Friday, May 2, 2008

Too Much, Too Fast, Too Hard

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: More info is available at 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?


Grey Horse Matters said...

I'm glad to see someone addressing this issue. I believe that the courses are too challenging for some of these riders. There is a tendency to move up the ladder too fast without the experience needed to compete at this level. All for the lure of the almighty dollar and prestige that come along with winning. Something drastic needs to be done with this sport to make it safer for horse and rider. It is hard to believe that the safety pins are not mandatory in all competitions, with all the money they take in they could certainly afford pins, but then I guess it wouldn't be traditional right? Tradition be damned we are talking about lives here,human and equine. I realize that accidents happen it is a part of the sport of riding, but I also feel quite a few of these accidents could be avoided with the proper training, safer courses and the experience needed to compete at the upper levels. While I don't want to see anyone hurt,maimed or killed in competition, the riders are there of their own free will and know the chances they are taking, on the other hand the horses have no choice and are put through their paces whether they want to be competing or not, so yes, someone needs to be an advocate for the horses.They are dying needlessly for the glory of their human counterparts and the shame of it is nobody asked them if they were willing to die just to jump a fence. Wonder what their answer would be?

Victoria Cummings said...

Thanks, Arlene - and amen!

Callie said...

This is just terrible. I think some of the jumps are ridiculous. What is the point if horses and people are getting injured and killed! Nice comment to Arlene!

Rising Rainbow said...

The bad thing about big money getting into anything is with it comes corruption and what's good for the horse is the last thing corrupt people care about. Hopefully the public outcry that is growing will bring enough pressure to bare to turn this around. I certainly hope so.

Janet Roper said...

Ditto to everything that's been said - both in the post and in the comments.

Victoria, thank you for articulating so eloquently the necessity of speaking for the horses, and by extension, all animals. The animals can and do speak for themselves, but the majority of the people aren't ready for that. Hopefully, the people who won't listen to the animals will listen to the people who speak for them.

Just out of curiosity, how much has Silk played in helping you find your advocate's voice?

Harmony to all, especially to those who aren't heard.

Janet Roper

billie said...

Victoria, this is so timely for us. About 6 weeks ago, my 11-year old daughter came to me and said that she had decided to give up eventing, which is a big deal, b/c while she is not competing in the higher levels yet, her participation in Pony Club requires that she do a cross-country component through the C-level.

I was surprised to hear her say this - her favorite thing is cross-country. But she said she had been doing research about eventing as a horse sport and discovered that it has the highest percentage of equine deaths right now. She is unwilling to participate in a sport that risks the life of her mount.

There's a debate going on locally at the moment about eventing, and a number of eventing proponents are arguing that the horses competing in Rolex "obviously love their jobs" - I have to wonder if any of the horses who competed this year would take those jumps if not asked to do so by their riders.

Those rotational falls that are so devastating are not worth the win, imo. Not even worth the attempt. If jumps were safer, it would be different.

Pony Girl said...

That made me sad, reading about Laine and Frodo. So young, and so sad, and at the price of her horse's life, and perhaps her own. Like Arlene said, the riders are there by choice, they know the risk. And they will always push the boundaries. So it is up to the officials to provide the safest possible course and environment for the horse to do it's job in, so that it may get it's rider and it's self safely through the course, finish line, or whatever it may be.

Victoria Cummings said...

Billie - It's very gratifying to know that your daughter has made this decision and for the right reason. I'm sure it's not an easy one for her, with pressure from her friends and adult instructors - and as you said, it's fun to ride and jump across country. I think it's really important for concern about this problem to spread across all levels of ability - People and horses who are hurt at the beginner levels don't make news in the NY Times, but they're just as important.

barrelzzz said...

I agree. All of these comments are great! Why do something that could hurt you ar the horse? I am a western rider myself. Although I have nothing against the english riding, some of their events are very hard on the poor horses. I also do not agree with bucking broncs. Any events that hurts the horse or rider is not something I would ever take part in. I realize most of these events cannot be stopped. Like racing horses, that is a very high paid entertainment. Cross country is also very dangerous. The courses are very rough. I must admitt that do enjoy watching these events. If a horse is trained properly and is proven to be a champion, I do think that it is not bad if they compete. But, if a horse is suffering, and not willing cooperate with its rider during such events it should not be pushed to compete. I love barrel racing even though the horse and rider can be harmed if worst comes to worst. If someone enjoys sporting, and competeing in these events let it be. It is their choice to make. I also think that some events look worse that they are. Not all are crazy events. Some are fun, and challenging at the same time. When an owner becomes obsessed with the money and fame of winning, they often forget about the well being of their horse. I hope things improve!