Course construction work for the Badminton Horse Trials in England is underway. Here you see "frangible pins" or quick-release bolts, being used during fence construction. Badminton will be held the first weekend in May.
There is nothing like an article in the New York Times to get the whole world talking. And that is exactly what happened yesterday, April 9th, when the Times published an article detailing the high fatality rate in the past year among upper level event riders.
The article was #1 on the newspaper's web site for stories that had been emailed that day.
Twelve riders have died while competing at events around the world. Three weeks ago, former Olympic rider Darren Chiacchia was severely injured in what is called a "rotational fall" (horse somersault) at the Red Hills Horse Trials in Florida.
Injuries and fatalities at horse trials and three-day events are bad news no matter when they occur, but adverse publicity about the sport is exactly what the eventing world does not want to hear when it is only two weeks to the premier US international event, the Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event, an FEI four-star competition at the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington, KY.
Reaction to the Times article has been swift and damage control may be working within 24 hours of the publication. Quoted in the Lexington Herald-Leader, Rolex organizer Jane Atkinson defended her event's safety record and pointed out that her event, unlike Red Hills, uses a high percentage of frangible pins, or "quick release" fasteners on the otherwise-solid obstacles on the cross-country course.
At ten events in Great Britain this year, a portable sensor-equipped ascending spread obstable (somewhat similar to the Badminton obstacle shown in the photo) with built-in high-speed video will be in use to gauge impact. One of the questions in eventing is the different between vertical impact against a solid fence compared to horizontal impact. Apparently high-speed horizontal impact is linked to rotational falls. The British fence project is called "Competitive Measure".
The Times article also took a shot at criticizing US coach Captain Mark Phillips of Great Britain as a course designer, since some fatalities and Chiacchia's injury took place on Phillips-designed courses. Surely a response from Captain Phillips will be forthcoming.
Chat rooms and forums and blogs across the web are dissecting the Times article, as we all have been forwarded a link to it by people outside the horse world who are curious about the high risks outlined.
It's interesting to note that the New York Times limited its coverage to rider fatalities and never mentioned the high wastage of horses in eventing. The sport should be thankful for that. As a journalist, I have seen countless examples of stories that created a stir because of a human fatality, while a lesser story that details the death of an animal can create a tempest. The recent attack by pit bulls on some miniature horses in Lubbock, Texas is a good example.
The discussion immediately becomes more emotional, but without including the deaths of the horses, it lacks the full dimension of the tragedy. There is a much wider scope to this story.
Eventing is a changing sport and it's impossible to say what effect the shortening of the advanced levels has had. There's no way to predict what comes next, but a slide show of gruesome grisly cross-country "wrecks" on the New York Times web site is not the best publicity a sport could have, especially in an Olympic year. Eventing can't change itself overnight.
Please read the New York Times article, and if you snoop around a bit, you will probably find some letters to the editor or reader responses lighting up their web site as horse people and the public respond.
Here's one from show hunter rider Bonnie Erbe on the US News and World Report. Bonnie is also a commentator on NPR and for the Scripps Howard News Service.
Link to New York Times article.
Link to Rolex (Kentucky) Three-Day Event article.
Link to US Eventing Association web site.
Link to FEI 2008 Report on Safety in Eventing.