Wednesday, Apr. 17, 2024

This Year Will Be Remembered As One Of Conflict

When I think of the 2007 eventing season, there’s the full run of emotions—the ecstatic feeling of the Pan American Games team gold medal and the health of the sport overall. But these emotions are overshadowed by the tragic loss of three lives in the past 13 months here in the United States, as well as other serious accidents.
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When I think of the 2007 eventing season, there’s the full run of emotions—the ecstatic feeling of the Pan American Games team gold medal and the health of the sport overall. But these emotions are overshadowed by the tragic loss of three lives in the past 13 months here in the United States, as well as other serious accidents.

These accidents require us to all reevaluate the sport, our own participation in the discipline and competing at a public facility. This will be remembered as a year of conflict, a year where competitors were reawakened to the fact that there’s a risk to competing in a sport where there’s speed involved.

This situation should be more important to trainers and  coaches who really do have an impact on the lives of their clients, and the trust involved between client and trainer is more important than most people think.
As we look into the past as a base for a vision for the future, what can we do? What are the inherent thoughts, processes and actual changes that can be a benefit for the competitors at large?

First, let’s take the issue apart.

The accidents that have happened all primarily occur when a horse falls. The percentage of people in danger when they fall with the horse is much higher than if they fall by themselves.

This situation is really an issue for riders at the preliminary level and higher. A fence below 1 meter doesn’t create the same physics that a 1.10-meter fence does when a horse falls over it.

The causes of these serious falls are varied, from falls at speed to slow rotational falls, and all types have happened in this past year worldwide.

When you start to look at the issue there are really three different areas that need to be studied:

        •    What can prevent a fall?
        •    Tracking the information after a horse or rider falls.
        •    Using that information, and information about the medical
            availability and response to a fall.

I have to say, certainly in the United States and generally around the world, the medical response to serious falls has been top notch and well organized. Several years ago plans were drawn and put into place that raised the level of medical coverage, and this change has had a positive impact on the sport.

The information gathered following the accidents is a little harder to ascertain. There are state laws governing information gathered after a tragic accident. But, harder still, how does an organization use the information acquired from a fall? For instance, how do an organization’s officials track injuries, such as concussions, which are relatively common injuries in our sport?

Currently, there’s no way for an upcoming competition’s organizer to know whether a competitor has had a concussion in the previous weeks. They don’t even know whether a competitor has had a fall at the previous week’s competition. This has to be corrected.

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There are programs available that evaluate the severity of concussions, and after the facts are gathered, medical professionals may (or may not) recommend that a rider curtail his competitive schedule.

A program called “Impact” is a system that many other sports use—hockey, skiing or football—that have higher injury rates. The leaders in these sports use Impact to track concussions, and they then have the ability to make the call when an athlete goes back into competition.

Other sports are leading the crusade of concussion identification and its impact on the athlete’s life. We must follow this trend and adapt it to our competitions. This will benefit all riders in all disciplines and not just eventing.

Tracking other information, especially that which travels from country to country such as qualifications and medical issues, also needs to be improved. Now that eventing is a more global sport with  many nationscompeting here in the United States, we must set up a better system for national federations to exchange the needed information.

Education Is Critical

Times have changed, and our riders are now finding the sport of eventing after coming out of environments that are much more urban than rural. We need to teach and require riders to learn the techniques of cross-
country riding.

Most of these serious and fatal accidents are happening at the preliminary and intermediate levels.

The largest gap in technicality occurs between training and preliminary levels. At the training level, the speed asked for is 450 meters per minute, and the height to be jumped is 1 meter. At the next level, preliminary, the speed increases to 520 mpm and jumps are 1.10 meters in height. Intermediate fence height increases to 1.15 meters, and the speed is 550 mpm. Advanced competitors jump 1.20 meters and gallop at 570 mpm.

So the biggest change in level is between training and preliminary. I don’t actually believe that the levels should be changed, but there should be more requirements to go preliminary and more still to go to intermediate.

An answer may be some type of rider license, much like a driver’s license. If I would like to race cars or motorcycles then I have to pass tests and prove my competency to an independent judge. We qualify only by completion with minimum standards, above 50 percent dressage points and no more than one stop on the cross-country and fewer than five rails in show jumping.

Is this enough?

Chasing qualifications has been a national and international pastime. The number of times that I’ve seen riders taking their horses to multiple events back-to-back because they’re chasing qualifications is disturbing. This tactic is even practiced by top riders who are competent themselves but for whatever reason are riding horses that aren’t competent at the level and are feeling the pressure of competing to qualify.
Ending this situation is common sense. But at times there needs to be an outside opinion, one that can force that rider to take a different track.

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There has to be proof, nationally and internationally, that someone is competent to compete and not just qualified to compete.

Internationally, this objective is even harder to achieve as many country’s programs and practices regarding rider qualification are at best dubious. Then we get into trouble because riders at the best competitions aren’t competent and are not truly qualified because the level isn’t the same around the
world.

Simply Qualifying Isn’t Enough

Coaches and trainers must take a leading role themselves in this issue. They must be qualified themselves to teach the fundamentals of cross-country riding. Believe me, after traveling around the country
teaching and listening, I see this is not being done.

The U.S. Equestrian Federation and the U.S. Eventing Association must take a stronger stand on educating our trainers and coaches.

Established coaches certified by the USEA must be able to have a voice in saying whether a rider and horse combination is competent to compete at a certain level. If they see dangerous practices then there must be a system that can be used so this information gets into the right hands—as in the next competition’s ground jury members.

The system of ground juries and their designees stopping riders and horses on course for dangerous or unsafe riding has to be strengthened and used. Adopting the yellow and red flagging system that the Fédération Equestre Internationale has put into place is a must.

There are certain changes on the horizon that will improve the overall situation. But it has to be up to the riders to evaluate their competition results more rigorously. Just finishing a competition is not a proper attitude to progress to the next level.

Yes, the organizations involved can do more. They can put in place more and more stringent requirements and change the equipment used and do more and more, but still the responsibility always stays in the hands of the riders.
 
The sport can get dangerous, and riders must respect that risk. If you are respectful of the danger then you’ll be more vigilant in improving your techniques. The process of learning those techniques and the use of them at speed over undulating terrain is why we chose this sport. I happen to believe eventing makes us better horsemen, and even the pursuit of excellence in these techniques and the use of them helps in other aspects of our daily lives.

We need to take these issues seriously so that we’re not overshadowed by accidents that, in the end, can be greatly reduced by all of us learning how to ride better and take better care of our horses on cross-country. Not only does the sport deserve that, but also the horses themselves cannot be put into risk because of our incompetence. The horses do not deserve that.

David O’Connor

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