We all know that horse sports are inherently dangerous. Realistically, just sitting on a horse could get you killed, and galloping and jumping only raise the odds of injury. Many accidents and falls are freak occurances, and thankfully, most riders and horses walk away from most falls. However, the sport of eventing has had a rash of fatalities for both horses and riders lately, and people are starting to wonder if we’re asking too much of our mounts and of ourselves.

I personally don’t event and have no wish to (the thought of galloping at a 3’9″ obstacle that doesn’t fall down if my horse hits it is too much for me…), but I think that every horse person needs to pay attention to what is going on. We all need to work together for reform so that we can save lives and make our sport safer and more enjoyable.

The following letter is from USEF President David O’Connor and USEA President Kevin Baumgardner:

“29 April 2008

Dear Members of the Equestrian Community,

This past weekend at the Rolex Kentucky Three-Day, Laine Ashker suffered a serious fall during the cross-country stage of the competition. She is currently in critical condition at the University of Kentucky hospital in Lexington. Laine’s horse and another involved in a separate accident had to be euthanized.

These accidents come just a month after Darren Chiacchia, an Olympic rider, had a serious fall at an event in Tallahassee, Florida. They also come in the wake of a recent article in the New York Times about 15 rider fatalities in cross country that have occurred worldwide over the last two years.

These accidents have hit us hard in the sport of eventing – we are all riders who care deeply about the horses, their welfare and the image of the sport. For us, the issue is also a personal one.

This spate of accidents has raised important and potentially troubling questions for those of us who govern the sport: Why are so many riders and horses having accidents? Is there more that can be done to make cross country safer? Is the sport just too dangerous?

There is no question that eventing is a demanding and yes, risky sport. Riders cross undulating terrain at high speed and jump a series of challenging fences – all while atop a 1,000 pound horse. So there is a constant need for us to ensure that every precaution is being taken to reduce the risk of injury to riders and horses.

Although we have implemented several measures to improve safety over the last year, clearly more needs to be done. In the coming days and weeks, we will be redoubling our efforts to identify additional steps we can take to make sure that riders and horses can compete as safely as possible. We would like to ask your help in this effort – whether you’re a rider, trainer, coach, veterinarian, or simply a horse enthusiast.

We invite each and every one of you to the USEF/USEA Safety Summit to be held in Lexington, KY June 7-8. We will break the issue of safety down and examine the causes and potential solutions with some of the best minds in the game. In the meantime, if you have immediate thoughts about how we can improve the safety of cross country, please email them to us at:

safetythoughts@usef.org and/or safety@useventing.com.

Over the last few days, we have received emails from people who were at the Rolex event over the weekend and were disturbed by what they saw. They are asking hard questions of us and questioning whether they should continue to support the sport of eventing. To them and to you, we want to say that we too are disturbed by what we see. No matter how much we tell ourselves that injury is a part of our sport, it is always traumatizing to see a horse fall.

Therefore, we are working closely with FEI to do whatever we can to better protect riders and horses and to repair the public image of our sport. We are proposing today that within the U.S. the following five initiatives be put into effect:

  1. If a horse has a rotational fall, horse and rider are suspended from competing for three or six months
  2. If a horse has a rotational fall, horse and rider lose their qualification at the level at which they are competing.
  3. If a rider falls off on the course they are eliminated.
  4. Open oxers on courses at every level are made frangible.
  5. If a horse falls related to a jump both horse and rider are suspended from competing for one month.

We don’t have all the answers, we are deeply concerned about what is going on in the sport of eventing and we need your help.

Sincerely,

David O’Connor, USEF President
Kevin Baumgardner, USEA President”

First off, I’m glad to see that the heads of our sport are taking the initiative to fix things, and sincerely hope that they are able to find solutions quickly. The fact is, eventing is a global discipline, and the involvement of FEI should really help make new safety regulations widespread. As for the five proposed rules, I think they’re a bit awkward. The officials have the right idea, but I can spot several problems with each point, and many have been questioned on equestrian forums such as COTH. For example, what if a professional has a rotational fall and thus cannot attend a major international event, such as the Olympics or a major 4-star event? I wholeheartedly agree that riders need to slow down in their training, but some accidents are simply flukes. Sometimes to most talented and capable horses in the sport will stumble and fall at a simple fence. That’s just life. And because of that, will that rider have to miss out on a big event or opportunity?

The answer to the question above should lie with a sort of committee or delegation of stewards that should rule on such issues. Such a committee should be able to decide if a fall is simply a freak occurance (maybe the ground was slick, the horse spooked, etc) or if the horse and/or rider really is not capable of or ready to handle the level they are competing at. In that case, the committee can hand out a suspension for an appropriate amount of time.

I agree with point 3 for a number of reasons.

  • When a rider falls, they often get back on despite injuries. They want to finish the course, save money, save face, etc. They’ll often overlook pain and end up hurting themselves more (I did this yesterday!).
  • After a fall, riders are often tenser and have rattled nerves. They are more likely to mess up a distance, forget their course, etc. They don’t have the time to take a few deep breaths and collect themselves, but instead have to get on and keep galloping. The horses can sense this tension and unease, and this mixture could result in another fall.
  • A rider that falls off usually ruins their chance of placing in the competition, so elimination isn’t an outlandish punishment.

As for point 4, I think that EVERY fence that CAN have frangible pins SHOULD have frangible pins. Is it really that difficult of a decision? On that same note, I believe that the course design and fence building requirements need a major overhaul. Jump designers need to figure a way to make EVERY jump on course safer. Upper level showjumps have flatter breakaway cups and lighter rails to make them much safer. At the same time, this change makes the competition harder, whereas in eventing, it seems that the harder the course gets, the more dangerous it gets.

Ultimately, things will be changing in the eventing world (hopefully…) and some shockwaves should and probably will be felt in other disciplines, especially show jumping and dressage, since they are part of eventing. We all need to step up and give our opinions and ideas to ensure that our riders and horses stay safe. Our lives and their lives are too precious to gamble with.

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