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April 7, 2014

We Do Need To Ask Why, But In The Right Way

I always have to steel myself to monitor the comments on certain posts on the Chronicle’s Facebook page. And with the sad, sad news of two horse deaths at The Fork Horse Trials this past weekend, our news feed took on a decidedly gloomy tone.

Our hearts go out to Will Coleman and Andrew McConnon. Losing a horse is a heart-wrenching, tragic thing no matter what the circumstances, and Powderhound and Conair went in such sudden, puzzling ways. We can only hope that the riddles around their losses might be solved.

Sadly, though, Powderhound and Conair also lost their lives in a public setting. If these horses had suffered the same fate at their home farm, after a routine gallop or schooling session, there would be no reporters there, no public statements released. And the flames of public scrutiny wouldn’t burn so bright.

U.S. eventing as a sport has admirably shouldered the responsibility of reporting and shining a light on the death of any horse competing at an event. At events where this happens, a public statement is usually issued quite quickly. There’s no such reporting protocol at hunter/jumper or dressage shows, steeplechase meets or fox hunts, and horses do die while and after participating in those sports, too.

The great show jumper Hickstead, who passed away in the ring after completing his round in 2011, is the most famous example, but I’ve also written the obituary of a hunter that broke its shoulder landing off a warm-up jump. I know of an equitation horse collapsed and died while standing at the in-gate waiting to enter the ring.

Horses are terrifyingly mortal. These things happen, the same way they happen in a pasture, or on a trail ride. A thread on the Chronicle forums after Hickstead’s death had posters sharing their experiences of sudden death in horses. Horses die in their fields, while lunging, in their stalls, during a lesson, on a hack. It happens, sadly, every day. But we don’t hear about those deaths, and so there’s no place to comment on them.

Comments on the Chronicle’s Facebook about Powderhound and Conair were primarily supportive, with “rest peace” and “so sorry for your loss” as the most common posts. But there were quite a few commenters who questioned two horses passing at the same event. There were nasty comments about the horses’ care, or the demands of the sport. A few of those went beyond the pale and into the “uncalled-for” realm. And there were the vehement responses defending eventing and the horsemen who cared for Powderhound and Conair.

But there’s a distinct difference between asking “Why?” and accusation of wrongdoing. I don’t think anyone actually believes Powderhound and Conair’s deaths were anything other than tragic accidents that coincidentally happened at the same place on the same weekend. But it’s human nature, and healthy, to wonder why, to question if there is some way to prevent such a thing in the future. Doing so in no way diminishes the sympathy we feel for the people connected to those horses; I can guarantee that “Why?” is a question that’s haunting them, too.

Asking why is valid, and we can ask why without assigning blame. Looking to provide a rational framework around a completely irrational event is human nature. Look at the furor over Malaysia Flight 370.

Necropsies might provide some answers as to what physically happened to the horses, but they’ll never be able to solve the mystery of why certain parts of a horse’s body fail at certain moments. And every time that happens—every time a majestic creature who outweighs and outpowers us and yet happily acquiesces to our requests to run, to jump, to dance, loses their life—we ask questions.

Yes, these horses love what they do. And yes, the people around them love those horses beyond reason. But the simple fact is that every now and then, a beloved horse will die unexpectedly and without explanation in front of the public eye. And when that happens, “These things happen,” is a hard answer to sell to those asking “Why?”

Many eventers are pondering the future of their sport. Doug Payne recently wrote a blog for the Chronicle pondering ways to grow the sport of eventing, and prize money, sponsorship and spectators at the highest levels were mentioned. But eventers have to understand that as more and more people are drawn into the sport, especially spectators who are unfamiliar with it, the more powerful the microscope under which it will be seen. There’s a flip side to popularity, and that’s public scrutiny. If an NFL player drops dead on the field, or in the locker room after a game, there are a LOT of people asking why and speculating publicly.

Yes, the sport is safer than it was even 10 years ago. Yes, courses are built with safety in mind more than ever. And yes, every rider makes the utmost effort to ensure his or her mount’s preparedness, health, and well being. I don’t think anyone really questions that.

But right now, in this moment, we can’t prevent horses from dying unexpectedly. All we can do is continue to care for our horses impeccably, prevent whatever dangers we can, and acknowledge that each time we ask them to give so generously, there is a chance—however minute—that it may be too much. That is the reality of life.

But what we also must, absolutely must, do, is figure out a good, non-confrontational response to the question “Why?” Because our horses deserve that, too.

Every now and then we feature a blog from a member of the Chronicle staff. We're just like you—juggling riding and competing with work and family. Associate Editor Molly Sorge has evented herself and groomed at Rolex Kentucky and Burghley CCI****s as well as spending a few years grooming on the A-rated hunter/jumper circuit before settling in at the Chronicle

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