Is Eventing Too Dangerous?

Apr 09, 2008 22 Comments by

The New York Times ran a well-written, well-researched article today on eventing and equestrian deaths spreading unease in the sport as one of their top stories. Former Olympian and top rider Darren Chiacchia’s recent accident on a cross-country course has really brought this discussion to the forefront. Ironically, Darren was chairman of a US task force addressing safety issues in eventing and the group is supposed to be proposing changes later this month.

While Darren Chiacchia is now in therapy and making a slow recovery, 12 other riders from around the world–ranging in age and ability–have died over the past year and a half. Three of those were in the US.

Many site the more difficult cross-country course designs, in an effort to test the ever increasing skills of top riders, as a major factor.

Others feel that an influx of new, less-experienced riders to the sport is the cause of more accidents.

As is common with issues like this, it’s probably a combination of both.

One of the problems with cross-country courses, where the majority of accidents happen, is that the obstacles are large, strange, and unmovable. On a show jumping course obstacles are created with poles in cups that can fall easily. If a horse accidentally brushes a jump with his leg, the pole falls and no harm is done (other than not placing well in the class). On the other hand, cross-country obstacles are made of large objects like logs that would be found naturally in rural areas. The are very solid and unmovable. If a horse brushes one of these fences with a leg, he’s liable to somersault over the fence crushing his rider. And these rotational falls are most often the accidents that result in death.

After a rash of deaths 9-years-ago, with the majority in England, the British developed pins that could be inserted into certain cross-country fences that would allow the top rail to drop if hit. But they’re expensive, and only 4 percent of cross-country competitions in England use them. Even less use the pins in the US.

Recently I’ve thought it would be fun to step outside my traditional hunter ring and someday try eventing–mostly for the show jumping and cross-country phases. It would be a ton of fun and a great test of my horsemanship skills. But after all this talk of the dangers, I’m a little wary. At the same time, I (like most people who ride horses) know and accept a certain level of risk every time I get in the saddle. I know what could happen, but I take every precaution to protect myself.

And if I really think about it, I’d rather leave this world doing something I really love than in a car accident or from a disease or a million other things that take our lives.

We can’t allow the fear to get the best of us when we are around horses. But we do need to take instances like Darren Chiacchia’s accident and the recent deaths to find ways to improve and to be safer. We need to improve our safety as individuals by constantly improving our riding and by being smart–not choosing to do things above our skill level. And as a sport we need to find ways to make competition safer for horses and riders.

The Eventing Standards Task Force, of which Darren was appointed chairman, came up with a list of changes that will make eventing competitions safer. A list of the task force’s short-term goals are available on the US Eventing Association website, and were scheduled to be presented on Monday, April 7.

Horse News, Riding and showing

22 Responses to “Is Eventing Too Dangerous?”

  1. On The Bit says:

    That is such a scary picture! I hope the horse and rider were okay after that tumble! I always have said that if I am going to die young it better be on the back of a horse. I, like so many others, love to ride and the joy I get from riding and being around horses out weighs the risk for me. I just hope that I am lucky enough to never get seriously hurt.

  2. faith says:

    great post! I hadn’t heard about the accident until this. that is every rider’s worst nightmare. Here’s hoping for a speedy recovery.

  3. Mrs Mom says:

    Good golly- think I will stick to puttering along AROUND the fences, and maybe not so much OVER the fences. That picture made my stomach shrivel up completely and say NO!

    As always, great post with good info. :)

  4. risingrainbow says:

    That’s such a scary looking fall. I hope they come up with some answers to this problem for both the riders and the horses.

  5. Jackie says:

    On the Bit – yes, the horse and rider in that photo were ok. They both got up and walked away.

    Faith – I’m with you on that speedy recovery! Unfortunately, it sounds like it’s going to be a long, tedious process for Darren. But, a slow recovery is definitely better than no recovery. I’m hoping for a full recovery for him.

    Mrs Mom – I have to agree, it made me say no to cross-country! I love jumping too much to be scared away completely. :-)

    Rising Rainbow – I certainly hope they do too. Eventing is such a challenging, demanding sport and it sees like it is all too easy for a minor mistake to become a major accident. There just isn’t any room for error on a cross-country course. I just hate that those jumps are so solid — not safe at all.

  6. Lynda says:

    All of us who ride accept a certain level of risk, and I’d rather leave this world doing something I loved instead of in a car accident too, but putting yourself in a situation like that is just crazy. Could part of the problem be that the riders (entrants) don’t INSIST on better, safer conditions? If events such as these continue to have good turnouts and make money, where is the incentive? If the industry doesn’t police themselves, the government will step in and do it for them. Better to take control of your own destiny.

  7. GreyHorseMatters says:

    Jackie your are right about everything in this post. We all accept the risks of riding, but I have always felt that there are certain things we as riders can do to ensure a modicum of safety. Accidents do happen but a good amount of them are preventable. I do think some of these event riders are not experienced enough or well trained enough to be competing, but sometimes it’s ego and sometimes it’s just plain old naivety that gets them out there competing too soon. The courses need to be looked into for safety also. One thing no one seems to bring up is the horses who are injured. In my opinion if you want to compete, you know the risks, and you are there voluntarily, but what about the horses, they have no say in what happens to them. I wish all the riders who have been injured a speedy recovery and my wish is the same for the horses through no fault of their own have also been injured.

  8. Jackie says:

    Lynda – I agree. We do accept a level of risk, but we do also need to take responsibility to make sure things are as safe as they can be. Good point about the riders stepping up.

    GreyHorseMatters – Good point about the horses who are injured as well. At the event in which Darren had his fall, two horses also died (not his though). I know at least one of them had a heart attack. These kind of accidents dont’ seem to be the norm, fortunately. But we certainly do have a responsibility to ensure our horse’s safety just like we do our own.

  9. Barb says:

    There were two more deaths in April 2008… that bring the total to 14. Plus… debbit Atkinson is still only able to get off her oxygen a few hours a day.. And Darren? well we don’t know how he will come out. This short format of this sport has become dangerous. The USEA/USEF powers to be know this and have been “meeting”… but what is needed is serious change.

  10. Karen Brenner says:

    I’m sure by know you also have heard of two horses injured at the Rolex. They had to be put down also. Such a tragedy. A friend and I photographed Frodo as he galloped by seconds before approaching the Flower Basket where he fell.

  11. Olivia says:

    Every eventer goes out on that course knowing that their life is at risk. I am an eventer so I know from experience that the thrill certainly over takes the risk. Now I have read up on a lot of the deaths of horses and riders to see that some of them had not properly qualified for the level they were competing at. I know thats not true about all of them, but if you go back and look and Darren’s event schedule with this particular horse you will see that he was not suppose to have the horse at this level. Plus, the trainers are not taking as much control as they should and they aren’t training their riders as well as they used to. I have a wonderful trainer that makes me wait until she knows I’m ready and takes me even further before I can move up. If more trainers were like that then I’m sure there would not be as many injuries or deaths to criticize. Now for Rolex, the time this year was not as hard to make and the course was not as difficult as last year’s, so I don’t think the courses are as much of a problem as the training of the horse and definitely the rider.

  12. Leigh says:

    Can you tell me who that rider is and where that occurred?
    It looks familiar, but I can’t place it.


  13. Fred says:

    Example of the extremes of eventing:

  14. Fred says:

    Example of the extremes of eventing:

  15. Lucia says:

    It has come to my attention to how many people react and suddenly take sides to eventing because of eventing deaths in the past year. Eventing has always involved risks and riders and horses has died from the sport. My trainer passed away four years ago from a rotational fall on course. Her horse flipped while galloping to their next fence. The danger of the jumping solid objects was not involved. Riding horses is an inherent danger. In fact the percentage of deaths per year has stayed the same for the past several years. The sport has grown and have more competitors than in past years. To solve these casualties is to educate our riders. I believe that there are too many riders that ride ABOVE their capability and don’t realize that they are NOT safe. I used to be one of them. I rode at prelim but never thought how many strides there were in a line. I would just point and I did not know any better until I got professional training from my instructor who is going to the Olympics for the second time in a row. I look back now and wonder how I didn’t get myself killed! My point is riders must ask themselves “Am I riding safe, smart, and effective?” The reason why Darren’s fall was so tragic because his horse was not balanced and did not set his horse up for the turn. I do not care that he went to the Olympics or world games. Its the consistency that proves a very talented horseman. Not saying that Darren is not a good rider but lets compare him to the growing successes of Amy Tryon, I believe that the first problem to eventing is its riders, not the sport. thank you

  16. Zal says:

    When are we going to outlaw this sport!!! What a rediculous society we are. If this were more mainstream, say on NBC sports every Sunday, this sport would have been gone long ago. You die hard eventers will read this and get infuriated, “I am safe, I would never jeapordize my horse”. But that’s nonsense and you are fooling yourselves.

    I participate in the relatively safe sport of hunters and while I may get hurt, thats completely acceptable. If I thought for one second my horse would die as a result of flipping over a fence or falling into a water obstacle and breaking a leg, I would happily quit and watch my horses eat grass the rest of their lives.

    I am not really concerned with the human toll of this “sport”, but the equine toll in not acceptable!!!!!

  17. Regarding Eight Belles « Square Pegs says:

    […] don’t think that the question is about the relative safety of racing. Surely, the recent deaths in 3-Day Eventing that are covered in the horse magazines make us question all of the horse sports — and we […]

  18. Eventing and Racing Deaths Bring Horse Safety To the Forefront. | Regarding Horses says:

    […] the safety of horses (and riders) to the forefront. I’ve talked a lot recently about the dangers of eventing. That’s been big news between Darren Chiacchia’s accident and several equine deaths at […]

  19. dog tags for dogs says:

    While some are badly injured or have died, the fact remains that many a rider were and are still enjoying eventing. Stopping the sport sounds a little harsh.

  20. Jerrold Downey says:

    Hey, I’m having difficulties loading your web site. roughly 50 percent on the article appears to load, and the remaining is just empty. I am not really sure why…. but you might like to find out about it. I will check back again later on, this might be on my end.

  21. screenshot mac says:

    There were two more deaths in April 2008… that bring the total to 14. Plus… debbit Atkinson is still only able to get off her oxygen a few hours a day.. And Darren? well we don’t know how he will come out. This short format of this sport has become dangerous. The USEA/USEF powers to be know this and have been “meeting”… but what is needed is serious change.

  22. talk to strangers says:

    I’m sure by know you also have heard of two horses injured at the Rolex. They had to be put down also. Such a tragedy. A friend and I photographed Frodo as he galloped by seconds before approaching the Flower Basket where he fell.

    Read more:

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