Irish show jumping rider Kevin Thornton is being accused of abuse after a horse, Flogas Sunset Cruise, died during the GPA Jump Festival CSI** in Cagnes-sur-Mer, France.
The organizers of the competition released a paper statement to other riders at the event on Oct. 10. The competition has banned Thornton from further participation.
“I, the undersigned…certify having seen Kevin Thornton riding on the polytrack ring accompanied by another person on foot holding a dressage whip. These two people were beating the horse to make it gallop without stopping. Under this constraint, the horse collapsed and died in the ring.”
The competition also posted on its Facebook page that it was further investigating the incident, which allegedly resulted in the death of the 10-year-old Irish Sport Horse (ARD VDL Douglas—PH Cruise Hill, Cruising) owned by the rider and Vinnie Duffy.
“Following the accident that day on the racetrack, the organization will take all necessary measures to clarify the circumstances of this tragedy and punish those responsible,” it said. “The animal compliance is our priority, and we are committed to uphold it!”
Thornton, 28, has denied any allegations of abuse.
“I was also not riding this horse for three hours as is being said on social media,” he added. “I was riding him for 15-20 minutes at most before he keeled over. I have other grey horses that people seem to be confused with because I was riding them earlier.”
On Oct. 12, Thornton posted an extended statement on his Facebook page, stating he got the ride on “Flogas” about five months ago. After the horse was hot and strong during the first week of competition, Thornton made a decision in conjunction with the horse’s owners to exercise him on the gallops before the second week of showing in France.
“On Monday, after I had ridden my other two grey horses, Saper and Startschuss, I proceeded with Flogas,” he wrote. “I took Flogas up to the big gallop where a section was open to riders. He was in a normal snaffle bit; he acted up at the entrance, so I hit him once or twice to get him moving forward. That was the first time I had ever used the whip on him. He bolted off around the gallops. I tried to hold him and stay calm. I cantered for one round, and then slowed him down when he stopped pulling, turned him around and back towards the gate where a colleague was waiting.
“Flogas nearly jumped on top of this person,” he added. “I moved him on up the strait again towards the jumping arena. He was not breathing heavy or fast. He suddenly felt very weird under me. I got off and walked a few steps with him, when he suddenly collapsed. I took the saddle off him and shouted for a vet. I rang Vinnie and told him what was happening.”
The Irish Field reported on Oct. 17 that the provisional results of a postmortem performed in Lyon, France, found no evidence of abuse such as whip or spur marks or crusted sweat on the horse. However, there also wasn’t a conclusive cause of death such as aortic rupture.
The statement released by Thornton’s lawyer, Dr. Monika Gattiker, read: “The first results of the autopsy fully support Kevin Thornton’s statement on the incident made on October 11th 2016, i.e. that he had ridden the horse for 15 to 20 minutes and definitely not worked too hard or even excessively, and that he had not abused the horse. The final results of the autopsy, which will hopefully provide conclusive results, will have to be awaited.”
Duffy Sport Horses, part owner of Flogas Sunset Cruise, also made a post on Facebook thanking people who’ve reached out to them with condolences.
“We are devastated by the events of yesterday—both the loss of our lovely horse Sunset Cruise and by the social media assassination of Kevin Thornton,” they posted. “Sunset Cruise has been part of our family for the last five years. We do not condone abuse in any form, and we are cooperating fully with the investigation and the authorities.”
Horse Sport Ireland also released its own statement regarding the incident on Oct. 11.
“We are extremely concerned about reports of the alleged circumstances leading to the death of a horse ridden by Swiss-based Kevin Thornton,” it stated.
“Last night, Horse Sport Ireland was in contact with our colleagues in the French Equestrian Federation, and the rider, to gather information on what happened. We will be continuing with this process. Any rider who obtains a license from Horse Sport Ireland is also subject to the Horse Sport Ireland rules and code of conduct. Accordingly, it would not be appropriate for Horse Sport Ireland to comment further on the specifics of the case at this time as the matter will be subject to due process.
“Horse welfare is a core value of Horse Sport Ireland,” the statement continued. “The horse is the silent partner in our sport, and everyone involved has a responsibility to ensure that the welfare of the horses participating in our sport is never compromised.”
A Fédération Equestre Internationale spokesperson also responded with a statement, saying that the FEI has launched a full investigation into the incident.
“We are in direct contact with the Cagnes-sur-Mer organizing committee, which has filed a report on the incident with the police. A post mortem is scheduled to be carried out on the horse today,” it stated.
“The welfare of our equine athletes is our number one priority and, although this incident took place on a rest day between two international events, the FEI has rules in place that mean any horse welfare issues can be addressed, even if they happen outside the duration of an FEI event. In order to protect the integrity of the investigation we will not give any further comment at this point in time.”