Crash experts called in to curb horse trial deaths

Horse trials are to be examined at the Transport Research Laboratory (TRL), famed for its crash test dummies, to find ways to improve safety in an attempt to prevent a repeat of last year's death toll.

Five riders, including some of the 90-year-old sport's best-known competitors, were killed. Polly Phillips, Robert Slade, Peta Beckett, Simon Long and Peter McLean, all under 40, were crushed to death in front of spectators when their horses fell on them.

The scientist that the British Horse Trials Association (BHTA) has turned to is Paul Forman. TRL's head of investigations and risk management will be examining the minutiae of each accident, analysing the weight and speed ratios of the horse and rider.

Every year, 3,400 people die on British roads and much of the technical knowhow, such as the impact of a car on a pedestrian, is to be adapted to judge the factors behind horse-trial accidents. At their laboratories in Crowthorne, Berkshire, crash experts will model a sensor-filled artificial horse limb - as they have done with human crash dummies - and judge its impact on a trial fence.

A three-day public inquiry at the Jockey Club in London elicited a flood of responses and the committee is hoping to report back by the Badminton Horse Trials, which are held in May. A BHTA spokeswoman, Winnie Murphy, said: "It is a risk sport and we will never get away from that but obviously something has gone wrong and we will be looking at how we can manage that risk."

The five riders died when their horses hit solid fences and were catapulted into a high rotation fall - effectively, a somersault - before falling on top of them. BHTA experts have started looking at deformable fence designs which give way, relaxing time limits and tougher stewardship to prevent reckless riding.

But their data is limited and the association is trying to raise £70,000 to fund scientific research. The TRL will issue forms to be completed after any horsetrial accident, to seek a possible common factor.

Competing horses weigh around half a ton and travel at approximately 20 to 25mph when jumping. Heights, distances, trajectories, ground surfaces, weather conditions will all be analysed to find if there is anything that could be a common denominator in a series of serious accidents.

Mr Forman said: "We will be looking at the different variations - at the contributory and precipitating factors. We hope to open eyes across the sport."

In August, Vere Phillips lost his wife Polly, 30, an Olympic Games contender, in a fallat the Scottish Open Championships.

"My wife loved this sport," he said. "They mustn't lower the standard of jumping. I don't think they can make horse trials any easier, otherwise the sport might as well die.

"It is the pinnacle of the sport. You couldn't have drivers in the Monaco Grand Prix going at 20mph. Horses have been my life. I have had horrific falls, even a broken back, but I am still here."

Mr Phillips believes that he sport must tackle "optical illusion" fences and course design. If a horse misreads a signal from its rider it could mistake a single fence for a double and make the wrong jump, causing a fall, he said.

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