Sunday, Apr. 21, 2024

Riding Accidents Will Still Happen

After recovering from a catastrophic fall, this rider reflects on the accident, his recovery and the sport of eventing.

So many people were saying that they never expected to be reading anything by Darren Chiacchia again, and yet here it is, and here I am. I want to thank an awful lot of people, make clear what happened to me, and add my caution to all the positive things that are proposed or actually happening to make our sport safer.
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After recovering from a catastrophic fall, this rider reflects on the accident, his recovery and the sport of eventing.

So many people were saying that they never expected to be reading anything by Darren Chiacchia again, and yet here it is, and here I am. I want to thank an awful lot of people, make clear what happened to me, and add my caution to all the positive things that are proposed or actually happening to make our sport safer.

It’s definitely old news to report that I fell on cross-country at preliminary level on March 15 at Red Hills Horse Trials (Fla.). Excellent on-site EMS care headed by Rusty Lowe himself, a quick air ambulance ride to the Trauma Center at Tallahassee Memorial Hospital, and a team of great doctors there in the Neuro ICU saved me from what looked to many like a quick demise.

I had pretty severe damage to my chest and lungs, requiring a ventilator for nine days, and a difficult-to-pin-down brain injury that at first made me unconscious, quadriplegic, and truly helpless. Odd things happened to me during that time, some of which seemed like near-death, out-of-body experiences that I can still remember clearly, but eventually I sort of “came to” as I was rehabbed expertly in Buffalo, N.Y., under the watchful eye of my family.

For the past month I’ve somehow achieved what seems to me—and those around me—as full recovery of memory, judgment and thinking. Except for the accident moment itself, I remember everything (so watch out, I do remember all the little stuff too!).

The incredible outpouring of support that came my way has made me lastingly humble and thankful.

Friends and strangers have contributed to my favorite charity, the Equestrian Aid Foundation, on my behalf, in amounts that are just amazing. To every single person who gave to that fine organization, I look you in the eye and thank you from the deepest place in my heart. Your continued giving is greatly appreciated. In the event that my expenses related to this injury cease to be an issue, any remaining funds go directly to the EAF general fund to help other horsepeople in need.

I’m Back

To those who really care about me and have been worrying in public about my return to riding and eventing, please know that I have been cleared to do so by two independent neurologists whom I trust. Don’t worry about me now. I’m back and am OK. Really.

Intense physical rehab has been easy for me, as I’ve been accustomed to hard gym work, running, etc., for years. Coordination recovery has gone well, and physiologic testing on me repeatedly shows full recovery.
With the help of my very capable friend, Gina Miles, I’ve devised a detailed stepwise progressive list of challenges to go through before resuming eventing competitively. It’s going well, thanks to my coaches Robert Dover, Lauren Hough and a host of others.

I fully intend to begin at lower level eventing soon, on the two horses I most trust: Windfall and Better I Do It. For their use and for trusting me, I want to really thank their owners, Tim Holekamp and Adrienne Iorio-Borden. Coming back to eventing is critical for my own well being and happiness, and I accept the risks gladly. That they do also is one of those “above and beyond” situations that I can never repay.

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It’s important to me that I clear up some irritating misinformation and misinterpretations about this particular accident. The course at Red Hills was extensively redesigned and rebuilt this year. The fifth fence was a multi-obstacle bank with options, the most direct being off the bank, down five strides to a vertical that had an incomplete ground line and solid fixed top rail.

It looked reasonable and designed within the current standards for the level to me and in some ways less distracting than the longer route. I was about the ninth to go and just took it. Apparently all preceding riders went the other way, and since the jump was removed after my fall, no one else tested this obstacle in competition before or since.

I’ve studied the video over and over and can tell you, I’ve never watched a tape of my riding where I’m not very self-critical. There’s always something you can do a little better. On this video, however, I find no obvious riding mistake and nothing unusual in the horse’s behavior other than uncertainty about the path after it.

The horse involved was the Trakehner stallion, Baron Verdi, belonging to Tim and Cheryl Holekamp. I was there in Germany when Tim bought this horse in utero. He was expertly raised and started.
I personally prepared him for his approval testing at age 3.

It was in part due to his outstanding free jumping ability that he was chosen as a breeding stallion. I then trained him the following winter for his ATA stallion performance testing, novice events in Florida. I rode him as a demo horse at the Young Event Horse judging seminar at Longwood (Fla.) that year, and he jumped beautifully.

He was outstanding in every way then and still is. A minor hesitancy at water led to my schooling him many times at cross-country courses all over Florida. You may be sure that I didn’t just school him over the water, after paying those schooling fees. This horse was schooled by me personally a lot.

From age 4 through 6 he did the USEF Young Dressage Horse series, ridden professionally by Jim Koford, with substantial success. I got him again for some eventing training last winter, worked with him daily from November to March, schooling jumps at home over 1.3 meters with ease, plus schooling days at Florida Horse Park and at Betsy Watkins’ farm. He ran some novice (two firsts), then two trainings (one first) and then a preliminary in early March (fifth). You can believe me when I tell you that this 7-year-old horse was fully ready for preliminary at Red Hills, schooled and experienced enough easily.

The most hurtful cut of all is the absolutely wrong claim that I ran him that day at prelim because of “outside pressure,” meaning from the Holekamps. Baron’s competitive life was left entirely up to me.

He’s an outstanding breeding stallion, producing excellent foals consistently. Last fall one of their own received the highest foal evaluation score ever given by the ATA, from the inspection team chairman. I told them I was going to run him at training before I did so, but they were unaware that I was even thinking about preliminary at Rocking Horse until after I made the entry.

I’ve known Tim and Cheryl for 25 years, have trained and competed at least 40 of their imported and homebred horses over the past 20 years, and in all that time not once did either of them ever pressure me in any way to move any horse up. That’s just not how we do business together. Those who say otherwise are making a serious mistake. If you know me even a little, then you know, no one tells me what to do. If you doubt this, just ask my mother.

Accept The Danger

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Now I would like to make an important point about the larger safety issue in eventing, a point that we all must keep in mind. I listened carefully throughout the USEF/USEA Safety Summit in Lexington, Ky., June 7-8 (June 20 p. 23) and found a great deal to agree with in the way of good suggestions for improved safety.
Some are, in fact, cultural changes, such as accepting the intrusion of a Safety Watch List and the notifications that result. Some are complicated qualification proposals, which must be carefully studied and considered with regard to end results.

And there are some excellent practical ideas that should happen right away. For example, the rapid expansion of the USEA Instructor Certification Program could really help improve the individual’s ability to learn to ride and compete more safely.

Even more to the point, frangible pins and even deformable obstacles could help right now. I can tell you without reservation that my accident would have had a far less dire outcome if there had been pins in that obstacle or the new European alternative: deformable logs made of cardboard that look and feel like the real thing but crush when hit hard by a horse.

Dorothy Crowell and I visited a man in the Netherlands who was on a committee to produce deformable jumps. We experienced this material first hand, and it appeared to be on track. I sincerely doubt that the fall would have even occurred if either had been in place.

And, yet, with all this and even more items that the bright safety minds think up, we must remember and accept that accidents do happen, and that they will continue to in this sport in particular (as in many other sports). When you get right down to it, if we trade this sport for a knitting club, it will just be a matter of time before someone falls on a knitting needle.

If eventing loses its danger it will not be eventing any more. If there’s no need to learn and practice the highest level of horsemanship to protect the safety of horse and rider, eventually those highly evolved skills will be lost forever.

We need this sport to satisfy the need that certain riders have for the ultimate test, and we need it to give a permanent testing/learning ground for the superb horsemanship of the past and present. Let us all try to accept potential danger as part of what we are facing and always will. 

Darren Chiacchia



Darren Chiacchia, Springville, N.Y., and Ocala, Fla., has represented the United States at the Olympic Games, World Equestrian Games and Pan American Games aboard such horses as Windfall II (individual gold at the 2003 Pan Ams), R.G. Renegade and Fascination Street. In addition to training horses and riders, he also contributes his time to the sport through serving on committees, including the USEA Board of Governors.

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