Three-day eventing confronts rising toll on riders & horses

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, June 2008:

LEXINGTON, Kentucky– Widely regarded as an appropriate
horse sport for young women, three-day eventing has in recent years
suffered an injury and fatality rate among both horses and riders
that rivals British steeplechase racing and appears to far exceed
that of American-style track racing.
Public attention to safety in horse competitions as of June
7, 2008 remained focused on the parallel foreleg fractures suffered
on May 3 by the filly Eight Belles, moments after she placed second
to Big Brown in the Kentucky Derby.
In Lexington, however, leaders of the U.S. Equestrian
Federation and U.S. Eventing Association met to try to figure out how
to stop the little-noticed toll of eventing, which many eventing
veterans believe was once much less than it is today.


“At least a dozen riders internationally have been killed in
the past year and a half, and several horses have died or been
euthanized later because of injuries suffered on cross-country
courses,” wrote Janet Patton of the Lexington Herald-Leader.
“A rider was severely injured and two horses died at this
year’s Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event in Lexington,” Patton
mentioned, but that seemed no longer unusual.
“Darren Chiacchia, 43, who helped the U.S. Olympic team win
a bronze medal at the Athens Games and was considered a favorite for
this year’s team, was training a horse on an intermediate course in
Tallahassee, Florida in March when the stallion crashed over a fence,
crushing and nearly killing him,” wrote Katie Thomas of The New York
Times. “Chiacchia spent a week in a coma.”
“An Olympic sport since 1912,” Thomas continued, “eventing
originated as a way to test the ability and endurance of military
horses. It is often called a horse triathlon because participants
compete in three events: the delicate footwork of dressage, the
beauty and control of show jumping, and the endurance and daring of
cross-country racing. Winding courses of up to two and a half miles
are designed to mimic the natural obstacles of rural landscapes.
“The cross-country phase is the most dangerous,” Thomas
wrote, “as horse and rider are required to clear 20 to 40 jumps in
an established time period. All 12 recent deaths occurred during the
cross-country phase as riders attempted to clear obstacles,
including some that were startlingly simple. Most of the deaths
resulted from rotational falls, somersaulting flips similar to
Chiacchia’s.”
“We can improve safety by reducing one thing: horse falls,”
Olympic gold medalist and U.S. Equestrian Federation president David
O’Connor told Patton. O’Connor estimated that a rider has about a 2%
chance of injury just falling off a horse; a 50% chance of injury
if the horse falls too; and an 85% chance of injury if the horse and
rider take a rotational fall.
Studying 51 eventing horse fatalities occurring since 1996,
Ohio State University veterinarian Catherine Kohn found that 38 died
on cross-country courses, and five more died after completing
cross-country events. Twelve of the 15 horses known to have taken
rotational falls landed on their heads and/or necks.
“The only safe thing you can say is we have seen fatalities
at all levels,” Kohn told the Lexington gathering.
“The riders who died,” Thomas reported, “ranged in age from
17 to 51. Some, like Sherelle Duke, 28, of Ireland, were
considered top riders. Others, like 17-year-old Mia Eriksson of
Tahoe City, California, were just starting out.”
Eriksson fell off her seven-year-old gelding during a
November 2007 event at Galway Downs in Temecula, California. The
horse, Koryography, fell on top of her.
Her older sister, Shana Virginia Eriksson, 18, died in a
trail riding accident at Fresno State University in September 2003.
Cows apparently spooked her mount.
Summarized Thomas, “Top competitors and coaches argue that
the sport’s growing popularity has attracted inexperienced riders who
take too many risks. Amateur riders complain that courses are being
designed beyond their skill level in order to challenge elite riders.
There is also frustration that the governing bodies for eventing have
not mandated the safety improvements they identified after another
cluster of deaths nine years ago.”
U.S. Olympic eventing team coach and course designer Mark
Phillips, ex-husband of Princess Anne of Britain, is often blamed
for the present crisis. “As courses designed by Phillips and others
create new challenges for elite competitors,” explained Thomas,
“amateur riders say that lower-level courses have also become more
difficult, to prepare aspiring riders for the next level.”
Phillips counterattacked recently on the U.S. Eventing
Association web site, Thomas noted, accusing his critics of being
in “a frenzied tailspin using the anonymity of cyberspace to cast a
dark shadow over the future of the sport.”
Phillips told Patton that “American riders go too fast,” she wrote.
“Many eventing participants said they see dangerous riding
every weekend, from Pony Club events to the highest levels of
competition,” Patton concluded. “But stopping riders on course, a
recent measure, has proved unpopular with parents,” U.S. Equestrian
Federation president Kevin Baumgardner told her.

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