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.