One Cross-Country Accident We Can Prevent

May 16, 2012 - 5:19 AM
When flags fly on cross-country, they can become a danger to the horse. Photo by Allie Conrad.

I’m pretty sure Will Coleman never expected to be loading Cool Connection into a trailer and rushing him off to a surgery center in New Jersey only minutes after starting out on the Jersey Fresh CIC*** course this past weekend.

I watched the scores all day and frowned when I saw that Will Coleman and Cool Connection—owned by the rider, Tivoli Farm and Jim Wildasin—had a fall. I didn’t realize the seriousness of it at the time, but I soon got a phone call detailing the horrific—and entirely preventable—fall.

Will described it best on his website, willcolemanequestrian.com, which I will include here:

“Cool Connection was out next and jumped the first five fences fine. But, at the influential bank down to a skinny at fences 6 and 7, he dropped down the bank very quietly, forcing us to move up to the skinny. As he left the ground, he drifted right, as many horses were doing, so I held him left, hoping to keep him between the flags.

What happened next is the freakiest thing I’ve ever had happen to me or a horse of mine in my lifetime. “Noodle” hit the flag quite hard and sent it flying in front of him. The top of the flag rotated and stuck in the ground in front of him, leaving the bottom part of the flag sticking up on a 45-degree angle from the ground. As Noodle’s hind end finished the jump, it came down directly on the suspended flag, literally spearing the horse through his groin/sheath area and coming out by his anus.

When this happened, he responded to the pain by bucking incredibly hard, but as he was already probably travelling at 400 meters per minute, he couldn’t keep his feet, and over-rotated, sending both of us somersaulting. This all happened in a matter of seconds, and I really had no idea what was going on until the horse, scrambling on top of my legs, finally got up and ran off towards the barn. At this point, as I lay on the ground, I saw the flag sticking out of his hind end, now broken, and a lot of blood.”

Cool Connection ran all the way back to stabling, in a blind panic, jumping anything in his way to get back to his stall where he was found, grossly injured and in need of emergency surgery. He was rushed to the New Jersey Equine Clinic, which was thankfully just up the road, where shards of wooden flag—upwards of 16 inches—was removed from Noodle’s body.

That’s a pretty horrifying—and yes, freak—thing to happen to your horse. An accident almost identical to this killed Icare D’Auzay at the 2007 Badminton CCI**** (England). I am sure that Team Coleman is relieved that their horse will recover in time, but I can imagine they are pretty upset.

This got me thinking about flagging jumps and a conversation I had with the director of the Boekelo horse trials (the Netherlands) at The Fork (N.C.) this past April. They have been working hard on a safer flag design to prevent exactly this type of thing—it’s so odd and creepy that Will happened to be standing there for it too. He mentioned a few designs that they’d played with and discussed the expense affiliated with each option. The cheapest was a piece of corrugated drain pipe screwed onto the jump and slit down the side, allowing a knocked wooden flag to be popped out when needed and placed effortlessly back with minimal interruption. The more expensive option was using bendable flags similar to what is used in slalom ski racing.

I watch a LOT of events, and I’ve seen a LOT of flags broken off and replaced—so much so that I chuckled while watching the flag-replacer guy at the evil double corners at The Fork this year have to run back and forth so much that he finally just left his drill out there inside the cutout of the jump.

Isn’t it time to rethink flags, particularly at the upper levels and even more so at corners, skinnies and tight combinations?

Sure, replacing flags is going to be expensive, but then again so are horses—particularly proven upper level horses. No horse should have to go through what Cool Connection is going through right now.

I’m not saying that all wooden flags everywhere should be replaced at every event, but an impromptu risk-based analysis (you can take the nerd out of the software development world, but she’s still going to be a nerd!) says that corners, skinnies and combinations need to be re-thought.

Pardon me a moment while I play Queen of the Universe again.

Were I Queen, I would find $5,000 somewhere and create a contest. Who can come up with the best, safest design of a cross-country flag for under $10 per jump. Winner takes all!

I know, money is tough to find, especially in this economy, but it’s easier to find than a good event horse!

It’s time for some ingenuity on behalf of the U.S. Eventing Association, its members, and Cool Connection.

Allie Conrad is executive director of CANTER Mid Atlantic, which provides retiring Thoroughbred racehorses with opportunities for new careers. Allie founded the organization in 1999 at Charles Town Racetrack (W.V.) after purchasing her beloved Thoroughbred Phinny, who had more than 60 starts at Charles Town, at the infamous New Holland Auction in Pennsylvania. A resident of Southern Pines, N.C., Allie also works full time as a project manager for a Washington, D.C., consulting firm. You can learn more about CANTER Mid Atlantic on their website, www.canterusa.org/midatlantic.

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