Tuesday, Mar. 5, 2024

Toward Less Risky Eventing

I don’t consider myself a poster child for riding safety. I have so many replacement parts from riding accidents that I set off the airport security alarms from the shuttle bus at the parking lot. Yet even I can’t help noticing that the sport of eventing appears to be heading into a dangerous cycle of catastrophic accidents, both in the United States and around the world.

Robert Frost wrote a little couplet: “We dance around in a ring and suppose, But the secret sits in the middle, and knows.”
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I don’t consider myself a poster child for riding safety. I have so many replacement parts from riding accidents that I set off the airport security alarms from the shuttle bus at the parking lot. Yet even I can’t help noticing that the sport of eventing appears to be heading into a dangerous cycle of catastrophic accidents, both in the United States and around the world.

Robert Frost wrote a little couplet: “We dance around in a ring and suppose, But the secret sits in the middle, and knows.”

In this era of the Internet and instant communication, it’s hard to know whether there really are more cross-country accidents now, or whether we are only more aware of them. And in the absence of hard data, that secret remains “sitting there,” as does the larger question, “Can anything be done about it?”

I have to believe that the answer to the larger question will prove to be, “Yes, we can make a risk sport less dangerous. Not safe, but safer.”

The very first step to this is awareness, and an open dialogue that solicits all manner of opinions and ideas and speculations. One of the main “rules of engagement” in any brainstorming initiative is that at the outset of the process, there are no wrong ideas, no preconceived notions and no obvious conclusions. The rule is to get all points of view out on the table, and then let the sifting process begin.

For the sake of clarity, we might want to break our examination into various subheadings, which might include the basic rules of the sport, riding skills, horse selection, cross-country design and construction, cross-country terrain and footing, weather conditions, responsibilities of judges and officials, the underlying philosophy of what eventing is meant to be, the presence or absence of “built-in” safety mechanisms, really anything and everything we can think of that impacts the general topic in any way.

Underlying any manmade rules and laws are the laws of physics, one of which is that “a body in motion tends to remain in motion.” When a horse comes galloping along and hurls his body over a solid obstacle, but doesn’t hurl it high enough to clear the obstacle, the part of the horse that hits the obstacle will stop, but the rest of the horse (and the rider) will keep going, often in a slow motion somersault, that results in the horse landing upside down on top of the rider. Of all scenarios, this is the most dramatically traumatic, and the one most to be avoided.

What factors cause this kind of accident? That’s one of the first questions I would ponder if I were on a safety committee.

I watch cross-country all of the time, as many of us do, from beginner novice through advanced, and we all see the same scary things, time after time. Here comes a flying horse with his rider lurching around on top of him. The rider’s stirrups are too long, her body is inclined too far forward, and because of this, the horse is on his forehand, and his hocks are not balanced underneath his body so that he can propel himself up and over the fence.

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To make matters worse, the upcoming fence is a fairly vertical table with no well-defined ground line, set on a slightly downhill approach, and because it rained overnight, the footing is muddy and slippery.

The whole thing looks like a train wreck about to happen. And to really put the icing on the cake, when the horse does take a long, flat “dive” over the jump, the rider hurls her body even further forward up on his neck, pinches with her knees, looks down, and lets her lower leg slip back toward her horse’s hipbones.
Do you think I exaggerate? If you do, then go watch.

Thankfully, most of the time, the rider gets away with it, but much of the root of the problem must be bad cross-country riding technique. This can happen just as often in show jumping, but there the rails fall down instead of the horse.

I don’t think we see upper level riders making nearly as many technical mistakes as riders at, say, beginner novice through the training levels. When riders at preliminary and above do make mistakes, however, they’re apt to pay a higher price. This is because the speeds are greater and the fences are bigger.

I can’t see how the sport can legislate against ineptitude. Should we have signs at every event, “Only good riders may enter?” Even the best riders make the exact same mistakes as the worst riders, only not so frequently. But:

•    Perhaps we can design and build better courses, which in a sense protects us from ourselves.

•    Perhaps we can determine whether the speeds for the levels are set too high.

•    Perhaps we can teach people to ride better.

•    Perhaps we can teach people to ride horses that are suited to the sport, appropriate for the level, and rideable by that particular rider.

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•    Perhaps we can persuade technical delegates to watch out for fences that are too “tricky” or too hard for the specific level.

•    Perhaps we can persuade technical delegates and officials to be more responsive to riders’ fears and concerns, and to become greater advocates for safety.

•    Perhaps we can design better, safer helmets, vests and other “body armor” to lessen the severity of falls.

•    Perhaps we can design jumps that break away when hit so hard that a fall is likely to be the end product.

•    Perhaps we can create rules that allow officials to adjust cross-country speeds when conditions are too adverse for the desig-nated speed for that level.

We could go on and on with other ideas, and I think that going on and on is exactly what any safety committees must do if they are going to change anything in any real way.

We run little events at our farm, and after our last one, I remarked to a couple of volunteers something like, “Phew, the event’s over, and no horse or rider got hurt.” If the definition of a successful event is beginning to be an event in which no horse or rider was seriously hurt, then our sport is too far out there on
the edge.

We owe it to the risk taking riders, and even more to the horses—who don’t have a say in the matter—to keep this whole dialogue about safety permissible and open. Eventing has always been known as a high-risk sport, and I think it’s become almost the thing to do to take a smug attitude about how tough, how macho, and how “out there” we all are.

Maybe it’s time we took a closer look at that philosophy, if not for our own sakes, then for the sakes of our brave equine partners who put their trust in us to preserve them from harm.

Denny Emerson

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