On the Rail: David O’Connor on the Latest on Eventing Safety

December 26, 2008 -- "The culture of the eventing world is starting to change," says USEF president and former Olympic gold medalist David O'Connor.

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December 26, 2008 — There can’t be any doubt that safety was eventing’s hot-button topic of 2008.

David O

It started with Darren Chiacchia’s near-fatal cross-country fall at Red Hills in March, followed the next month by the death of two horses at Rolex Kentucky. The attendant publicity heightened anxiety–as well as awareness–about the dangers of the sport.

The U.S. Equestrian Federation (USEF) responded with a two-day Safety Summit in June that enabled the eventing community to come together to discuss problems and solutions. The work has gone on from there and will continue in 2009, with USEF President David O’Connor, an Olympic eventing individual gold medalist, in the thick of efforts to make the discipline safer. Not only has he been a leader in that regard for the U.S., but he also heads the FEI (international equestrian federation) safety committee.

As this tumultuous year for the sport came to a close, David and I had a wide-ranging conversation about the changes in eventing that have been implemented or are on the horizon for the welfare of riders and their mounts. The hope is that these measures will help ensure the future of a pastime that had its roots in the cavalry exercise of quite another era.

Although even one fatality is too many, there have been less than a handful of human deaths in connection with eventing competitions worldwide during 2008 compared with 16 over an 18-month period in 2006 and 2007. Though it would be great if the number could be zero, there isn’t a way to prevent every accident. As David often says, you can’t make eventing safer than life itself–but the process of trying to improve safety must be ongoing.

“There’s never going to be one solution,” David told me, commenting that instead, leaders of the sport are proceeding with “a cocktail of things, five or six different aspects of the issue, which will make the little changes that make a bigger difference.”

A great deal of effort goes into ways of preventing horse falls, which do more damage than simple rider falls.

“We can’t eliminate all horse falls,” he commented, noting that while “you only have a 2 percent chance of getting hurt if you fall off, if your horse has a fall, there’s an 18 percent chance of getting hurt; if it’s a rotational fall, you have a 27 percent chance of getting hurt.”

In a rotational fall, the horse hits a solid fence with its front legs or chest, causing it to somersault over the obstacle. If the rider isn’t thrown clear before his mount hits the ground, the horse can land on the eventer, causing serious injury or death.

Rider falls are less likely to cause serious injury than horse falls in eventing. This rider was not hurt. | ? 2007 by Nancy Jaffer

An emergency rule passed earlier this year calls for elimination after a rider fall, where previously a competitor could remount and continue after one tumble.

Such measures are part of the larger picture as “the culture of the eventing world is starting to change.”

Much is embodied in David’s use of that phrase. An emphasis on rider responsibility, as well as a greater precautionary role for officials, tougher qualifications to move up, guidelines for course designers and a whole different philosophy of the game, all play major roles in the way the sport is being approached.

People are “realizing, especially here in the U.S., that it’s not an experience-based sport anymore, in that you’re not going to come from a racing or fox hunting background,” David said.

While that was the foundation on which some of the top riders of yesteryear built their success, the never-ending swath of suburbanization means, “most people don’t have those opportunities,” he observed. “So what’s needed is more education to replace the experience you’d get from other sports.”

A key factor in that equation is instructor certification. It incorporates the wisdom of the last three or four decades about the priorities of cross-country riding–involving direction, speed, rhythm and balance–while updating them to include techniques for dealing with the proliferation of such innovations as narrow panels and corners. Certification not only instructs trainers in the philosophy of cross-country riding, but also gives them a chance to practice their teaching skills.

“Other countries have mandatory federal licenses (for trainers), and I believe it’s going to end up being a license here in the U.S.,” said David, contending America will be ahead of the curve in that regard because of this program. He can also see the possibility that riders might need to be licensed for 4-star competition, even though that’s not on the horizon immediately.

Another aspect of being an educated rider is knowing when to quit. The cavalry tradition, which carried over to the civilian sport for many years, was to go on and take the next hill, never stopping until you staggered across the finish line–or died trying. For instance: Maj. Gen. Jack Burton, a much-respected figure in eventing, suffered a concussion in a cross-country fall at the 1956 Olympics, but did not go off the field on a stretcher. In the spirit of the times, he got back on his horse so he could complete the segment. Jack ended the afternoon in the hospital, but that was just an accepted hazard of the way things were done in those days.

That doesn’t work anymore. Rider responsibility also means coming to an understanding that discretion is the better part of valor.

“If you or your horse are not having a great day, it’s okay to walk away and try again another day, after you go back and fix the things you’re struggling with,” said David.

“Realistically, that’s a much more healthy culture for the welfare of the horses.” It is a different approach than the way he was taught, but as he declared, “We’re in a different world today. At the end of my career, if I was having a bad day, I’d turn around and walk home. At that point, I was almost criticized for it. Now, we’re encouraging it.”

For those who won’t or can’t make a decision to pull up, the fallback is a larger team of officials on the cross-country course. They can pick qualified people to help them report dangerous riding and stop riders in connection with the ground jury.

That’s happening more than it used to, according to David, but it’s not an infallible system, of course.

I asked David if it could have prevented what happened at Rolex Kentucky, and he didn’t think so. One fatal horse fall was at the fifth fence, and the other was at the 10th fence.

“It’s hard to make a decision in the first 20 percent of course,” he maintained, though I know there are those who feel differently.

What should help nip problems in the bud is a watch list of competitors who have been seen riding dangerously. It will go into effect in 2009, enabling officials to keep a closer eye on riders who may be courting danger and should be stopped before they really get into trouble.

In that regard, an upgrade of qualifications for the 2009 season means riders won’t be able to move through the ranks faster than they should.

“The game’s changed a lot,” said David. “Our qualifications were always tougher than the FEI’s. You had to do four preliminaries to go to a 1-star, but in all of those, you could have one stop, so you could have someone go through the whole circuit without ever jumping a clear round.

“Now, three out of those four need to be clear rounds. It’s a big change that has the possibility of slowing down some people who are not able to answer the questions. It is going to make them go home and work on that.”

Course design is another area where changes and improvements can make a difference on the safety front. Deformable (crushable) fences offer major improvements, but there are other things to consider in this area.

“While the game was changing course,” said David, “designers were putting maximum efforts on minimum distances. There’s a huge difference in the intensity level of running 40 efforts over 9 minutes as opposed to 11 minutes.”

For international courses, there are now new guidelines calling for one fence every 110 meters for horse trials. That’s an average over the whole course, so distances can be approximate, rather than pinpoint- exact.

“Everybody feels that is the right level of intensity for a horse trials course,” said David, adding that for a CCI, it’s one fence every 135 or 145 meters.

“That gives horses a lot of time to relax and gallop, instead of feeling like they’re in a speed class,” he said. “It’s a change of philosophy from trying to do maximum efforts on minimum distances, which is why horses were getting so tired.”

While these criteria are guidelines rather than a rule, David noted, “We only have 27 course designers in this country, so we’re not talking about a huge number of people who have to be influenced.”

I wondered with all the changes whether eventing will be able to maintain its integrity and identity, rather than becoming a watered-down version of the sport.

David believes it can both survive and thrive.

“We still have a system where the best riders can hone their skills to get to the Olympic games and at the novice and training levels, people have the opportunity for a lot of fun and to learn more skills,” he replied.

While some see a big divide between the goals of the upper and lower ends of the discipline, David doesn’t.

“I’ve always been a believer in one sport. I don’t believe that upper levels are driving the process, or that the upper- level process is being held back by the novice level. We’re all fans of the sport and devote our lives to it. While I don’t believe that the gulf is there, I do believe the very highest level has gotten way more specific, so the technique of the person who wants to ride at the Olympic Games…(has) to become much more educated.”

There are those who lament the dominance of the short format that eliminated roads and tracks and steeplechase, but not all of those who complain are putting their entry fees where their mouths are and supporting the handful of 1-star competitions held coast to coast that are run in the full format.

David thinks that format offers a base of fitness for developing horses, which “gives them a tremendous boost as they move up. It’s also a very educational thing for a lot of riders to go through,” he said.

However, a 1-star with which he is associated in Virginia, one of two in that state, is struggling for entries. Those events in Virginia used to draw 80-90 people, he said; now there are 30.

“In the U.S., people maintain, ‘We need to go back to the old days,’ but they’re not supporting that by going to this event. You can’t have it both ways,” he commented.

Mary King and Call Again Cavalier at the Olympics, four months before he tragically broke a leg at Express Eventing. | ? 2008 by Nancy Jaffer

The eventing year ended on a sad note with the disturbing presentation of the highly touted “Express Eventing” competition in Wales. Many horses ran into trouble on the arena “cross-country” course, and Mary King’s Olympic Mount, Call Again Cavalier, broke a leg and had to be put down. There were questions about both the footing and the format. In retrospect, it’s hard to understand why no one could see the problems looming, but perhaps the rich prize money put blinders on those who otherwise would have known better.

My guess is that as open land becomes more and more scarce, cross-country-style competitions in a confined area will become more and more common.

I asked David whether he thought national federations need to step in and regulate arena events in the future.

Express Eventing was not the norm for such competitions, he pointed out; it was far more demanding, and he certainly doesn’t condone it. Usually, however, David said, “They’re like entertainment events, showcases for the sport. They’re more jumper-oriented; it’s just that some of the fences look different (like cross-country obstacles.)

David, who is also a course designer, has done some indoor events and thinks there’s room for them in the eventing universe, as long as they’re not too difficult.

“You have to be careful with the size and complexity of the fences involved; it’s not an avenue to improve cross-country riding.”

While he notes, “We’ve never had close to an issue with any of the ones we’ve done, it’s not a big enough thing for national governing bodies to get involved with.” But, he added, “if people abuse it, there’s no question we will have to come in and do rules for common sense.”

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