Can Eventing Be Safer? Formula One Says It Can

Mar 11, 2015 - 6:27 AM
Photos by Wikimedia Commons and Lindsay Berreth

If you’ve never watched a Formula One race, you should stop reading this immediately. Go watch one. Go at least watch a short clip of one.

Formula One is amazing. It’s ridiculously fast cars—up to 220 miles per hour—navigating technical, turning courses. The drivers are strapped in but still somewhat exposed. It looks like the most dangerous thing in the world.

But it’s not—at all. At least, not anymore.

Here’s a short summary of what happened with Formula One: In the 1960s and 1970s, there were a rash of high-profile deaths. Then things kind of evened out during the 1980s and early 1990s. By 1994, there hadn’t been an F1 death since 1986, and that one was in practice.

But 1994 was a terrible year for F1. At the same race, the San Marino Grand Prix in Italy, two drivers died. One, Roland Ratzenberger, during qualifying, and the second, world champion driver Ayrton Senna, during the race itself. (Another recommended viewing is the documentary Senna.)

The death of two drivers in one weekend, including the legendary Senna, shook the sport hard. Drivers were backing out of races. It created a public relations nightmare for the sponsor-heavy sport. A group of drivers restarted the then-defunct Grand Prix Drivers’ Association. Then-FIA President Max Moseley took the safety issue especially to heart, and the organization put into practice a whole new set of safety regulations, some with the help of neurosurgeon Sid Watkins.

They worked. Senna’s death was the last of an F1 driver in an F1 grand prix event, and that was more than 20 years ago. 

(If you’re curious about what exactly F1 did, this is a good article to read.)

You’re probably wondering why I’ve been talking about F1 for so long on this horse magazine website. (Oliver Townend also recently addressed this same topic for Horse & Hound, so it’s not all quite as random as it might seem.) My point is this: In the sport of eventing, deaths of riders and horses occur, and we saw another fatal horse accident at the Red Hills Horse Trials (Fla.) last weekend.

When these tragedies happen, we take some time and look at the sport overall, look at the fence designs, look at the cross-country speeds, think about new designs for helmets or body protectors or horse boots. But present in those conversations is always the idea that eventing is an inherently dangerous sport. We say, “We can minimize some dangers, but we’re always going to have to accept some element of risk along with galloping at high speeds at immovable fences.” Or we say, “Some horses and riders might still die, even if we make changes.” 

If you look at F1, you might think the same thing. Going at speeds of 220 miles-per-hour on a technical track in lightweight cars? Seems like an inherently risky business. And it is to some extent—but then the recent F1 safety record is impeccable.

That sport made changes, drastic ones, and it refused to accept that driver deaths were just part of the game. Is it 100 percent safe? Probably not, because nothing is. But if we could go 20 years without a horse or rider death, that would be an amazing achievement. At this point, it would be great to go even one year.

The same exact safety measures F1 took don’t apply here, but the sentiment can be the same. Of course, horses aren’t machines. They might still die of causes we don’t, and maybe can’t, understand; we don’t know what causes some seemingly healthy horses to collapse while galloping easily a minute before just like experts can’t predict if an experienced marathoner’s heart will give out at mile 23 in one race.

But I’d like to take “inherently dangerous” out of the discussion about eventing for now. At this point, it’s just an excuse to not take a harder look at our sport.  

Even if you do that, if you really commit to a safer sport, it’s still not easy. I personally don’t know how to make eventing a safe sport, but I’d like to believe it’s possible if there are enough real conversations between smart and committed people. 

Every so often, we feature a blog from a member of the Chronicle staff. We’re just like you—juggling riding and competing with work and family. Editorial staffer Lisa Slade grew up riding lower level dressage in North Carolina and graduated from Virginia Intermont College with a degree in English literature. After writing for nearly every publication in Knoxville, Tenn., she moved to Middleburg and started working for the Chronicle in 2008. She’s now relocated back to Knoxville, Tenn., where she spends her free time training her off-the-track Thoroughbred mare, Skills, and hanging out with her corgi, Leo. Still new to the sport of eventing and a pretty big chicken, she’ll be the person at your next event wondering if her novice table is actually intermediate height. 

Categories: Blog Entry, Eventing
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