Me Asking Why
Over the weekend, two horses died while competing at The Fork horse trials. On Monday, I came across a good article on the subject from Chronicle of the Horse and posted it to my facebook page. If you haven’t read Molly Sorge’s “We Need to Ask Why” I suggest you do before continuing this post.
Now I’m not an event rider, and I definitely don’t claim to be. I know I joke about my weeniness here, but cowardice is not the reason I choose not to event. I’ve done cross country schooling and judged cross country courses in the past, and I’ve had plenty of dressage lessons. I don’t event because I don’t like it. I respect that others do, but it’s not for me.
I imagine that some of you are checking out of this post already because I am not an eventer, I do not enjoy eventing in its whole and I’m perhaps about to critique it. That’s fair, you can check out… but I really don’t understand.
I don’t understand why the major accidents keep happening. I don’t understand why both horses and riders are dying on course or after. Sure, I get that it’s a thrill and it’s technically challenging and there’s no sport like it… but why do the jumps have to be so solid? Would it honestly be any less thrilling if you galloped up to a puissance type wall in field instead of a mass of giant tree trunks and tires?
This is not to say that my sport does not have it’s own faults. A pony died at Devon last year due to an injection. That is shameful. That should not happen.
Also, accidents happen everywhere. You can do everything 100% right for a horse and it can collapse from a heart attack trotting during a lesson at home or after an international grand prix like Hickstead. It’s tragic, and it happens. There isn’t any discipline we do with horses that is 100% safe for them or ourselves, at least not in my opinion.
I love my eventing rider friends and wish them the best, I really do. I don’t think they are cruel and I don’t think the sport is cruel… but I don’t understand it. Eventers tend to have the stereotype that they think they are better than us ring folk because they gallop their horse through open fields and jump solid obstacles. Not all of them wave that experience like a flag of superiority, but I’m sure we all know at least one person out there who has. On the flip side, I truly think my chosen discipline is safer… and I guess I wave that around too.
I hope you don’t read this post as pointing fingers. It’s a tragedy to lose any horse in any discipline. As a rider, I can’t imagine anything more traumatic than suddenly feeling your horse grow weaker underneath you. My heart hurts for those who have had this happen, but with two such traumatic events in the same weekend at the same event – I do wonder what’s going on.
There are lots of questions, but not as many answers and I won’t pretend my “Why” post was nearly as well written as Molly Sorge’s… but here it is. This is my emotional scientific research be damned reaction to reading multiple headlines (recently and not so recently) about horses dying during events. I’d be curious about your reaction in the comments, even if it’s telling me to shut my purdy little southern mouth.
61 thoughts on “Me Asking Why”
So sad 🙁 I do not compete (yet!) and I think eventing looks like so much fun: the ultimate test of horse and rider! But that doesn’t mean I don’t want it to be safe. Accidents do happen, as you said, and every effort should be made to make sure they don’t happen.
Is there a reason why the XC course jumps are solid? One could still gallop across the field and fly over something that is safer, right?
I don’t know.
That’d be my first thought too – make the jumps more giving. Perhaps the biggest challenge (or one of the biggest) of cross country is the solid factor, so I’m sure editing that would completely change the sport.
I’ll have a longer (and more ambivalent; I have a lot of sympathy for a wide variety of why?s and I think it.’a important to ask the question) comment once I get back to a proper keyboard, but in the meantime, a “why?” For you in return. (And I ask this sincerely; it’s not meant as a gotcha or a rhetorical exercise.)
Why point to solid fences in particular when neither death was, as far as we know at this point, caused by interaction with a solid fence?
And why be more concerned about XC fence construction than those hunter ring fences — with the massive coops and boxes and such — which are pretty darn solid, too?
No worries, I don’t take it as snarky!
I point to solid fences after reading Will Coleman’s statement yesterday, which said although he had not reviewed the full necropsy results they pointed to internal hemorragging as the cause of death for Conair. He also said in his statement that the fall on cross country was much more severe than anyone realized. To me, and I’m not expert, that reads the horse damaged himself pretty badly with the crash on course.
As for hunter fences, I’ve witness a lot of crashes. Though the jumps look very solid, the top of each jump is always at least 1 or two poles which will fall and give when a horse hits them. While the fill looks solid, coops and gates are usually in parts at the bigger horse shows. So a 12′ fence would have 2 6′ boxes that often split in a fall/crash. Also, the fill is often stacked and a lot of time it’s merely flowers and foliage. They are more solid than jumper poles, but there is a lot more give and movement involved in a crash than you would think when first looking at the fence.
Oh, whew! 🙂
And huh, interesting! I read the statement differently. I saw the bit about hemorrhaging and “more severe than a banged stifle” and interpreted that to mean they were leaning towards (in advance of a necropsy) a cardiopulmonary event. Maybe I read carelessly or just what we all bring the table as we interpret. Brains are weird.
I could have easily read it wrong too! Guess we need a formal conclusion, ha.
I think Molly wrote an excellent article. I believe what happened at the Fork was basically bad timing of two tragic accidents. But at the same time, ‘these things happen’ can’t be our only reason. There is always a way to make things safer, for horse and rider. We need to try.
Agree on both accounts.
I agree that eventing can be dangerous, but I also know they’ve made pretty great strides toward making it safer. A lot of the jumps now have pins to help them be less solid and I think the conditioning that comes from dressage is a great attribute that should be integrated into all disciplines for the longevity and correct strength of the horse. But I’m pretty ill-informed and I’m more than ok with admitting that haha
I didn’t know they added pins to make some jumps more collapsible, that seems like a good idea. Also I definitely admit to being pretty ill-informed in this world!
Dont quote me, because I know just enough to get myself in trouble, but I think that the pins have been added to jumps that present the risk for a rotational fall.
Susan is correct, that the frangible pins are mostly being implemented on jumps thought to have most potential for rotational falls- I’ve seen them used particularly in complexes (a coffin complex at Rolex and a water complex elsewhere, for which I am trying to find video of it being implemented). These are a wonderful step in the right direction, but would be difficult to implement on your traditional tables/benches/etc.
I also think that these were two very unfortunate, somewhat coincidental accidents. I say somewhat coincidental, because I do think that the sport is dangerous at that level, but that for the most part, these were freak accidents.
So much more to say… maybe I’ll have to chime in with my own post. What I would like to add is thank you for writing a thoughtful opinion post on the matter that is not antagonizing venue, horse, or riders involved in these sad incidents.
The people who have responded by throwing blame around in callous manner are not better than monkeys slinging s&*t from trees. That’s my honest two cents!
This is such a tough question with many answers and possible answers. ”
Why do the jumps have to be solid?” Well, to answer that you first have to look at eventing’s past. Eventing did not start out as a sport or a way for the rich to showcase their horses but started out as a training exercise for cavalry officers. Being able to ride “natural” obstacles safely was important because that is what those horses and riders would encounter. It was also about becoming mentally tough. Being able to face dangers with calm and a clear mind. It also started way back in a time when safety was just not thought of the same. The world really was a more dangerous place and it was “just the way it was” and people accepted that.
Now fast forward to modern times and you will see that many steps have been made to make eventing safer. I’m not sure that there is another horse sport out there that spends as much time and money on studying safety and brainstorming ways to make our sport safer. We have frangible pin technology, inflatable vests, and so much more now. A lot of these “solid” jumps will give when a horse hits it. I’ve witnessed it a couple of times now. But their will always be some level of danger involved in this sport or in any horse sport.
It is also interesting to note that one of the horses that died did so after the show jumping course and had not even ridden XC yet from what I’m gathering in a way similar to when Hickstead passed.
There are so many more things involved here and the truth is, in my opinion, there are still things that need to be done to make the sport safer. Many of these accidents happen when a horse is not fit enough or when there is some underlying weakness that just doesn’t show up until it is too late. I do hope that we discover ways to prevent these things from happening so we should keep asking why and making sure that things don’t get “swept under the rug.”
I guess the bottom line is there will always be inherent risk to this sport, maybe more so than others except for racing, possibly. But I hope we continue to look into ways to make it safer but still keep the “heart” of what eventing is. Eventing truly is a grass roots/blue color/military offspring whereas hunter/jumpers and other sports sprang from something else entirely. Don’t get me wrong. I can see the appeal to all of these and I really hope I’m not coming off as “eventers are better because of this that or another thing.” It’s just different, a different mentality to me at least. I think that is slowly changing as more and more money enters the sport and that actually makes me a little sad.
I didn’t realize that some of them would collapse. That seems like a REALLY good idea and I’m glad they are implemented places! I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not a really fair candidate to critique this sport because I am not an eventing aficionado by any means.
And yes you’re right, one of the horses that died collapsed after show jumping very Hickstead like. It’s quite likely that the two deaths in one event were merely a sad coincidence, but since it’s happened before one does have to wonder.
As a casual observer, I do think eventing and eventers have done a lot to try and make the sport safer. I guess I just question at the end of the day with how competitive it is at the high levels if it’s ever really possible? Probably not, because no activity with horses is ever going to be 100% safe!
My first thought it someone had gone around and drugged the horses on purpose (I heard about that happening at a saddlebred show once- several horses collapsed and died and it turned out someone had criminally administered something in them at night to cause their deaths and knock down the competition- SAD!!!) but I haven’t heard any reports that sound like foul play so I suppose it really was an unfortunate coincidence 🙁
I wrote about this in 2009, about the short format with statistics about horse deaths in eventing in years past:
(Examples from years past: 1936 Olympics, only 15 horses out of 48 made it through the water jump, 3 were injured so badly there that they were euthanized on the spot. 1952 Olympics, 68 horses fell at ONE fence on XC. 68! Can you even imagine such a thing happening today? PETA would shut the entire sport down for good!)
The short format has not made anything safer. It hasn’t. BUT, as for the types of jumps on XC in the past few years? MONUMENTALLY safer, I’d say post-2010. You’d never see the type of jumps that killed Frodo Baggins in 2009 anymore, they just don’t exist. The questions are still too complicated, yes, but as a whole I think eventing is “safer” than it ever has been before. Still a dangerous sport, yes, completely dangerous. But if you look at old statistics from previous Olympics – where horses dying was just a normal occurrence, several at every Olympics – and if you look at top level events today, the stats are hugely different. Social media has just made it possible to spread these things around faster and faster, and make the stories bigger and bigger.
I’m glad to hear they have “retired” jumps that are just too tricky and have taken lives. It makes me feel like they really do have the horse’s best interests at heart.
Interesting on the short format vs long format. I need to do more reading, because honestly I don’t know much about the long format.
The format question is…complicated, too. I have lots of thoughts about it that I think you’ve already seen in my post a month or two ago and I wish the long format was more common nowadays than it is, but…it’s not obvious to me that the story about the long format having been more horse-friendly is true. I mean, in some ways, probably yes! But if you ever talk to somebody whose horse broke down on steeplechase…it wasn’t without risks of its own, is all I’m saying. And we have no idea how many horses were just weeded out at home during the conditioning phases rather than at events. You can make an argument for that being better for the sport, certainly, but better for the horse? Not obvious to me.
I definitely think we can improve our safety standards for horses across all equestrian disciplines. We are their stewards, we need to protect them and not just completely use them.
This. I myself was at an event where a horse passed last year and in combination with the fact that Xc makes me want to pee my pants it has me questioning if it’s for me.
Ps is there a secret to not having to type all my stuff in every time I comment on your blog. Sometimes I with comment bc I don’t want to deal haha (lazy$
It’s a tragic thing that two horses passed during the competition. I understand that there are risks involved and riding can be dangerous, but it’s still sad that this happened.
Hillary–What I do is is just type the first letter of each(first letter of my name, email, website) and the rest comes up.
No secret I’m afraid. Chrome will auto fill for you, but unless I integrate an annoying (imo) comment tool into my blog you have to manually type them every time.
Ooops – didn’t finish before I pressed send.
The blog entries to look at are “The Shortest Rolex Update Ever” and “Modern Eventing – For Daun”. And Frodo Baggins was in 2008, not 2009 – and I wrote about the “dumbing down” of fences on the 2009 Rolex course.
“Eventing is a honest sport for 99% of it, and the honest people behind it are looking for honest answers to the big safety questions nobody has asked until now. In the 1936 Olympics for eventing, for example, only fifteen of forty-eight horses competing in that event negotiated the number four water obstacle with no difficulty. Twenty-eight horses fell, and three refused to jump it at all. The obstacle injured three horses so badly they had to be destroyed on the scene while dozens of others lost confidence or at a minimum lost time on the course due to the experience. One rider had to chase his horse for several miles before mounting and continuing on. The water obstacle ended up being incredibly deep in the center, and full of soft mud on the bottom – breaking legs as horses landed.
But nobody pointed fingers back then at safety, just at Berlin and Hitler (rightfully so, of course).
Now, if a horse trips over a tiny dent in the grass, everyone is up in arms about the safety of eventing.”
Having worked in the administration area of international eventing with USEF for several years, I can say that those who are tasked with creating the rules and regulations of the sport take their job VERY seriously, and strive to make eventing as safe as possible. There is an Eventing Safety Committee. Frangible pins have been used in many, many jumps in recent years to help prevent rotational falls, and USEF team horses undergo intensive veterinary exams before being allowed to compete in high-level international events. Unsound horses are not allowed to go to WEG, or the Olympics, or any other team competition. Riders used to be allowed to get back on and continue their XC course after falling off, but that’s a thing of the past now, and they must submit to a medical examination before returning to competition. Rule changes are beginning to be put in place that require horses and riders to achieve certain scores at their level before moving up, and riders who are witnessed riding in an unsafe manner are reported and required to discuss what went wrong with an eventer from a panel of experienced international competitors. Horse sports will never, ever be 100% safe, but there ARE steps being taken to reduce the risk serious injuries and death.
Many of the recent deaths (the past several years) have been cardiac events or aneurysms, not related to the jumps at all.
I find myself wondering two things: 1) has the death of the long format made horse fitness less crucial, and therefore isn’t stressed quite as much as it used to be? 2) has the rise of the warmblood introduced a type of horse that is perhaps not as naturally well suited to gallop and jump for long periods?
That said – these things certainly can and do happen. Your Hickstead example is right on, and Powderhound (who was actually a TB) died in a very similar circumstance. But I agree that the sheer number of deaths that occur (especially related to XC) are more than I’m comfortable with. They have made great strides on improving jump safety and rider equipment safety, but obviously there is something else going on here that needs to be addressed.
Also something else to note, does anyone remember how many horses dropped dead under suspicious circumstances at hunter shows left and right for a while a few years ago from magnesium injections? I saw one with my own two eyes at a very BNT operation. But that was always swept right under the rug and kept very hush. Very different (and IMO much worse) circumstances that still resulted in dead horses. I don’t think it’s super fair to point a finger at eventers.
Should also add – I’m a h/j rider, but I was a working student for an upper level event rider and evented for several years (granted, long enough ago that we still had long format). While I no longer event I do still love the sport and really appreciate it, and I hate to see this kind of thing happening. They are a great group of people and in general have some of the best horsemanship I’ve seen in any discipline.
The hunter/jumper world having dead horses sprout out from insurance fraud or bad injections is absolutely horrid. There’s no way to make that justifiable or right, it’s just evil. That being said, I don’t think it’s fair to compare the death of a pony from a magnesium injection to a horse collapsing/breaking a neck during xc/etc. They’re just different beasts.
The warmblood vs Thoroughbred is a really good point that I hadn’t thought about. Warmbloods are HARD to condition, but when you have to win on your dressage score you need the extra edge in that ring. Very interesting.
Different beasts, yes. Mostly brought it up as a point that deaths do occur in every horse sport, and the way some (not you) have black-listed eventing as “cruel” seems ludicrous when there are people making a conscious decision to try to cheat their way to ribbons with dangerous substances (known to STOP A HORSE’S HEART) and killing them in the process. Some people are out there saying that horses don’t die at these rates in other horse sports – au contraire. It just isn’t talked about or is covered up. Also – one that drops dead after 30 minutes on the lunge line or after coming out of an eq class is not going to garner the same attention as one that drops dead at a major event, even if technically they die of the same thing.
I also wonder what long term side effects some of our often used supplements might have on a horse’s system that we just haven’t figured out yet. There are a lot of questions that could be raised on this issue, really. When you consider the fact that most of these deaths are related to the vascular system, the possible contributing factors can be endless… all the way from genetics to conditioning to nutrition to the courses to the format and everything in between. There’s just so much we don’t know yet.
Full disclosure: I’m one of those folks who finds a certain amount of risk important? maybe even essential? to my enjoyment of sport. I can go on at length about why and about what it means to me. I’m not going to do that in this comment because I have a feeling it’s going to be long enough as is… And I also happen to feel really strongly about the responsibility inherent in using animals for sport and about – well – not being stupid. Which means that when I get involved in these discussions I tend to hear a lot of, “Oh, but you’re not one of those adrenaline junkies who doesn’t think something’s worth doing unless the consequences are scary if it goes wrong; you’re one of us.” So I feel like it’s only fair to be up front about where I’m coming from on this.
Anyway. I’m going to bullet-point in hopes of keeping this from being a million words long.
1) Interesting thing about risk: it can be what gets you killed, but it can also be what keeps you safe. Riders tend to respect solid fences. That respect makes ‘em want to – and work to – ride better. The personality type drawn to eventing (generally, obviously this is all said generally) responds better to the carrot of adrenaline and the stick of meaningful consequences than to the aesthetic appeal of, say, the hunter or straight dressage rings. I don’t mean that in a one-is-better-than-the-other way. I just mean, it is what it is. And some of us do better – some of us _are_ better – when faced with appropriate risk.
2) Solid fences make sense to horses. I would rather start a greenie over logs in the field than poles in the ring any day; they get it. I don’t necessarily disagree that XC course design is An Issue Of Concern (although I do concur with the commenters who say that it’s in many ways much safer than it used to be). But as a(n again, general) rule, solid fences are not in of themselves the devil. Horses _like_ solid fences. That’s part of why the hunter fences aren’t just colored sticks.
3) Making XC fences on terrain more forgiving is a more complex problem than it might seem at first glance. It’s not obvious that “everything falls down” is without cost. We don’t necessarily want horses show-jumping around cross-country: it’s not an efficient way of traveling, it seems to carry a physiological cost to that we don’t yet fully understand. I, personally, am not comfortable lying to the horse about what he’s jumping; if a fence looks bankable, it’s not fair and may be unsafe for it to give way when the horse puts his foot down. You definitely don’t want a falling fence to interfere with or injure the horse – and remember that we’re dealing with terrain here and with horses moving at a much higher speed than a horse that, for example, punches out a gate in the ring – there are significant risks to the combination of moving horse + moving pieces, some of which have been played out in the horse show rings. I’m not saying it shouldn’t be done! I think some of the designs in use are really cool and I’m glad they’re out there. But it’s the engineering challenge is nontrivial; it’s not as simple as just making everything give when the horse makes contact.
4) Part of the question here, I think, is, “What risks do you find palatable?” As you note, a slower-speed discipline where safety and style/rhythm/consistency are top priorities is vulnerable to a different set of risks. I don’t want to choose a rotational fall over a bad injection; I do my damnedest to choose neither. But ethics matters to me more than physical safety does. It matters to me which questions a given sport chooses to grapple with and how honestly/openly it does that work. See also why I walked away from horse racing and hunters, and a big part of why I’ve moved into distance, and, yes, also part of why I feel really ambivalently about upper-level eventing.
5) “Upper-level” is important there. It’s true that it feels like we’re having a lot of catastrophic injuries and deaths at the major upper-level events (relative to other sports, possibly also relative to the past, although I haven’t run those numbers). BN through Training at local horse trials, though? Low-level eventing is safe. And most people you meet and hear from and who post on the boards and keep blogs, etc., are low-level eventers. So we fall in love with what we do, which is not at all the same animal as the tip-top of the sport.
Hmm, I have wandered and run out of steam. I’m not sure any of that is useful, but it’s what I have off the top of my head. But it’s what I’ve got at the moment, so fwiw, there it is.
I appreciate your points and well thought out comment. You admit that you may be biased because you’re more of the adrenaline junkie kind of rider who likes risk, and I admit that I am probably biased because I am NOT an adrenaline junkie and I personally see more value in perfection of something moderate than survival of something difficult. That’s just how I’m wired.
The upper level vs lower level is a great point as well. I’ve had more experience with TERRIFYING low level eventers than I have with well trained ones, but the questions and obstacles in low level eventing are just much much safer so there is fewer risk. You’re right in the majority that love and support the sport are in these lower levels!
And this right here is why there are so many disciplines — it’s awesome that everybody can find a place where they’re comfortable and happy! 🙂
That’s a good point, too, about scary riding. The overall…level of competence? As average? Can definitely really vary from area to area. I sometimes forget how much my take on this stuff is colored by the fact that I operate mostly in the happy little bubble that is the Vermont horse community. I’ve lived in a sport-horse wasteland, too, and that was very different — and if I lived in, say, an eventing wasteland and hunter mecca, I might be singing a whole ‘nother tune.
I do want to quibble, though, with survival vs perfection. I think the preference for context varies, but I don’t know anybody whose goal (other than jokingly, but that’s not discipline-specific) is just not to die. Different people are drawn to different challenges, but I think the folks worth listening to — in any sport — want to do it well.
No, you’re absolutely right. The high level riders of any sport are going to perfect it. There is no doubt in my mind that the “eventing greats” are just as fine tuned with their aids on a cross country course as a hunter rider is in a flawless round – it’s just a different kind of flawless.
I guess my comment was driven more for some of the scary riding I’ve seen in the lower levels where a lot of the time the theme is “we just have to get over the jumps” on show days. It’s perhaps not a 100% fair critique, but a critique all the same.
I think it’s a fair critique, but a fair critique of low-level jumping disciplines in general more than eventing in particular. 😉
…I did not realize that was going to come out as a wall o’ text. So sorry!
I think this is an interesting question and I agree that we should always be doing things to make it safer. Equestrian sports always need careful evaluation and certainly going at high speeds over large solid obstacles carries with it an increased risk, or at least an increase in the severity of an accident.
That being said, I competed in the hunter/jumper world for more than 5 years before switching to eventing and competed locally as well as at rated shows. Were there fewer accidents? Yes. But I also saw a lot of drugging, riders who couldn’t ride their horses (trainer had to warm them up and ride in between each class), and people riding horses that were still recovering from colic/injuries/etc. Sadly, I saw a lot of horses go home broken. This certainly wasn’t the majority, and I think most hunter/jumper riders are amazing and great caregivers, but when I moved to eventing and started working regularly with a rider who competes at Rolex I found people who did their own care, who would happily travel states away to compete and withdraw without a second thought because the horse felt the slightest bit off or get a little dehydrated. I also saw a lot of scary riding and unsafe situations. I saw riders who had no business being out on the xc course and riding horses that were not a good or safe match.
I guess in the end I don’t really feel like one sport is worse/more dangerous for the horse than the other. In the hunter/jumper world I saw more of what I would consider abuse and in eventing I see more out of control riding and scary accidents. Neither thing is good for the horse. But I do think in the end most people are doing the best things for their horses and are having safe rides, or at least as safe as riding a horse can be.
The hunter/jumper world definitely has it’s problems. There is more pressure to throw a kid in the ring who may not be ready because “it’s just 18” or whatever… but that being said I’ve seen plenty of event riders who are over horsed, not ready to jump at X height, or simply scary. Bad training is bad training across the board of disciplines.
There is a lot of drugging in my world though, and that’s a huge issue. I think eventing gets the often unfair banner of “The dangerous sport of adrenaline junkies” while hunter/jumper gets “The political sport of drugged horses” which is also untrue at times.
I know Christoper Reeves competed in eventing, but wasn’t he paralyzed on the jumper course? Or was it during cross country? I can’t remember. It wasn’t tall jumps either I don’t think… three feet or something like that and he was wearing a helmet and vest. Hickstead died on a show jumping course too I think. Also Courtney King-Dye wasn’t even competing when her horse tripped and she ended up with a traumatic brain injury. A neighbor of mine was riding her horse at a horse camp and her horse spooked (actually it might have been a mule, but doesn’t matter) and ran her into a clothes line (or a tethering line, not sure), which broke her back. Riding horses can be dangerous anywhere at any time, no matter what you’re doing (heck even on the ground they can be dangerous, they are huge animals). I am very glad to see they are working to make cross country safer though. 🙂
Reeve fell on XC. The horse stopped, he came off, he landed badly; that one’s a great/awful example of something that really could happen to anybody jumping any sort of fence in any context. I want to say Novice or Training, but don’t quote me on that; it’s vague recollection rather than certainty.
It was XC, and a very straightforward fence. I was competing that day, also. He was going Training level, and it was just an unlucky accident. Some said he probably wasn’t ready to move up to Training, but I have no opinion on that, and sometimes I think people just say stuff like that to make themselves feel better about it not happening to them. I think it was mostly just bad luck.
I love eventing, but I love the jumper ring more. I don’t drug my horses to show, and I work hard to make all my jumper courses look like hunter rounds in terms of staying in balance and rhythm, and I make up time by angling jumps and making well-planned turns. I am very risk-averse. Not everyone is.
I’ve enjoyed reading the comments (and your post and the article). I am not an eventer and don’t claim to know much about it… those CC jumps scare the crap out of me. I prefer to strive for a nice beautiful hunter round with some kick ass Eq 🙂
I agree with L that we can make everything safer across the board.
I feel like as we get more “advanced” in the world in general- the nature to push push push is there which isn’t always good. Whos bigger, better, faster, stronger.. you get the idea.
Also “fads” don’t help.
Another thing. I found an article on Eventing Nation relating to this topic. Yes, the sport is dangerous but heres a thing to think about.
I’ve hemmed and hawed about whether or not to respond to this and obviously a response has won out! I will apologize in advance for senseless rambling and tone – I do not in any way mean to come across as holier than though or sarcastic or snarky – just trying to be honest in my response.
I must admit I was a little taken aback by reading your post and then the follow on comments. I think a better question for you to have asked may have been what’s currently being done. As you have admitted, this isn’t your forte and I felt a little of my us vs. them (even though I seem to fall into the them category!) come out as you appeared to be making some assumptions that nothing is being done and we as eventers just sit idly by and accept these deaths as part of the game. My personal feeling is the USEA is doing much more than any other equine sport to improve the over all safety of the discipline. They have the frangible pins, they also introduced something called the pro log (http://horseboardingsecrets.com/safety-jump-material/) and $1 of every entry goes towards their cardiovascular research fund (I’m sure there’s more but this is just off the top of my head). While I obviously don’t know what caused both horses to collapse, I will be very surprised if they weren’t both victim of some sort of aneurysm event – something that is almost impossible to detect in humans, never mind animals. In fact, most of the resent deaths have been to to this and to the best of my knowledge, the USEF/USEA shoulders the cost of necropsies for any death that occurs during a show. And as Molly Sorge pointed out in her editorial, the USEA is the only organization that routinely releases any sort of statement regarding something of this nature – they have a protocol for it whereas other organizations don’t seem to (i.e. the USHJA, USDF, etc). I applaud the USEA for taking on the difficult task of being the figurehead for these horrific accidents. I will say that I am less than impressed by the USEF/USHJA’s handling of the recent drugging scandals and their lack of willingness to implement very stiff penalties for those caught drugging. I am no fan of the FEI but some of the drugging policies would be welcome.
One more issue – deaths have alway happened in horse sports. In the day of instant information, everybody knows about it. In the early 90s, I remember a horse dying on XC at Groton House. Nobody knew about except those who were there. Same thing happened at Ledyard – if you weren’t there, you didn’t hear about it unless you knew the rider.
I very strongly disagree with your comment that drugging and horses dropping dead from such things at H/J shows not being comparable to horse deaths related to XC (even though the deaths at The Fork seem to be unrelated to XC fences). As a horse owner, I am my horse’s advocate and keeper of his well-being. My role as his leader, if you will, is to keep him safe. That to means I protect him from idiots who want to inject him with God only knows what or a course I deem as unsafe.
Unsafe riding is a whole other can of worms that I don’t want to open – I will simply say that I think you are absolutely correct in that lower level riders are typically way scarier than any upper level rider I have seen and that goes back to coaches not being honest about their students true ability.
At the end of the day, knowing why is great. But since our majestic partners are unable to talk, we will never know when they feel a little off if they are too stoic to let on, we won’t know if they feel lightheaded and may have a slow bleed somewhere. The best we can do is ask what more can we do to make them safe in what we ask of them. I think the commenter who mentioned breeding might be onto something – it would be interesting to see if some link could be found in common background. Hindsight is always 20-20 and if these horses did in fact die from some sort cardiac event, the honest answer is nothing could have been done with today’s technology. Hopefully the data gained from these tragic deaths will benefit a future horse.
I’m glad you decided to respond, because the main reason I wrote this post was basically to call for discussion.
Since I wrote this wanting to hear some thoughts and experience from real eventers and not h/j riders like myself, I didn’t exactly include the “what is being done” part. I know that the USEA is taking strides to work on the sport – for example I knew about the cardiovascular research fund. No, I didn’t know about some of the jumps being hinged but I’m not 100% ignorant on the subject like it may or may not have come across in this post. Perhaps I should have acknowledged the work being done more through asking this question.
On “us versus them”, I think hunters and eventers naturally come to that. I have had many, many interactions with eventers where I was treated as a lesser than rider because of my ring only discipline. Because of this, I probably had more offensive elements in this post than I meant to.
I think in any instance where humans and horses have interacted, the horse has gotten hurt or killed form time to time. A lot of today’s hooplah about events like the past weekend is due to the fast spread of news through social media and technology.
On the subject of drugging vs horses dying while competing, we will have to agree to disagree on the fact that they can or can’t be compared. This is not to say that I think drugging is okay or am making excuses for it. I do agree with you about riders/owners being the horse’s best and perhaps only advocate for safety and health.
Really at the end of the day I don’t think any rider, eventing or not, steps their foot in the stirrups and says “I am going to risk my horse’s life on purpose today to win a ribbon.” You’re right that the two deaths this weekend could perhaps 100% be unpreventable accidents. Either way, I do think discussions like these ESPECIALLY from riders perhaps less “in the know” in a certain discipline lead to greater understand and education across the entire equestrian community.
Much appreciate your openness. And I’m totally open to agreeing to disagree – wish more folks were! I love eventing even though I choose to no longer participate in the sport (it’s not because of XC) and think it sometimes gets a bad reputation. I will admit to buying into the H/J drugging scandals and have dragged my feet (meaning I have yet to find a local jumper trainer) on totally making the switch. I have the utmost respect for hunter riders – I know I am unable to string 8 perfect fences together – that’s why I’ll be sticking to the jumper ring, 😉
Funny – seeing a horse drop dead at a show from a mag injection totally killed my desire to do the hunters as well. I will probably never get over that, in the same way that maybe some people will never get over seeing an XC accident. There are big problems with the current state of the hunters that need to be addressed before I’d have any interest in delving back into it. The derbies I can get behind… they are much more realistic and true to the original intent of hunters. I believe in their purpose and goals, and while I don’t think they are really “there” yet, I can support it. But I just can’t get behind the sluggish, LTD, slightly sour, drugged look that has done so well lately… it makes me very sad to know what can go on behind the scenes in the big barns to achieve that. So, I totally get where you’re coming from. I keep myself firmly wedged in the jumper ring, which has it’s own demons, but not ones that keep me up at night.
^ Exactly why I got out of hunters but why I’d LOVE to do derbies!!! Derbies are in my future for sure.
Eventers get a bad rap from hunter/jumper people and the other way around. I think it is because they are so alike yet so different and each wants to be better than the other. The problems with having serious athletes is that you have the potential of having serious injuries or sometimes death. Neither of those horses were running around 2’7″ jumps for 15 fences. They were competing at high levels and were receiving the best of the best care. One died after show jumping and one after XC so its not like they were related. They were just freak accidents much like what happened to Hickstead. I dont think that it has anything to do with eventing itself. Riding in high levels of competition you are risking both you and your horse every time. Often times people just want something to blame and giving eventing a bad name is easy to do.
Enjoyed reading the comments but don’t have one of my own! I commend all of my eventer friends- it’s not for the faint of heart that’s for sure!
I think all the points have already been addressed and I love the conversation going on. I would say I want to event because I like the combination of all three phases. I like dressage, I like jumping, and I like cross country.
That being said, I do think we ask our horses to do things to prove both our and their abilities that doesn’t need proving. Competitions think they have to make these obstacles more difficult because they need to create ways to dock/add points. I think the industry needs to become creative – there’s an element missing – something is wrong when the solution is to keep making fences bigger and bigger. The industry needs to think strategically, “What can we do to make this competitive while reducing health risks?” What do our customers (the riders) really want in a competition? Where will they find the most satisfaction? What is truly the challenge of (insert specific competition here)? For eventing is it the technicality of the cross country course? Cause they can be more technical! For jumping is it really how clear we can go in a round or maybe we need more jumps instead of higher ones?
I don’t know if I make sense but the “Why?” question is a good one and I appreciated the opportunity to attempt to formulate my thoughts.
Well you were right when you said you don’t understand – that is very clear in this post. I can’t really understand why you post this if you don’t truly understand the sport of eventing, or the changes that have been made, and everything in between – not just the bad times. Perhaps a little more thorough research could have been done before hand. Nonetheless – I must say it is kind of scary that there are a lot of riders out there who think eventing is all about riding fast into solid fences that can kill you. I actually think it’s funny and yet sad at the same time.
Event horses are not hunters. They are not jumpers. They are not just kind of good at all things and not really good at one thing. They are extremely well tuned, highly schooled, athletic jumping machines. They are probably one of the best trained horses you will ever sit on. Do you think they are recklessly jumping into big solid fences? Are you aware that horses are more comfortable and actually jump better over solid fences? Can you really condemn a sport for being “unsafe” when not a single drug can be administered to an event horse, yet hunters are known across North America for being drugged to the point they drop dead? When we have a vet check at the end of cross country, a jog up between phases, and a ground jury watching our every move? When event horses are the fittest, and probably best cared for horses in the sporting world? And no, this isn’t “us” vs “them”. I just find it hard to comprehend how one can find a sport where novice riders are jumping around on heavily drugged horses is safer than one where riders HAVE to be capable in order to be able to even consider getting around.
Until you can understand the complexity and wonder of the world of eventing – you will never understand why these things happen. Us eventers can not even understand why horses are dying. Why did Hickstead drop dead after his GP round? We don’t know what is causing these things – but I can assure you blasting the sport because of this is the wrong approach. Do not blame the sport for the cause of the unknown.
As many other commenters have said, the change in format, change in breeding, addition of supplements, climate change, etc could all be potential factors. One thing that is not to blame is the “solid fences”. If you really want to know why – donate to the USEAs research fund who is researching the cause of death.
If you want to open up a discussion to learn more about eventing and what is happening, I think there are better ways to approach it. JMHO.
My overall response to your comment is that I’m not the first person to question something they don’t 100% understand. I think your tone would be more appropriate if I wrote this post claiming no ignorance, but instead I merely asked a question and opened a forum with my opinions stated. Could I have done it better? Sure, probably. But you mentioned that I condemned eventing, and that is *not* the case. At all.
I personally take offense to you insinuating that every single hunter that carries a novice rider is drugged. That is far from the case, and is the kind of statement that continues to aggravate the relationship between eventers and hunter/jumpers. You claim that eventers “never drug their horses” yet fairly recently a big name event rider was pulled in suspension for having Reserpine show up in several of the horses in his barn. Could have been an honest mistake with the timing – sure. Could have also been something fishy going on. People cannot accurately say “eventers never drug” just as they cannot accurately say “hunters never drug”. There are no absolutes or guarantees in the horse world.
I appreciate your sentiment in participating with this conversation, but feel you misjudged my tone.
Of course I agree that it is ok, if not encouraged to ask questions when you don’t understand – but the question was more worded as an attack on a sport you dislike and don’t get why anyone does. It came across that way, or I read it wrong, and if that is the case then my apologies.
I never once insinuated that all hunters carrying novices are drugged – just stating that that is a common practice. I also said eventers never drug – please do not take my words out of context. I stated they can not have a single drug administered. Difference. I do not have beef with hunters – at all. I like showing hunter myself sometimes – my beef is with the people who are poor horsemen and horsewoman who do these things – not the sport itself. How can you blame a sport for the people in it who are the ones ruining it? The same can be said with eventing. Eventing is not unsafe – but there are things that occur within it that might make it so. Obviously more research is needed.
Of course there are going to be cases where drugs have been used at events – but there is a 0 tolerance and any drugs found are taken very seriously. Can the same be said in the hunter world? I know it is with the jumpers and dressage.
My statement was purely that it one thing to tote about how dangerous eventing is and at the same time support a sport that has it’s own very dangerous and harmful ways.
I am sorry I offended you with my comments, but having been an eventer for over 22 years, I felt it necessary to give my honest feedback on something that is off base.
Ix-nay on the ero-tolerance-zay. Eventing is not a drug-free sport.
Event horses are the best cared for horses? Eek I take offense to that…
Eventers are a crazy bunch. We thrive on the intricacies of dressage, and the adrenaline rush of cross-country, the technicality of stadium. As an eventer, it’s true that I don’t understand why one would prefer a perfect eq round to a kick-ass dressage test… but that’s my personal preference. That doesn’t make it right, or better, it’s just me.
The goal of any course, at any level, in any equestrian sport, is to separate the “meh” from the truly great. Ideally this process would never result in any horses or riders being hurt. XC courses ask very technical questions, over big, solid fences. Unfortunately at any level where the fences are big and solid and there is speed involved, a tiny mistake can have huge repercussions. A mistake over a GP fence is usually less costly than a mistake over an XC or steeplechase fence, because of the speed and solidness of a fence (even the frangible ones). Interestingly, most high-level event horses will go on despite mistakes. So a foot down, a split-second hesitation – the horse will still jump. Sometimes it goes fine, sometimes it goes badly. Sometimes there is misjudgment despite years of experience of both horse and rider. It’s hard to be perfect all the time, and these courses demand perfection.
As others have pointed out, the USEA has done a lot in recent years to improve safety. Frangible fences, qualifiers, tons of vetting, air vests, certified helmets, it’s all for safety. They have a very open policy on reporting injuries, unlike many other organizations. I think one of the reasons so much is known about eventing injuries and deaths is because the information is so very open – I mean, a lady died at WEF after a fall, and the Chronicle didn’t even report it. I don’t want to say double standards, but it’s hard not to wonder why all disciplines under USEF don’t report equally. I would be very curious to see the number of horse and rider injuries and deaths across various disciplines.
Is your discipline (hunters) safer than mine (eventing)? The laws of physics say probably yes, since you’ll be going slower in general. Are the horses safer? Maybe, maybe not… event horses tend to be more up, but you could not pay me to jump a drugged horse, I think it’s just too dangerous, lol! I know that not every ammy hunter drugs, but I’ve never even heard of it in lower-level eventing. Are the rider safer? Again, maybe, maybe not. I’ve seen some super scary h/j riders, and some super scary eventers. And there are a lot of riders out there in EVERY discipline who could use about a million more miles at home (raises hand).
So why does it happen? Because horses can’t talk, and despite our best efforts and those of our vets, we can’t predict every health problem. And because neither horses nor riders can be footfall perfect every step of every course. Should injuries and deaths happen? Of course not, and we riders as a collective whole should push our organizations to improve the safety of our chosen sport as much as possible. But at the end of the day riding of any type is a very risky sport, and experienced people get hurt on very experienced horses, even when there are no jumps involved. Each of us needs to do the utmost to keep both ourselves and our horses safe, and own up to and minimize the risk of whatever sport we choose.
I agree with you on pretty much all points, minus one little detail I will post here for posterity – Chronicle did report on the rider who died at WEF (https://www.chronofhorse.com/article/rider-dies-fti-winter-equestrian-festival) though it certainly wasn’t front page news and all over social media like the event horse deaths. I agree with you and believe there is more information and journalism when it comes to eventing than there is in hunterland.
Nothing to add.
Just wanted to say that I’ve really enjoyed reading these comments. Our little blogging community is full of passionate, eloquent people.
I think your blog post is very well written, coming from a ‘hobby eventer’. You have merely expressed a personal opinion and haven’t been offensive in any way. Also, the comments section of this blog post have been so interesting to read!
I don’t feel educated enough to comment on the higher levels of eventing, though I do feel it is safer now than it has ever been before and the majority of accidents stem from underlying issues (not fit enough, horses medically compromised already etc).
Just to give an insight into why eventing is so much fun, I personally event because I enjoy the ‘precision’ (without sounding pompous as I only compete lower level) of dressage, and the thrill and excitement of cross country. Stadium is my least favourite, but it provides me with a challenge. It is a challenging sport with heaps of variety and is unique in the equine world in that it’s much easier for less wealthy riders to do well- without digging at other disciplines!
Reading everyone else’s comments has opened my eyes in more depth to the history of eventing, but honestly it’s just so much fun at ‘hobby-level’ which is why a lot of people do it. Thank you for writing this post – as a hobby eventer I have enjoyed reading everyone’s comments and input on the topic!
Back in 1988 the equestrian world said that Mark Todd was insane and had a death wish for his horse when he took Charisma to the Seoul Olympics at age 16. Charisma had one of the fastest recovery rate of the horses at that Olympics as his team were so concerned about fitness that he was conditioned to the hilt. I have read about many of the older riders (Todd, Nicholson, Tait and others) say that in general the horses are not as fit now as they were 10-20 years ago, and you have many more older horses competing at a higher level. These horses need to be super fit – if they are fatigued they cannot think and respond quickly enough to get themselves out of trouble, and they are more likely to get into trouble in the first place.
I am taking an extended break from work and was catching up on posts when this came up as a suggestion on the side bar.
It’s funny because- I showed extensively in the hunter/jumper ring and I saw probably more day-to-day cruelty than I do in eventing. The horses didn’t get turned out at big barns, there was a lot of see-sawing on the horse’s mouth and other cruel methods to “train” them. While I won’t pretend everyone is fantastic and abuse-free in eventing, I think I can say that in general it tends to be more humane. The training emphasis seems to be on slower development, horses generally get turned out frequently, etc. BUT- that could also be that I’m just surrounded by some amazing people who really do put their horse’s welfare first and foremost.
For a long time, though, I felt the same way as you did- and I still don’t know that I’ll ever do the “big” stuff because it does seem really dangerous and I wouldn’t be able to forgive myself if something happened to Wiz. However, I can tell you there’s no way you can force a horse to jump a 3 or 4 star course if they don’t want to jump it. You can, however, force a horse that hates his job to jump around a 3′ hunter course decently (saw plenty of people do it- the amount of times I’ve seen a horse smacked to death for a refusal or someone get off after a class and jerk their horse’s face off at hunter shows is unreal- and one of the reasons I grew to hate it-I feel that if your horse consistently refuses, jumping is not his forte- sell him into a more fitting home and move on). In fact, I can’t even get wizard to stop on xc when he locks on to a fence. He just loves it- don’t ask me why. If he didn’t love it, if he ever says ‘no mom, that’s enough,’ I’d listen and we’d quit. I’ve always told him he can go as far as he wants to go, and I’ll be happy to go as far as he takes me.
So while I agree that we need to continue to make eventing safer (which they are tying to do with xc jumps that break apart when hit), to me eventing was very refreshing after doing 4-H, AQHA and the hunter/jumper circuits. In my own (albeit limited) experience, I have seen increased concern about horse over-all welfare, increased focus on slow and patient training versus wanting immediate results, and all-over less cattiness and more generosity. Aside from safety, it’s also great that a no-name not perfectly gorgeous horse can still theoretically win Rolex- his heart can shine. You can have all the heart you want in hunters but without a 10 jump and a 10 trot you won’t ever make it to the top, sadly. Less so in jumpers, thankfully. But I totally respect your opinion (and can understand since I was once of the same mindset!) – just interesting how your view can change once you actually give something a try. But no one in the eventing community wants to see these horse deaths, and there really is a lot being done to try to make it safer. Hopefully that’s a trend that will continue.
P.S. I am in no way insinuating that all hunter riders are terrible and drug their horses and abuse them- not saying that at all. All of the hunter bloggers I follow seem like they ride at reputable barns who put the welfare of their horse first (like I did when I was a hunter rider). That being said, I still saw a lot of nastiness go on in other barns when I rode, which I have yet to really see as an eventer. However, my experience is still limited as I’ve only been doing it for a few years, so that could always change and I acknowledge that 🙂 (And I have seen some riders who I’d like to yank off their horse and kick them in the rear for sportsmanship/horsemanship, but just from my experience, less of it in the eventing world than the other circuits I’d been on. But that’s just my own personal experience, not the solid truth).