“We’re here today because eventing is in trouble. Some would say the survival of the sport as we know it is really at stake,” said John Long, CEO of the U.S. Equestrian Federation (USEF), the governing body of non-racing horse sports.
“The high number of accidents and fatalities for both horses and riders,” Long said, prompted “increased, intense scrutiny” from the media, from animal rights groups and from parents.
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. A rider was severely injured and two horses died at this year’s Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event in Lexington. “We can improve safety by reducing one thing: horse falls,” said Olympic gold medalist and USEF President David O’Connor.
He said a rider has about a 2 percent chance of injury just falling off a horse; that jumps to 50 percent if the horse falls as well. And if the horse somersaults over the jump in a “rotational” fall, the injury rate hits 85 percent, O’Connor said. He has been mining data from the U.S. Eventing Association in an attempt to figure out who is falling and when. But the USEA relies on forms hand-written by volunteers to report most accidents, something that veterinarians and medical experts said provided inadequate information.
At a forum in Copenhagen in January, the international governing body of equestrian sports recommended better reporting and setting up a worldwide database of accidents. “The only safe thing you can say is we have seen fatalities at all levels,” said three-day event vet Dr. Catherine Kohn of Ohio State University.
Looking at U.S. accident reports, Kohn found 51 horse fatalities from 1996 to 2008. Of those, 38 died on cross-country courses, Kohn said. Five more died at the end of cross-country competitions. In 15 rotational falls, a dozen horses landed on their head and/or neck, according to her research. But many horses are never necropsied, leaving vets in the dark about what really happened, she said.
The sport appears split over what is causing the falls and even more divided over how to fix things. Many participants said they see “dangerous riding” every weekend, from Pony Club events to the highest levels of competition. But changes will be difficult. Stopping riders on course, a recent measure, has proved unpopular with parents, said USEA president Kevin Baumgardner.
“We as a sport should not be rewarded for a picture we don’t want to see,” said U.S. eventing team coach Capt. Mark Phillips, who said that American riders go too fast. Others said that lower-level courses have become increasingly complicated, often overwhelming the less experienced. “Riders are getting confused and horses are getting frantic,” said Sally O’Connor, David O’Connor’s mother and an expert equestrian commentator.
About 250 vets, course designers and riders, including Kentucky first lady Jane Beshear, showed up to give input at the safety summit. Long said the USEF had received a thousand e-mails and dozens of full-blown presentations in advance.