I have to admit, I occasionally find myself pretty much overdosed on the subject of safety. There are just so many articles, postings, pictures, lectures, seminars, presentations, videos, tweets, warnings, brochures, statistics, blogs, etc. on the subject. No, I’m not anti safety measures in our sport, and I do strongly believe that criteria need to be set and adhered to in order to protect riders from themselves, but it currently seems to be a bit over the top. I did a stint on both the USEA Rules and the USEF Eventing Technical Committees, and during that time, we reviewed, discussed, argued about and ultimately voted upon myriad rule proposals. Many of these were great additions to an already crowded rule book. Others not so much. The irony was that if the buzz words “for safety” were added to the proposal, it seemed to have an easier time of it. Does this make sense? It’s like everyone is jumping on the safety bandwagon – and for the record, I do believe in apple pie, Mom and the American flag so I’m not a total anarchist – just a little bit of one!
Don’t get me wrong. I applaud the advances that have been made and continue to be made in fence construction that can help a horse get out of trouble when he makes a mistake. Frangibiles, deformables, meltaway logs – all to the good. I also believe that course design has taken a great step forward by reining in some of the awkward technicality and reverting back to more gallopy tracks. Additionally, I think that officials are now enforcing dangerous riding procedures more than before and looking at courses and course construction with a more educated, safety conscious eye. Advances are also on going in rider safety equipment – air vests, better and better helmets, quick release stirrup irons. These are all signs that most of the factions of our sport are listening, learning from past mistakes and moving on.
In light of all this, my question going forward is a simple one. What are riders doing to promote safety in their own personal interactions with their sport? Are they pulling up on cross country when things are going south and saving for another day? Are they ensuring that they are at their peak both physically and mentally – and yes, this includes not partying all night before cross country, avoiding the lure of personal performance enhancing substances, and seeking the best available coaching and training opportunities? Are they moving their horses up the levels before they totally understand the questions in response to an arbitrary human timetable, or are they really listening to their horses’ needs and abilities? Are riders too driven by personal ambitions to hear what their horses are “saying?” Are riders being pushed beyond their own capacity and the capacity of their horses by external forces – parent, coach, trainer, sponsor, dollars? There are some tough questions which I’m not sure are being realistically addressed.
Where does safety start? Where are riders being introduced to constructive, safe riding and independent thinking? In my Area, and in every other Area around the country, there are some riding instructors/trainers/coaches who I believe are doing a fantastic job teaching their students to think intelligently and ride safely. Most are not “BNR” material. Several have never gone much beyond Prelim, and there is no way they ever had a shot at wearing the USA pink coat, but they are doing a hell of a good job with their riders. I believe most of them have earned ICP credentials – but even before that, this handful of grass roots, “lower level instructors” (for lack of a better phrase) were quietly beating the drum for safe practices. My point? I believe these low profile individuals comprise a too long discounted and desperately important safety foundation. To belabor a point, I’ll go out on a limb and say that this is where safety starts, and this is where we should be placing our emphasis and support whenever possible.
Something struck me as odd recently when I was listening to a conversation about building safer fences. In our sport, the trend seems to be more and more toward cross country fences that knock down/collapse/break on impact much like show hunter fences do. However, and bear with me, if you follow the hunter circuit, the hottest new trend is the Derby concept that features fences that are actually solid or solid in appearance. Doesn’t that seem a bizarre switcharound? It’s a weird world!
Another stray thought went through my mind recently, and it centered around foxhunting, something I grew up doing and spent many years actively enjoying. I would be very curious to learn how many rotational falls occur in the hunt field vis a vis in eventing competitions. I would venture to say very few. Fences are solid there and I daresay not usually constructed with much of an eye to safety. They are also generally ridden at speed, and foxhunters are not known for their sophisticated equestrian skills. What makes the difference then?
My final thought about safety springs from Invictus : “I am the master of my fate. I am the captain of my soul.” No, I haven’t gone all wonky and pompous, nor have I “Over-Marmaduked” my remaining brain cells. I just believe that, all talk and effort by everyone aside, safety ultimately is something that must be taken seriously and practiced by everyone of you who ever get on a horse. Not only are you responsible for your own physical and mental health, but you are responsible for the welfare of your horse. In my mind, no one is exempt from this. I don’t care how many medals you’ve won or horses you’ve ridden – in the words of a pony club father many years ago, “Use your head for something besides a landing place.”