Both sports are currently struggling with safety issues, and there are more similarities than you might think.
In eventing we’re examining the reasons behind 15 rider deaths worldwide during the past two years and why six horses have died at competitions in the United States just this past spring.
David O’Connor, the U.S. Equestrian Federation president, called for a safety summit on June 7-8 in Kentucky and invited anyone interested in the sport of eventing to attend.
Concurrently, the racing industry is investigating the tragic death of Eight Belles after finishing second in the Kentucky Derby. During the Preakness coverage, both ESPN and NBC commentators discussed at length the possible causes and solutions relating to catastrophic breakdowns. Everyone agrees that avoidable equine fatalities during competition are completely unacceptable.
Jim Wofford, one of eventing’s most revered trainers, pointed out the importance of the horse using his own initiative. This requires training the horse in a way that nurtures his own instinct for survival and choosing horses that are quick thinkers. The sport of eventing will need some changes in order to reward this type of horse.
Too Many Sacrifices
At a glance there seems no connection between the problems in eventing and flat racing, but there are similarities. Racing has sacrificed soundness for speed, and eventers have sacrificed clever for fancy.
Race horses are bred for speed because these horses sell well and win races. These speed horses carry the greater risk of a life-threatening breakdown, though.
Eventers generally don’t breed horses specifically for eventing. Occasionally breeders do, but it’s not typical. In eventing we choose big moving, scopey horses, regardless of bloodline, and are rewarded with blue ribbons under the current eventing format.
My gut feeling—and I have no scientific data to support my theory—is that these lovely horses are not as sharp or quick thinking as the quirky, often difficult to ride, horses that excelled in the past. Event horses need to save themselves if, or when, the rider makes a mistake.
Possible solutions to the safety issues in the racing industry could be:
• Create valuable races exclusively for 5-year-olds.
• Make distance races more important than sprint races.
• Continue to research the benefits of synthetics over dirt; synthetics tend to reward the stretch runner rather than the speed horse.
These measures would encourage people to breed sounder, longer lasting, and, yes, slower Thoroughbreds.
It’s hard to watch the brilliance of Big Brown, the Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner, and not appreciate his speed and tractability. However, it’s documented that he’s not from sound, durable bloodlines, and it’s been well publicized that management of his poor quality feet require expert intervention.
He is rightly admired, and I sincerely hope he wins the Belmont on June 7. I get goose bumps when I watch him run. But his breeding rights have already been sold to Three Chimneys Farm in a reported $50 million dollar deal.
In reality, who would not want to breed their mare to him? We all dream of having a magnificent horse. But, how many fast, yet not durable horses, will he sire? The racing industry must reward traits other than pure speed if there’s to be any chance of consistently breeding longer-lasting Thoroughbreds.
The Survival Instinct
So here’s our conundrum—in eventing, how do we reward the clever horse?
The long format did do that, but it was still hard on horses. Injuries were common during the preparation and somewhat during the competitions. They were rarely fatal. The rigors of preparing a horse for roads and tracks, steeplechase, more roads and tracks and then the actual cross-country phase required careful conditioning. It was easy to get it wrong and pull a tendon or the like during the preparation.
If you didn’t achieve the required level of fitness then injury could happen during the competition. In fairness to the Fédération Equestre Internationale, the short format was supposed to make it
easier on the horse, but the recent rash of accidents and injuries contradict its good intentions.
My suggestions for improving the horse’s initiative are:
• Add a “grid work” test at the lower levels where riders get a bonus for making it look easy and not touching their horse’s mouth. This test not only teaches horses that they don’t always have to rely on the rider but will also ensure riders do their homework while training.
• Introduce a steeplechase section within the cross-country course that’s timed separately and based on long format speeds. Riders can get the feel—over friendly shaped fences–of letting their horse jump out of a solid galloping rhythm and, again, the horses learn to cope on their own.
• Make much more use of terrain—include gullies, natural streams, etc. Courses should be designed to embrace the natural countryside and not in park-like settings. Again, this change allows horse and rider to think about where and how the feet are placed and to find the right balance.
I was surprised when Randy Moss, an analyst for ESPN/ABC Sports, and Jerry Bailey both said to ban whips from races. Who am I to disagree with Hall of Fame jockey Jerry Bailey?
I do think the whip, or crop, is useful when riding, however. Sometimes you need a way to reinforce your aids. The horse must respect but not fear you. Without respect you have an unruly horse. With fear you have a useless one. So the whip is simply a tool, and most horses know if you are carrying one and as such, you rarely need it.
I think the Jockey Club should limit their use as they do in Europe, but to ban them will produce the wrong result. In eventing, the ground jury has the ability to eliminate a rider who abuses the whip and/or spur. This is appropriate.
One of the most discussed issues in racing right now is “legal” drugs. In my opinion, drugs are overused in eventing and racing. This isn’t done during competition but in the training and preparation.
I qualify this statement with the fact that owners, trainers and riders are truly trying to do what’s best for their horses. They want them as comfortable and healthy as possible. Nobody wants his horse to be lame, hurt or worse.
I question if corticosteroid joint injections and other anti-inflammatory therapies have a negative long term and cumulative effect in the horse’s system. Older event horses have often undergone various therapies for years. Could this affect the heart or arteries while under the stress of cross-country? Is there any money to do such a study?
This brings us to the issue of breaks between seasons. It used to be that mild injuries required the horse to have time off. Now we have excellent medical methods for treating many of these injuries. There also used to be the philosophy of “letting horses down” at the end of the racing meet or eventing season.
Currently, there’s a year-round circuit if you are willing to travel. Horses do get breaks after big events, and race horses are run less frequently than in the past. Rarely are they truly let down, though, unless there’s a significant injury requiring it.
Should we return to giving a horse two to three months off every year? Will the event horse miss too much valuable education? Will the race horse miss an opportunity to make money? Is it too time consuming to recondition them after the break?
It’s easy to understand why there’s been a departure from old-fashioned theories. It’s my hope that these and other issues will be discussed further amongst horsemen and that recommendations will be made with the horse’s best interest at heart.
I’d like to end this article with a little perspective. Worldwide woes and tragedies notwithstanding, we need to recognize that horses are magnificent but fragile. I applaud the efforts of racing and eventing leaders for taking on the issue of safety.
That being said, I know of seven horses that died in pasture accidents over the past 10 years. Others have perished before their time due to bizarre illnesses or in one case, stepping on an underground bees nest. The farms, owners and circumstances in all cases were different, but everyone adored their horses and put 110 percent into their wellbeing. Sometimes bad things just happen.
Kim Keppick, the founder of Rein-Aid, is an A Pony Club graduate from Ireland who evented at the advanced level and rode for Olympic medalist Karen O’Connor for 10 years. She was also an exercise rider for race horse trainer Roy Lerman of Lambholm Farm for 14 years. Among the many successful horses Keppick has worked with are U.S. Eventing Association Horse of the Century, Biko, and Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Alphabet Soup. A BHSII certified instructor, her students include riders of all levels.