Sunday, June 15, 2008

Eventing Turmoil

Responding to popular demand, we have decided to post all four of our Summer issue eventing safety articles on the blog to give them a wider audience. Let us know what you think!

Dangerous Sports

Eventing’s Uncomfortable Moment in the Spotlight

By Pam Gleason

On June 7 and 8, members of the eventing community gathered at the Hyatt Hotel in Lexington, Kentucky for the 2008 Eventing Safety Summit. Over 250 people came to the meeting, including competitors from all levels, trainers, veterinarians, course designers, parents of eventers and other interested members of the equestrian public. Reflecting the increased national interest in the sport, HBO sent a reporter, as did ESPN. The meeting was called by David O’Connor, United States Equestrian Federation (USEF) President and Kevin Baumgardner, United States Eventing Association (USEA) President. The goal was to address ways to avert serious eventing accidents.

With the televised breakdown of Kentucky Derby runner-up Eight Belles and the failure of Big Brown to win the Triple Crown, it has been a difficult spring for the image of horse sports. Eventing has also received its share of negative publicity. A string of accidents, including both horse and rider deaths, has brought the sport into the uncomfortable glare of the national spotlight. These fatal accidents have involved riders of all levels, from Novice to Advanced, and ages ranging from 17 up to 51. Numerous horses have also died in competition, some as the result of terrible falls, some from pulmonary hemorrhages, and some from broken bones or other types of skeletal failure. Worldwide, 15 people have died while participating in the sport over the last two years, three of them in the United States, with the plurality of the deaths occurring in England. Statistics on horse fatalities are not readily available.

Although the run of bad accidents has been going on for some time, the world at large began to take note of the trend after the Red Hills event in Tallahassee this March. There, Olympic bronze medalist Darren Chiacchia’s mount, Baron Verdi, flipped over a Preliminary fence on the cross-country course, landing on the rider and sending him into a coma. Darren later recovered, and even attended the June safety summit, but the accident was bad enough that for a time there was some question about his survival. At that same event, two horses died from pulmonary hemorrhages in what were termed freak accidents on the course. After Red Hills, the New York Times, not usually a publication attuned to equestrian news, ran a front page story entitled “Equestrians’ Deaths Spread Unease in Sport,” which instantly became one of the paper’s “most e-mailed” stories. This was followed by a story in U.S. News & World Report in which the author, a hunter rider, called for cross-country courses to be made safer for horses.

Ironically, improving the safety of events has been one of the hottest topics in the sport for the last few years. When NBC aired an hour of footage from the Rolex Kentucky CCI**** this spring, the commentary started with a long discussion about safety improvements on the course, including the recent installation of frangible pins on many obstacles. Frangible pins, installed on the top rails of fences, allow those rails to drop if a horse hits them, They are intended to prevent so-called rotational falls, which are falls in which the horse somersaults over the jump, often landing on his rider.

Despite this concern about safety, two horses, among them Aiken-based The Quiet Man, ridden by Sarah Hansel, had rotational falls on the course and were later euthanized. One rider, Olympic hopeful Laine Ashker, was severely injured, when her horse, Frodo Baggins (the other horse that died), fell on her. Although these accidents were uppermost in the minds of most people who know the sport, NBC coverage made no mention of them.

The Rolex tragedies prompted officials to call the safety summit. The USEA and USEF also asked members of the eventing community to provide their input on safety issues, and they were inundated with over 1,000 letters and e-mail messages. In May, the USEF executive committee passed a new rule mandating that riders be eliminated after one fall on the cross-country course. (The old rule allowed them to remount and continue, but assessed them 65 penalty points. A second fall meant elimination.) The FEI recently adopted the same rule. Another rule called for the use of frangible technology on obstacles constructed after December 1, 2008 and the retrofitting of older fences by December 1, 2009. A number of other rules are being considered, including rules that would suspend horses and riders that fall on the course and rules that would make it harder for horses and riders to move up a level.

Not surprisingly, horse publications and online forums immediately blossomed with opinions about what has caused the rise in accidents. Some people blame the format of eventing, claiming that abolishing the long format, which included a tougher endurance phase, means that people have stopped conditioning their horses properly. Some blame the breeds of horses now used in eventing, saying that today’s warmblood types are no match for the thoroughbreds of yesteryear. U.S. Olympian Jimmy Wofford picked up on an intriguing suggestion first put forth publicly by Great Britain’s Lucinda Green nine years ago, that horses are falling on the cross-country course because overtraining them in dressage causes them to lose their initiative and self-sufficiency. Many people blame riders for competing above their competence level and riding recklessly. An almost equal number blame course designers (especially U.S. chef d’√©quipe Captain Mark Phillips) for making the courses too technical and demanding.

Although what has caused the serious accident trend is likely to be multi-factorial, the statistics do not look good. At the safety summit, David O’Connor pointed out that riders who simply fall off their horses have about a 2 percent chance of getting injured. Riders whose horses fall have a 50 percent chance, while riders whose horses suffer rotational falls have an 85 percent chance of injury.

“We can improve safety by reducing one thing: horse falls,” said O’Connor, who also presented some alarming statistics on cross-country falls. At the Preliminary level, there was one fall for every 431 starts in 2003. In 2007, there was one fall for every 264 starts, an increase of over 60 percent. At the Intermediate level, there was one fall for every 234 starts in 2003, but one fall for every 156 starts in 2007, an increase of over 50 percent. At the Advanced level, however, the percentage of falls has gone down in the last four years.

Why are so many horses falling? It is possible, of course, that the current spate of injuries and deaths is just a fluke, a series of bad luck occurrences that are simply a part of what is acknowledged to be a high risk sport. This is not the first time that eventing has experienced such a terrible string of tragedies. Back in 1999 and 2000, there were so many fatal accidents in Great Britain that the newspapers The Express ran a headline reading “How Many Will Die This Year?” (May 5, 2000) while in Australia, articles bore such titles as “Blood Sport – Why This Olympic Event is Killing People.” (The Australian, September 12, 2000.)

The 2008 Safety Summit came up with some recommendations that will be acted upon in the months ahead, including changes in cross-country jump design, establishing a watch list of riders deemed to be riding dangerously, changing the speed requirements on courses, encouraging more education, promoting the Instructor’s Certification Program and establishing more detailed data collection on accidents when they do happen. Although no one believes that the safety summit will provide the solution to all of eventing’s problems, most people who attended came away feeling that the organizations are basically on the right track.

In the meantime, riders will continue eventing. The sport is still growing, especially in Aiken where we have so many courses and competitions, and, at least so far, no serious accidents. We asked three people involved to give us their thoughts on what has happened to eventing and what can be done to make it safer. Their responses are on the following pages.

Eventing Turmoil

By Denis Glaccum

At least two divergent dynamics have helped to create the current challenges we face in the sport of eventing. First, the need to be competitive internationally has resulted in changes in the design and requirements of American courses. The United States Eventing Association Course Advisor Program, led by Captain Mark Phillips since 1993, has been responsible for standardizing courses at the upper levels. This program has helped to educate American course designers and has been successful, as measured by the success of American teams in international competition.

A second dynamic has arisen from other USEA initiatives. By adding the Beginner Novice level to recognized events and requiring minimal qualification at the American Eventing Championship (AEC), the USEA has lowered the bar among our eventers. In an attempt to gain new members and to satisfy membership services, the USEA has failed to educate its membership adequately about the true merits of the sport. The sport is about riders developing relationships with their horses through the development of their horsemanship skills. Combined training skills involve the overall training and development of horse and rider in progressive basic horsemanship. In an eventing competition, this training is measured against a standard. You should not be competing against other riders, but against a standard.

As the USEA has attempted to attract new members, this message has been lost. The AEC, Area Championships and so many annual awards within levels have no real meaning. The emphasis appears to be on providing scaled down divisions for lower level riders who worry about where they placed, rather than about fostering a true understanding of the sport.

I have several suggestions that might help put the sport back on its path. The issue isn’t safety. The issue is horsemanship. Horsemanship is the understanding of specific skills, their application and their execution. True horsemanship produces many desirable traits, among them, good judgment.

It is not the mission of the USEA to teach horsemanship. However, it should be its mission to educate all its members about the skills that are required at each level in eventing. I urge the development of simple, one page guidelines for each level to help identify the skills riders should be able to demonstrate before competing at that specific level. In addition, events should be structured to encourage riders to develop certain skills that will further their horsemanship.

For instance, if understanding galloping pace is a skill, we should develop it and reward it. From Beginner Novice thru Preliminary level, competitors should not be allowed to wear watches. A scaled penalty system should be added to the rules that would reward those closest to the optimum time and penalize those going much faster. Almost anybody can read a large watch while galloping. Learning to feel the correct pace is a different thing entirely.

The professional fraternity of instructors and trainers should develop specific professional guidelines for clients and ensure that their students do not put themselves on courses where they don’t belong. Just because someone wants to compete at a particular level and is qualified according to the USEA rules does not make that person competent to do so. I frequently hear riders claim that they are Intermediate or Advanced riders because they have competed one horse at that level. Riding at a level doesn’t make you a rider at that level and the professionals need to address this.

Finally, new rules should not be passed under the politically correct guise of safety. Since Rolex, two rules have been passed that might actually make the sport less safe. How could the new rule eliminating a rider for one fall on the course increase safety problems? Consider this instance. We all have seen riders and horses with ditch and water phobias. At the Plantation April Horse Trials, a rider on my horse came down to the last Preliminary fence in front of a home crowd of parents, friends and a big cheering section. At age 15, she did what we all have done, which was to slightly chase to the jump whereby the horse added a stride, jumping her out of the tack. She remounted quickly and jumped the fence. Fast forward one month to the same rider coming down to the same jump and you know her attention was focused. She jumped into the water flawlessly and finished the course without penalties. With the new rule in place, what would that rider be thinking? “Oh I fell here last time and got eliminated?” Her focus would not be on riding well but on what might happen again. Why did they make the new rule? There has been no evidence presented that riders who have fallen and remounted have sustained additional injuries. Could they do so? Yes, of course!

After Rolex the USEA also passed a rule requiring the use of frangible pins on cross-country obstacles. In my opinion, the use of frangible pins on three-foot fences (such as those used in the lower levels) should be of concern and might make these jumps less safe. Novice and Training level horses sometimes refuse at the very last moment, thrusting their necks and shoulders downward on to a rail. If that rail is held up with a frangible pin, it could give way. Where will the horse go without that support? I think we could see more falls caused by frangible pins.

It is very sad to see animals lost in competition. Several horses have died as a result of pulmonary failures on course. Are there any better preventive measures available for horses, such as those we currently use in human medicine? What is typical in pulmonary failures in horses? Can they be predicted or prevented? There is one fact that I do know; if you have an upper level horse above a certain age and you keep competing him one of three things will happen. First, he might go around his course without trouble. Second, he could embarrass himself and his rider because of his diminished skills. Third, he might suffer a major injury and break down or drop dead. As hard and cruel as this may be, it is a fact that if you deal with horses in competitive stress, you must face these possibilities.

It is sad to see the current race to pass rules to make eventing safer when these rules have not been identified as fixes to any problems. It takes strong leadership and management to do nothing until cause and effect relationships can be established. As horseman we need to keep evaluating our relationships with our horses and clients. As an organizer of six horse trials a year where approximately 1,200 horses go through the start box, I am always aware of the potential safety challenges we face. We review our human and equine medical arrangements at each event. We try to troubleshoot each and every possible scenario. We identify, sometimes in the dressage phase, rider and horse combinations that are not going safely. The officials watch for any potentially unsafe situation and intervene when warranted. Riders will have falls and horses will be injured. At the end of the day, all we can do is to make sure that we have taken every possible precaution.

Rules are not a substitute for judgment. They cannot replace skills that have been honed through years of exposure to training animals that we love and want to protect. A horseman puts his horses first. A horse allows us to extend our capabilities. We go further, faster and with more enjoyment when we journey together. Alone we are only people.

Denis Glaccum, who rode in his first 3-phase competition in 1956, has been eventing for longer than any rider in the USA. A trainer of event and show horses for 40 years, he has been involved with every aspect of eventing. Owner, breeder, trainer and coach, he is a founder of Fair Hill Equestrian Events, Inc., Fair Hill International, and the American Horse Trials Foundation. His summer base is Unionville, PA, where he runs the Plantation Field Horse Trials; winters find him at his farm in Aiken. He is currently competing six horses on the circuit.

Bring Back the Long Format

By Lara Anderson

There are many good suggestions coming out of this spring’s eventing safety meetings, but I have not yet seen any discussions about the changes eventing has undergone since we abandoned the long format. I believe we need to take a hard look at what we have changed about our sport in the last few years. I know there are arguments on both sides, but there are key issues that cannot be ignored since the long format has been abolished at the top level.

First, what are the statistics of long format versus short format serious accidents and deaths to horses and riders? When we used the long format, I don’t remember there being so many tragic deaths in such a short time. Today, many riders seem to be going out and competing at upper levels when both they and their horses are unprepared. This would be unlikely to happen if the riders had to qualify at several long format events and if the marquee events (such as Rolex) were also long format events.

Many professionals admit that they like the short format because they can compete their horses more often and ride more horses at an event. This should not be the goal of our sport. I personally feel that horses are neither conditioned nor rested as well as they were when the long format was run. I believe that many of the competitors, especially at the higher levels, compete their horses entirely too often. The rigors of the long format would not allow them to do this.

The long format gave horses a proper warm-up and a fitness test before the cross-country started. Horses that were not fit enough were dismissed after Phases A-C (roads and tracks and steeplechase). With the short format, we do not have this option. Not only are the horses going out on the cross-country course without the thorough warm-up provided by the Phases A-C, we can no longer count on a veterinary inspection (which included an assessment of the horse’s heart rate and his temperature) to weed out those horses that might be headed for serious trouble. I think going back to the long format and restoring the vet check before the cross-country phase would eliminate many of the pulmonary issues we are currently seeing.

The short format has also opened the doors to horses that would never have made it as “upper level” horses in the long format. A horse that could make it through all the endurance phases of the long format was a true athlete. Now, bigger, heavier horses and horses that aren’t as well conditioned can perform at the top levels. We have to ask ourselves, is this what we really want? In some ways, we seem to be becoming a glorified show jumping sport with some galloping across the countryside.

I would propose that we take a long hard look at the differences in the formats and understand that the original way the sport was conceived probably makes a lot of sense. I would further propose going back to the long format for at least two years to measure the differences in serious accidents to horses and riders. Everyone who is qualified for the upper levels would have to qualify again in the long format, and there should be no exceptions.

We all understand that everyone desperately wanted to keep eventing as an Olympic sport, which is why the short format was born. I think we have to take a good look at the change we made and ask, was it in the best interest of the sport? If eventing is no longer included in the Olympics because of this, so be it. Many people believe that eventing will soon be eliminated from the Olympics anyway, no matter what format we run. I say we should go back to the classic format, which will take us back to the principles of all-around horsemanship upon which the sport of eventing was founded.

Lara Anderson and her husband Andy Pence have been running recognized horse trials at their Full Gallop Farm in Aiken for the last three years. They have an active training and event barn and sponsor several young riders, including Sarah Hansel. Lara herself has been involved with horses for over 35 years, with experience ranging from the race track to the hunter ring to Preliminary level eventing.

What Has Happened to Eventing?

By Katherine O. Rizzo

First of all, I must start with a short disclaimer. I have only been competing in the sport of eventing for the past nine years and am by no means an expert. I do have experience in several equestrian disciplines, and I coach riders at the lower levels of eventing, dressage, and hunt seat equitation. I have volunteered at and organized horse trials for several years, and recently completed the United States Eventing Association Instructor’s Certification Program and am certified as a Level I – Training instructor. Again, this does not make me an expert, but what I present is simply my view as a trainer, observer and competitor as to what I feel is happening to our sport.

The mainstream media is having a field day with the recent horse and rider tragedies that have plagued eventing. Writers would like the world to believe that event riders push their horses too far, that course designers ask impossible questions, and that horses are dying simply for our vanity. This of course is not true, but the deaths are a reality and need to be carefully and quickly addressed.

It saddens me to remember the horses that have died this year alone, but I would like to think that their deaths were not in vain and that a solution to eventing’s problems will present itself soon. Call me optimistic, maybe unrealistic, but I do believe eventing is safer than it was some 40 years ago. However, I also see several flaws in the thinking of many involved in the sport, which has led to accidents, and could possibly bring about the end of eventing as we know it.

Experts around the world are working together to find the reason why so many serious crashes have occurred, and more important, how to prevent future problems. Unfortunately, there is not one clear reason for these falls and there is no one obvious change that will make eventing safer.

Change in Format

Some top riders and trainers blame the elimination of the long, or “classic” format for eventing’s downward spiral. The short format was introduced at the 2004 Olympics. At the time, the push for the change was made mainly in the hope that the change would help keep eventing in the Olympics. Riders and trainers also felt that the change would be easier on the horses physically and allow the horses to have longer careers.

No one could predict that many of these horses would simply be competed more often and that some riders would no longer respect the demands of the upper levels. On more than once occasion I have overheard riders talking about doing their first one-star and commenting on how “it is just another horse trials.” And I’m sure that many have heard the comment “its just another three inches” when talking about moving up a level. This mentality has caused quite a few riders to move up too quickly and get hurt in the process.

But has the short format directly caused the recent accidents? No one can prove that is has or that it hasn’t.

What We Ask

Though the actual heights and speeds on cross-country courses have not changed in the last 85 years, the demands of the dressage and show jumping tests have. Dressage, even at the lower levels, now requires much more collection and it forces the rider to take more and more control over the horse. We are asking our horses to canter a 10-meter half circle and then counter canter at the Preliminary level. These are difficult movements, requiring the horse to be highly attentive to the rider.

In show jumping, competitors are being presented with more questions that demand extreme accuracy even at the lower levels. I remember one Training level event last year where I had to angle an oxer in order to get the best line to the next fence. That same course was used for Novice, and I was very surprised that the oxer wasn’t shifted to allow a more simple line for that level. Courses are also requiring riders to adjust their horses’ strides more often.

Yes, the cross-country courses of today are getting more technically complicated. It isn’t that the heights have changed, but the number of jumping efforts per meter has increased significantly. These often-tricky combinations force the rider to slow down considerably, achieving a “show jump” type canter to navigate the question. But since the overall speed of the course has remained the same, the riders must then gallop faster than the required speed elsewhere on the course to make up the time. Thus, riders are going faster than they should go to the single fences. Yes, horses can jump at speed; you need only watch a steeplechase race to see that it can be done. However, steeplechase horses are rarely asked to slow down and then accelerate multiple times while on course.

So how have these changes affected the horse and rider? And how are they related to an increase in falls?

The Horse and Rider

For the horse, these changes are simply more demanding. There is a reason why we don’t ask our event horses to ride a Grand Prix dressage test or jump a Grand Prix show jump course. Eventers are looking for the well-rounded horse, a horse that can use its flat work to improve its jump and is bold enough to run cross-country as well. But now the demands required by the dressage and show jumping phases have changed what is required of the horse.

When event riders go to buy a horse these days they are no longer seeking that “look of eagles” in their prospects. Now they are looking for a horse that excels in dressage and can also jump well, or a horse that is a super show jumper but might not be as brave cross-country. The bold, well-rounded athlete of old is being replaced by a horse that specializes in one phase and thus is compromised in another.

Some people believe that the increased technical demands of the sport have taken away our horses’ own will to event. We now micromanage every aspect of every ride so that our horses are not thinking for themselves anymore. I can personally attest that by trying to get my big, bold Thoroughbred to compress his huge stride in an effort to achieve that perfect collected canter we need for Preliminary dressage, I have taken away his will to jump forward. He now waits for me to say “go” and it has gotten us into enough trouble that I have had to drop him down two levels. Now, I’m back to jumping on a loose contact, asking him just to jump and not worry about the stride. Luckily, he’s smart and careful enough that the retraining is working.

What You Can Do

If you would like to help ensure eventing’s survival, there are several things you can do as a trainer, competitor, parent, friend or simply a horse enthusiast. Contact the USEA directly and find out how you can voice your opinions and ideas at various committee meetings. Also contact your USEA area representatives and find out what your local area is doing. Several local groups are banding together in fundraising efforts to help both with veterinary research and by donating money to injured riders.

As a competitor, it is your obligation to ride responsibly. You are the one out there on your own, not your coach, not your parents; its all you. Ride your horse thinking about his needs and not yours. Put your ambitions, no matter how great or small, aside for a moment and ask yourself, am I riding safely? Is my horse up to what I am asking him to do? Take the time to school balance, not collection, to encourage your horse to jump on his own, not because you made him do so.

As a trainer, teach responsibly. Your students look to you for guidance, so guide them! Be open and willing to listen to new ideas. Be willing to say, “I don’t know but I’ll find out,” and be willing to say “you’re not ready” even if it means losing a client.

Katherine Rizzo has been riding since she was a child. a In college, she was active in the Intercollegiate Horse Show Association and during graduate school, served as head coach of the University of Southern California at Santa Cruz intercollegiate dressage team. Currently, she coaches the varsity hunter team at Academy of the Holy Cross. A writer, editor and photographer, she is currently eventing at Training level.

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