the facts

This was a tough weekend at Jersey Fresh. One horse in the CCI2 was euthanized after a fall at the trakehner. One rider in the CCI3 died after her horse flipped over a table on cross country.

One of these events would have been a tragedy. The two together are hard to comprehend.

This is a dangerous game. We do our bests as riders and trainers to mitigate the dangers. We give our horses and students as many tools as we can so that they are prepared for all imaginable situations. We don’t sit on horses or let our students sit on horses that we feel pose obvious hazards, like a horse that bolts or stands up or a horse that is too strong or doesn’t want to play. We don’t move horses up the levels and we don’t let students move up the levels until we feel good about it. We fit all our students with appropriate head gear and crash vests. We don’t let people ride on our property without helmets, and we strongly strongly STRONGLY encourage out students not to ride at home without proper head gear either. And even still, sometimes it in not enough. Sometimes accidents happen.

Falling is inevitable. I fall all the time. I've fallen into jumps, walls, bushes, ant hills, and mud puddles. I've been bucked off, fallen on, and knocked out. I've been sent flying, slid off the side, and hung on for dear life. In the last two years, I've had two falls that have stuck with me. Falls that I might not have walked away from. I was amazingly lucky. Both of these falls were off a horse that I trusted with everything. A horse that never gave me any indication prior that I might have a nasty fall. A horse that has picked up and gone back to jumping big jumps and being safe. If I had had any indication that day that I might summersault underneath my horse, I would not have left the box. Not one of us who rides knowingly puts a horse or our own person in that position.

Still, every year, people die in eventing. This year, the deaths we've heard about have been mostly abroad. Remember #rideforOlivia that went around social media in March. Philippa Humphrey's death yesterday hits the closest to home. I didn’t even know her very well, but I feel shaken.

Will I leave the box again? Probably. Almost certainly yes. But I also have to think. I may be a little more careful about which horses I push up the levels. Even a really super horse and rider can have a moment of distraction and miss. Going out on a horse you have any doubts about compounds the chance of falling.

When people or horses die, the public always makes noise about how the sport has become too dangerous or even unfair. I hear ‘how long are we going to let this keep happening?’. They’re right. Loss of life is terrible. I don’t like it any more than anyone else. But I’m not sure the sport is to blame. I don’t think it has become any less doable or any more dangerous. As the quality of horse gets better and the quality of riding gets better, course designers have to keep ahead of the competition and design new questions that continue to challenge us. I think they’ve done an amazing job. Technological advances have come into play that actually have made the sport safer: frangible pins, air vests, heart rate monitors, and better veterinary technology.

Statistically speaking, the sport is actually getting less dangerous. The most recent FEI statistic report is worth a look. It goes into far more detail then I will here.1 The percentage of FEI riders who come unseated on course out of all riders who have left the start box has more or less stayed in the same in the past ten years. The percentage of horse falls, however, has declined consistently if only slightly. Certainly, neither of these statistic has spiked in the last ten years.

Furthermore, we see improvement in the statistics of rotational falls between 2005 and 2015. Rotational falls are notoriously dangerous. These types of falls happen when the a horse can't leave the ground or its front end strikes a fence wrong and so stops abruptly. Momentum carries the back of the horse up and over the fence resulting in the horse somersaulting and often landing on the rider. It's not pretty. This type of fall kills or disables more riders and horses than any other. From 2005 to 2015, the percentage of non-rotational horse falls fluctuates but basically stays the same. Percentage of rotational falls on the other hand is on the decline. This is probably due to safety initiatives such as frangible pins.

Percentage of falls resulting in injuries has also dropped over this period. The percentage of people (out of all FEI starters) seriously or fatally injured in a fall has dropped almost in half since 2005. The percentage of slight injuries resulting from falls has dropped even more than that. It is not completely clear to me what the FEI considers a serious versus slight injury, but I find these figures encouraging nontheless.

We are talking percentages here. The number of starters in FEI competitions has grown significantly over this ten year period. The numbers of falls has therefore grown as well (though it grows far slower than the number of overall starters). If you looked strictly at numbers of falls, it would be easy to conclude that the sport is getting more dangerous. Social media hasn't helped this notion. We hear about all the falls, injuries, and deaths immediately and in all their gory detail. It is easy to get the wrong idea.

And of course, horses ARE dangerous. I will not refute this point. Horses are dangerous when you gallop and jump. They are dangerous when you ride on the trail. They are dangerous even when you are on the ground. Earlier this year in Aiken SC a kid died from blunt force trauma to the head out in a paddock. She didn’t appear to be riding. She must have gone out to get her pony and got kicked in the head. No one was there. No one will know for certain. Should we wear helmets all the time when they’re on the property? Should we all give up horses?

I think the sport’s inherent risk is one of the reasons we are drawn to it. The adrenaline rush that accompanies running fast and jumping big jumps and knowing that you’re playing for more than just a piece of polyester ribbon is incredible. Changes should be made, and I don't know what the answer is, but I think it is important that we at least know the facts before we rush to conclusions.

1All the statistics I quote here are taken from the 2015 FEI Statistic Report. It can be found here.

**A similar article was published on Eventing Nation in 2014. Jenni Autry has very similar findings as I do.