This weekend there was a rotational fall at Jersey Fresh on the CCI3* course and 33 year old Philippa Humphreys died. She experienced at that level and she was riding an experienced horse. Inexplicably, her horse caught a hoof on the table and flipped. Philippa leaves behind a husband and a baby. It shouldn’t have happened.
Sadly, this is not the first fatality this year from a rotational fall. On March 5th, 17-year old Olivia Inglis was killed by a rotational fall in Australia. Her horse, Coriolanus, an 11-year-old Thoroughbred gelding, was euthanized when it was discovered he had fractured his neck.
After Olivia’s death the global equestrian community rallied behind Olivia’s memory, using the #rideforolivia hashtag to share images in her honor. The outpouring of support was amazing . . . the sadness was palpable and all too real. We all know young women (and men) competing. We know how much riders love their sport. And yet . . .
“The jump judge, who is very experienced, said the horse approached well — not going too fast or out of control — and that the rider was riding quite well,” Judy Fasher, Equestrian Australia Chair, told EN. “Unfortunately, the horse left a leg at the oxer, and unfortunately (the horse) fell on Olivia.”
On April 30, another young rider lost her life to a rotational fall. This time it was 19-year old Caitlyn Fischer, on CCI* course at the Sydney International Horse Trials. Another tragedy. Another young rider who was not riding above her level, not riding poorly, not unprepared.
This much heartbreak is too much for the equestrian community. No families should have to suffer the loss of a loved one because a sport that is already dangerous has, in many people’s opinions, become even more so because of the types of cross country questions asked of horses and riders today.
And this is only the tip of the iceberg.
So what’s gone so wrong with eventing?
For several years now, the top riders and course designers have been talking about making cross country safer — the use of frangible pins is a very positive step forward.
Yet at the same time, courses have changed and not always for the better. Gone are the long galloping courses of yesteryear. Today, the fences are technical, are often bunched closely together with long galloping stretches in between them. And not enough has been done to make fences safer to jump.
I read a very interesting article in Eventing Nation today, written by Lesley Stevenson, where she talks about some of the elements she sees as being potential contributors. These include:
- Fences with vertical profiles. Vertical fences are the most likely type of fence to cause a rotational fall, whereas fences with a ramping front (which is an older design for a cross country fence) are easier for the horse to “read” and are more forgiving if a horse makes a mistake.
- Course design. Skinny fences were introduced as a technical challenge with the thought that riders would more likely have a run out than a fall, but they have become ubiquitous on courses today, turning them into show jumping challenges. These technical questions require slower approaches, which then mean that horses must gallop all out to make the time (even Michael Jung had time penalties at Badminton). She also believes that the constant use of similar fences on a course is also a potential problem.
Asking those same questions over and over after the horse has passed the first test is punishing, and leads to mental fatigue in the horse, which of course means slower reflexes. One only needs to sit and watch one of these complexes late on the course, to see the glazed look many horses have in their eyes at that point. Courses should be designed with the “heart” of the horse in mind. This means that the courses should mentally build horses up, rather than tear them down. This is especially true at the middle levels of the sport, where the courses are supposed to be as much about “teaching” as they are about “testing.”
- The predominance of warmbloods (and warmblood crosses) in eventing. Since dressage performance has become such a critical element, there are fewer thoroughbreds in the sport — but warmbloods are more difficult to get fit enough to show the endurance necessary to safely complete today’s courses.
- Over competing. With the introduction of the short format, horses generally are competing more often than they did in the past, which may contribute to a mental fatigue.
The video below shows a rotational fall where both the rider and the horse walked away without injury, but it gives a clear depiction of what one looks like.
I think that, on balance, at the lower levels, eventing is still pretty safe. The fences are small enough and the speed required to complete the course within the allotted time is manageable. But I no longer want to see the big events in real time. And although I’ve always wanted to go to Rolex, my desire is waning. It’s turning into a sport where I’d rather wait and make sure that everyone got back to the barn safely and watch their rounds on instant replay.
And if I had a child who wanted to event? I’d think very hard about letting them compete beyond training level.
What do you think about the future of eventing?