Time to Start Asking the Tough Questions

Ben Winter and Ispo. Photo by Jenni Autry. Ben Winter and Ispo. Photo by Jenni Autry.

It’s been a grisly five months for eventing, starting with an unprecedented Badminton and culminating with Blenheim last month, which resulted in three more gruesome horse falls and numerous calls much too close for comfort.

Andreas Dibowski, named a reserve rider on Germany’s World Equestrian Games squad, planned to contest Burghley with FRH Butts Avedon when the horse was not needed on his country’s team in Normandy. But he ultimately withdrew, posting an update on his website explaining why.

The video of the Burghley cross-country walk left a more than stale taste in my mouth in terms of reasonableness for the horses,” he wrote, saying that in addition, “the images from WEG in France simply left me shocked. I did not want to expose my horse to a similar strain and burden.

“I was thrilled about the accomplishments of the German team. However, I am just as sure that our sport has reached a point (yet again), at which we need to start thinking about the whole purpose of it in terms of animal welfare, performance limit and reasonableness. In fact, as the currently strongest nation in this sport, we have the responsibility to do so.”

Where do we go from here? The question hung in the air after Ben Winter’s death at Luhmühlen, and after subsequent heavy tolls on cross-country days at WEG, Burghley and Blenheim, we’re still left searching for an answer.

Consider the number of horse falls and horse fatalities — and tragically, a rider fatality — from some of this year’s major events:

Badminton: 7 horse falls
Luhmühlen: 2 horse falls, 1 rider fatality, 1 horse fatality (Liberal, presumed aortic rupture)
World Equestrian Games: 3 horse falls, 1 horse fatality (Wild Lone, cause of death not yet released)
Burghley: 5 horse falls, 1 horse fatality (Orto, euthanized due to injuries sustained on course)
Blenheim: 3 horse falls

It’s quite frankly a miracle that Badminton scraped by with no horse or rider fatalities. Here’s a look at how frangible pins prevented more than a few bad crashes. And while we should all be thanking our lucky stars every day for frangible pins, it’s clear they alone can’t prevent deaths.

And let’s not forget the fatalities that hit close to home at other events this year. The Canadian eventing family continues to mourn the death of Jordan McDonald, killed at Nunney Horse Trials on the same dark day as Ben Winter. And Will Coleman’s haunting tribute to Conair will stay with us for a long time.

It’s important to make the distinction that not all horse fatalities are created equal. Some occur due to injuries sustained in crashes, while others happen due to cardiac episodes. We applaud the USEA for pioneering the Equine Cardiovascular and Pulmonary Research Study and hope those findings will one day help prevent deaths due to cardiac episodes on course.

When we publish videos and photos of horse falls on Eventing Nation, readers leave comments saying they wish we would post a warning so they could know to look away or skip over that post. And while we respect that, the rest of the world isn’t looking away.

PETA certainly isn’t looking away. It’s been more than a year since the animal rights activists publicly called for an end to eventing following the deaths of King Artus at Wiesbaden and Cavalor Telstar at Houghton Hall last spring. How many times can we weather such public animosity and come out on the other side unscathed?

And we’d be naive to think the International Olympic Committee is looking away. With FRH Princess Haya’s tenure as FEI president coming to an end and a new leader preparing to step into the role, it’s an uncertain time for a sport that is struggling to paint a picture of preserving horse and human welfare.

A certain amount of risk will always exist in eventing. There are always going to be falls; it’s something you accept every time you leave the start box. But we’re still left wondering: How many horse falls are too many? How many horse and human deaths are too many? Is this just the grim nature of the game, or is it time to start asking the tough questions?

We’ll get the ball rolling: Should further safety measures like collapsible tables be used on course? Should there be stricter qualifications to compete at the upper levels? Should course design be overhauled to make it more “reasonable,” as Andreas put it? Is it possible to make an inherently dangerous sport safe for both humans and horses alike? Weigh in with your thoughts in the comments below.

The USEA formed a Cross Country Safety Task Force following Ben and Jordan’s deaths, with a goal of “preventing complacency within the sport when looking at the changes made in recent years.” The task force is looking for feedback as the members explore potential safety options. We’ll compile the ideas you leave in the comments and submit them to the USEA.

Go Eventing.

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