This article was published by The Equiery in May 2008 with the title “Eventing IS Safer.” That wasn't the point, so here it is with my title and without any edits.
As long as I have been involved in eventing (a mere 30 years) the issues of rider safety and horse welfare have been debated fiercely both within the sport and from the outside. Results from the March running of the Red Hills Horse Trials in Tallahassee Florida have again sparked the debates. Half truths and uninformed commentary are flaring across the internet right now at a pace that makes 570 meters per minute feel like a trot. I feel compelled to lay out what I consider to be relevant facts in the hope that Marylanders will keep these debates “balanced and on the aids.”
Red Hills is a high profile event run on terrain that is wooded and hilly. The cross country courses twist, turn and undulate. It is very unlike our Fair Hill, Rolex in Kentucky , or most of the events leading up to it in Florida and South Carolina . Riders don't like cross country at Red Hills much, even though it is beautifully built and draws thousands of local spectators.
This year's advanced courses at Red Hills were not much different than in years past, but the results got people talking. Olympian Darren Chiacchia suffered a terrible fall that left him for weeks in intensive care and from which he is still recovering. Darren's fall took place early on the preliminary cross country course when his horse hesitated at a table and then jumped. The horse rotated when he fell and landed on Darren. Later in the day on the advanced courses two horses died of pulmonary hemorrhages. The veterinarians who did autopsies said that their deaths were not caused by the jumps that they fell at, but that they fell because of their pulmonary failures.
One would be hard pressed to blame these accidents on the cross country courses at Red Hills, but the score sheets from the weekend left many riders frustrated. Normally two thirds to three quarters of the field at an advanced competition will get around the cross country course without jump penalties. In the advanced divisions combined at Red Hills there were 23 clean rounds out of 55, or 42%. Nobody made the optimum time.
Eventing has always responded to its accidents with research, with input from members, with committees of riders, course designers, organizers, officials. The United States Eventing Association (USEA) has created a course advisors program, an instructor certification program, and oversight of courses at every recognized event. Every year there are changes in the rules and new initiatives that come out of concern for the welfare of riders and horses. Few people who compete would deny that eventing today is a more humane and safer sport than it was ten and twenty years ago.
The phenomenon of Red Hills is not so much about what happened, but about the response to it. The USEA's new president, Kevin Baumgardner, wrote on the USEA web site that a strategic planning committee is taking “a hard look at the sport,” and ”my concern that the sport has gotten off track is shared by many of our members,” and that it is “now or never” to do something about it. Baumgardner is not very specific about why he thinks that our sport is going down the toilet but he does argue that cross country is supposed to be exhilarating and that it has gotten too technical. “The joy and thrill of galloping rhythmically over jumps across country, has been replaced with questions of extreme technicality and a proliferation of combinations taken at show-jump speed,” he says. I think he's going way too far. He sounds to me more like a gadfly than a leader.
The internet response to Baumgardner's call to arms has been overwhelming, and its lack of specificity has attracted everyone who ever had a gripe about eventing. Baumgardner's primary point seems to be that the trend toward technical combinations is a bad thing and that it makes the sport inaccessible to most potential participants. But most eventers ride at training level and below where technical questions that require balance and adjustability don't really exist. The lower levels offer exactly the straightforward courses that he says have disappeared. The outcry, I believe, reflects the fact that to the rank and file eventer upper level courses look like they are not jumpable. I remember feeling that way until I had a horse who had worked his way up the levels.
Upper level courses have changed through the years. They became more technical to test the ever-improving skills and training of the competitors. They also became more technical as a way to prevent falls. Narrows encourage safe runouts, and the need for adjustability of balance and pace prevents the wild and crazy partnerships of the past from ever qualifying to move up the levels. Note that of the eleven most recent cross country rider deaths worldwide nine were at single galloping fences, as opposed to those we consider “technical.”
The more challenging a course is meant to be the greater chance that a designer inadvertently crosses the line into the dreaded territory of “trappy.” Maybe that happened at Red Hills, but you can bet that course designer Mark Phillips will make the changes to get back on track, or be replaced by another course designer. I would also bet, however, that the changes to make Red Hills flow better won't make the course look much different to the eye of most horsemen. It will still look unrideable to most of us because it will still be an advanced course.
The issue of speed is also a hot topic. Historically our sport has had a speed for each level from which an optimum time is established for courses. Some terrain and some courses make it nearly impossible to make that time, so everyone gets penalties. Elsewhere, and in good conditions, the time is quite attainable. The more combinations that require show jumping speed the quicker you have to be on the rest of the course to make time.
I believe that at the upper levels it is appropriate that only the top handful of horses make the time and that they should be rewarded. If you watch videos of the rides that come inside the time at Rolex or Badminton, or any other upper level event, you will notice that they are almost always the smoothest and safest looking rounds. I remember watching Kim Severson and Winsome Adante running around Rolex something like 15 seconds inside the time. It looked like a polished hunter round. It is the clock that rewards those great cross country runs. Any upper level competitor will tell you that it is not the kicking and pulling that gets you inside the time, it's the fluid shifts in balance and the accuracy. Eventing is the only sport that tests that harmony between horse and rider at the gallop. If we slow the optimum times down those smooth, fast rounds will not be rewarded. People who have to kick and pull and jerk their horses around the course could still make the slower times, so dressage judges could end up with even greater influence on the final standings.
Participation rates in eventing are up at every level. I went to the Cross Country Jumping Derby hosted in March by the organizers of the Marlborough Horse Trials. The place was overrun with newcomers to our sport. They are choosing eventing as their discipline of choice. They are learning dressage. They are learning to gallop. They are learning to adjust their horse's balance a little. They are learning safe cross country position. They are having a blast with their horses and as they improve their riding their horses are having fun too.
In our part of Southern Maryland the sport is growing and the riding is improving because of a group of trainers who have had to confront the difficult challenges of the sport at the upper levels. These trainers had to learn to balance a horse for a technical combination and to keep a horse straight for a skinny. They figured out, with the help of some top trainers, how to make an event horse from a failed race horse and sell it for good money. The growth and progress and quality of the sport has made it possible for some of the most talented of the young riders to make a living this way, by training and selling horses and teaching people new to the sport. That's good for everyone.
Let's keep talking about how to improve our sport, but let's not allow our grief over tragedy to poison our attitudes about an endeavor that brings out the best in so many wonderful people and horses. I for one will also tip my hat to the brilliant course designers, builders, organizers, and volunteers who have worked so hard in recent years to make cross country courses the magnificent tests of training that they are today. If we remember where we've come from those courses will be even better tomorrow.