Equestrian fatalities puzzle investigators: This week's death of a fourth competitor has puzzled investigators and shocked the world of riding. Martin Whitfield reports

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ACCIDENT investigators are struggling to find a common link between four fatal accidents in horse trials events in the past three months.

The deaths of four riders, all of whom had considerable experience, has shocked a sport which has enjoyed a good safety record despite a rapid growth in popularity. Before this year there had only been five fatal accidents in the previous decade.

Vanessa Weaver, a married woman in her forties, was killed on Wednesday at an event at Tythrop horse trials, near Thame, Oxfordshire. The legs of her horse, Kharon, a seven-year-old bay stallion, became entangled in a fence of sloping rails and she was thrown. Kharon then went over the rails and landed on her.

Three earlier deaths prompted an inquiry last month by the Horse Trials Group of the British Horse Society, which looked at all eight fatalities in the sport since 1982. Hugh Thomas, the chairman of the inquiry, said there appeared to be no link between the accidents. The inquiry report recommended changes in fence design, improvement in hard hat design and mandatory reporting of all accidents.

'Reports of the latest accident don't seem to get us any further forward in trying to find a common thread. It was a completely different type of fence and there doesn't seem to be anything about the fence that could explain it,' he said.

One of the other three fatal accidents this year was that of Richard Adams, 23, whose horse fell on top of him at Windsor horse trials. But the death of Malcolm Munro-Kerr, 42, at Melton Mowbray in June resulted from head injuries, while that of Mark Holliday, 23, was from multiple injuries after his horse somersaulted.

Captain Mark Phillips, former equestrian Olympic gold medallist and a member of the accident inquiry team, has expressed concern at the standard of cross-country riding. 'I see at the higher levels people galloping at fences on a wing and a prayer, pushing and shoving their horses at fences before they have seen their stride,' he wrote recently in Horse and Hound.

'The one thing I am sure of is that future safety has more to do with the way in which the horses are ridden than the construction of the fences.'

Nearly 9,000 trialists are registered with the British Horse Society and the number is continuing to increase.

General horse riding is also becoming more popular with BHS membership reaching 60,000, compared with 44,000 five years ago. An average of about 16 people are killed each year on horseback and the BHS estimate eight road accidents involving horses happen every day. New regulations on the enforced use of British-standard body protection are due to take effect in horse trials next year. But Mr Thomas said: 'No body protector is going to help if half a ton of horse lands on it.'