Accidents in equestrian sport of Eventing have caught my attention in the past month. Most notably, last week-end at the Rolex Kentucky Three Day Event, Olympic hopeful Laine Ashker and her horse Frodo Baggins took a terrible fall. The horse died and Laine is still in critical condition in ICU.
Earlier in April, veteran equestrian Darren Chiacchia, a bronze medalist at the Athens Summer Olympics, fell during the Red Hills Horse Trials. It prompted an article you can read on-line in the New York Times called “Equestrians’ Deaths Spread Unease in Sport” (4/09/08). They reported that 12 riders have died in the past year and a half on cross country eventing courses. There was no mention of how many horses have died, but from what I can tell, the numbers are growing.
Following the trends of the horse racing industry, Eventing has become a high profile, big money sport. After five British riders died in 1999, frangible pins that release the fence rail when a horse hits it were designed in hopes that it would reduce the dangers. The rails cost $70 per fence and only 4% of the British courses use them. Even fewer courses in the United States have this feature, despite the enormous amount of money in prizes and sponsorship of these events. There’s a debate raging over whether the courses, many of them designed by Capt. Mark Phillips, have become too challenging as the riders push their horses to greater speeds. Others argue that there are too many inexperienced riders attempting to compete beyond their level of skill. The recent accidents happened at the upper levels of competition.
I read the entry that Laine Ashker wrote about her horse in the profiles section of the Rolex Event website this morning. Frodo Baggins was the black thoroughbred who was the main Dark Rider’s horse in the movie “The Lord of the Rings”. He had never done eventing before she bought her dream horse five years ago. Laine is only 24 years old, and clearly loved her horse and had enormous ambition to become a member of the U.S. Olympic Team.
So, as I mucked out my barn this morning, I asked myself what was the message in all this? There will always be young, talented determined people who push and push the boundaries to achieve their dreams. There will be horses who are generous, big hearted and athletic enough to carry them. The responsibility for their safety and well-being is clearly in the hands of superstars like Captain Mark Phillips and George Morris. Once again, if anyone stops to consider the horse first, these kinds of accidents could be prevented. Let’s hope that this will finally be the wake-up call that puts safety ahead of money and winning the competitions.
You can read about how Laine is doing at her competition journal blog. Her mother, Valerie, is posting continuously from the hospital. If you go to the website of the Rolex Event, you can read Laine’s own description of her horse and training. At this time, Laine doesn't know that Frodo is dead, as she struggles for her own life. It makes this tragedy become really up-close and personal. It stirred my anger enough to write to Kevin Baumgardner, president of the United States Eventing Association. You can contact him by e-mailing: firstname.lastname@example.org. More info is available at useventing.com/blog/ There is also an article with comments from David O'Connor at the Lexington Herald-Leader's website.
We must be advocates for the horses in this world. Our voices will be heard. Our horses know when we speak out to make a difference. If we don’t, who will?