a table. If you’re going to have a table, it should be in relation to something.

“The big thing to know is that we are not trying to make the sport safer, we are trying to reduce the risks because it’s an inherently dangerous sport.” – Jon Holling

Q: When you say the goal is for all tables to be frangible, do you mean lower levels, too?

Yes! I think we can get it at training level right now. It is less of a priority at the lower levels because there is less risk at these levels. Some of the technology has to have a certain distance to be able to collapse, so sometimes it won’t work. I rode around the novice at the AEC’s, and they had a frangible oxer. I think at the lower level’s the frangible technology is not as a necessary, but always a good safety measure if able to be used.

Q: How does frangible technology work?

To be honest, I am not really qualified to explain. In layman’s terms, a horse will hit a fence with force, and the fence won’t give. The horse’s body will then be affected by that force from the fence not giving. The worry is that the horse will flip and have a rotational fall, and the rider will not separate and get seriously injured.

The idea with the frangible fences is that the horse will get to the point where it’s about to flip over, but before it does the pressure on the fence will cause it to collapse and lay the horse down. Yes, there will still most likely be a fall, but a less serious one.  The goal isn’t to prevent every fall, rather to prevent rotational falls.

Jon Holling canters a bay horse with a blue bonnet in show jumping

Q: How do lower-level eventers get involved in the safety aspects?

Continue to help with the fundraising! That doesn’t just include donating money, but maybe come up with a fundraiser to do at a local event. We can send the money raised to the USEA trust and have it go towards the Frangible Fence Fund. Keep discussing it, and keep spreading the word!

Q: Do any of the governing bodies track concussions across days/shows? For instance, if there is a potential concussion, does the rider need to get a physician to sign off before returning to competition?

Yes. They keep track of concussions in the field of play. It does get tricky, because if someone falls off at home, we can’t keep track of that. Another tracking issue could include someone falling off and going to the hospital.  They might get diagnosed at the hospital, and they don’t tell us, so then we can’t keep track of those concessions.

So yes, we do track concussions, but it relies on the medical personnel at the event to report incidents and implement the mandatory sit out period.

Q: What is something safety-related that hasn’t changed, but you think it should?

There is still a question of how we can fund frangible technology long term. As a sport, we did an amazing job raising cash quickly. Now the questions are: how can this sport fund the necessary technology in the long term? Do we want to fund this technology long term? Should funding the technology be riders’ responsibility, or should event hosts be responsible?

Personally, I think we should have a permanent entry fee that goes into a fund for frangible technology. It could be $5 per entry.  

Jon Holling jumps a bay horse with a blue bonnet over a large purple and orange stadium oxer

Q: How much does it cost to build a frangible fence?

For the most part, these fences are built new. The price depends on the builder and the build time. With the grant from the USEA, it would be cheaper to build a fence with the frangible technology rather than a new normal fence without the technology.

Q: Is it an FEI requirement for certain fences to be frangible at FEI events?

FEI and USEA have requirements that certain fences have to be frangible. Tables are not mandatory, and there are questions about how quickly they activate and if they collapse quickly enough to prevent a fall.

FEI rules aren’t just making sure the fences fall fast enough to prevent a fall, but also that it is still an equal playing field for everyone and that they do not have a false activation under too little force.

Most upper-level riders are worried about false activations and losing a competition. The best example of that would be the Olympics with Michael Jung at the corner.

Q: Do stats show that a specific type of jump has the most rotational falls, or is it pretty spread out?

Funny enough, I looked at this not long ago. Most rotational falls were happening at rounds, so logs and roll tops. One thing we didn’t have in the past were ground lines. Something everyone should know is it is mandatory that every fence has a ground line at FEI competitions.

Q: Is there an official in show jumping or cross country warmup that is meant to stop riders who don’t look safe warming up?

At the FEI level, I think there should be a steward watching for this. Typically, they would call the Technical Delegate in to watch.

If you are at an event as either a competitor or a spectator and you see something unsafe, ask the cross country starter to call the TD to the warmup. You can quietly express your concern and ask them to take a look.

Q: Has there been thought given to implementing a mechanism to have riders reviewed by someone in order to judge preparedness in addition to just getting MER’s?

Yes, there has been a lot of talk about it. It is really difficult in a country as big as the United States. You might be able to pull it off in Florida, but I don’t think you’d get it done in Milwaukee because there aren’t enough qualified instructors in that area.  You’d have to be certified to review a rider, but there are not enough certified instructors. I think it is a great idea, but the practicality of implementing it would be very difficult.

Q: Could you do a qualification test over Facetime?

I am going to be honest, I wouldn’t be willing to participate in that. What would happen if I were to watch a video of you riding and I say, “Yes, it’s safe for you to go Preliminary.” Then, you go to an event and have a terrible accident. Now your family says I said it was safe to go. As a professional in this sport, the liability aspect is a huge concern. There would be a lot of concerns legally with that approach.

Q: Are there any other sports you look to for ideas around safety?

Yes, we do look at other sports. For example, the inspiration for the air vests came from motocross. They used them long before we did.

When I wanted to be more involved in the safety of the sport, I actually looked into F1 racing. I found the best driver in the circuit was upset because the sport wasn’t doing small things that would have a huge impact on the safety of their sport. The sport went after him for a while because of his concerns. You have to remember, we are trying to make the sport safer for everyone so the sport can continue to exist.

Q: Do you know of any companies working on new frangible technology?

I do know of one, a really cool guy from Colorado named Dan Michaels. He has a cool mechanism that is a socket in a ball type fuse. The main problem is profits. People are not going to go through the effort of making a safety device for a sport if it is not profitable.

Q: Does America have reverse qualifiers?

Yes, we do have reverse qualifiers.

If you go out and have a poor performance and get eliminated, then you have to go back and re-qualify at the level below.

I think if you have two eliminations in 6 months, you have to go back down to the level below.

Q: What are placement poles?

Placement poles are rails set in front of the fence to help the horse leave the ground from the correct place.

Typically, you’ll have a jump, and you will have 9 to 10′ in front of the jump where the rail is sitting on the ground so that the rider rides to the pole on the ground, the horse steps over the pole and gets a nice deep distance to the fence.

Q: What has ICP IV taught you as compared to ICP I?

ICP stands for Instructor Certification Program. That is probably a question that I can’t answer, because I went and did Level IV right away. When ICP was created, I was already pretty established in the sport, so I could go for Level IV. ICP has just redone everything, and it’s incredible.

Q: What are your thoughts on air vests? I know several upper-level riders who don’t wear them, because they don’t think they help that much.

Disclaimger here: I am in the middle of deciding what I am doing with them.

I used to wear them all the time, and I was sponsored by a company that gave them to me. I had one that was the hybrid, and it was really bulky. I didn’t love it, especially in the summer months. So, I decided that the risk from suffering from heat exhaustion outweighed the risk of having a horse fall on me.

I went out and got a regular cross country vest and an air vest I put over the top. When I was schooling at home, I wouldn’t wear the air vest in the summer.

I currently do not run cross country with an air vest. I know I am supposed to be safety guy, and I think they offer some safety and some protection. You will hear the argument from testing that they do not provide a large enough impact to save someone’s life. But I would say if you tested a regular vest in the same way, it wouldn’t be able to save a life either.

It’s all about minimizing risks. If my son wanted to event, I would make him wear an air vest. I possibly need to rethink why I don’t wear one. For me, if I am having something go wrong, I want to be able to react.
I want to be able to get out of the way–I will say that it makes me worried that you can’t separate from the vest when it blows, and I won’t have the time to react. It is my personal choice. I tell everyone to wear it if that’s what they want to do. It does offer benefits.

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