As the eventing season draws to a close, it’s time for some reflection on the season of my favourite sport. As usual, there have been highs – the continuing emergence of Jock Paget’s talent, for example – and lows. Equestrian sport – and I’m including racing here, although it’s governed separately – can get a very bad press (see also: criticism of Zara Phillips riding and competing whilst pregnant). Two incidents in the UK this summer received a lot of media attention (the news reaching me in the US thanks mainly to Twitter): in July, British rider Laura Collett spent time in a medically-induced coma having sustained an injury whilst competing – she has fortunately since recovered. Sadly, New Zealand rider Tom Gadsby was less fortunate – he died during competition in August. Both riders were victims of “rotational” falls, where the horse somersaults accidentally.
I’ve followed eventing in particular for most of my life, and like many people before me I am completely captivated by it. I especially enjoy reading about the changes in the sport, what inspired my own heroes to begin their journey and participate in what can look like madness. Some of the differences are so blatant that they can be obvious even to the uninitiated: back in the 1970s when Zara’s own parents – Princess Anne and Captain Mark Phillips – were competitors themselves, the entire sport looked and felt very different. The changes have come about for a variety of reasons – money, the media and the International Olympic Committee being just a few – but the primary one is safety.
There was a particularly dark period for safety in eventing: in the summer of 1999, it felt like barely a weekend could go by without the sport hitting the headlines for all of the wrong reasons. Unsurprisingly to those who know anything about the sport, the cross country courses were proving to be the problem. It took several years for solutions to be developed, but various key changes were made: the cross country phase was dramatically shortened – due to the theory that horses were tiring, which was causing mistakes and accidents; “frangible pins” were developed – fences which collapse under a certain amount of force, not in the same style as show jumps, but when a hard enough impact occurs; body protectors became compulsory, as well as eventing being the first sport to demand that not only should a rider wear a helmet, but that it must be strapped on – safety equipment development continues, with the latest big leap taking place in 2010 when air jackets emerged. Events are also arguably much quicker to cancel due to inclement weather conditions now – many riders will withdraw from events if they deem it unsafe, the common line being that there is so much competition these days that there will always be another event, they can try again another day rather than take unnecessary risks.
Some of these changes remain unpopular: some riders argue that the long format of cross country is a purer form of the sport, that now it is less of an ultimate test. Some observers also believe that the longer format allowed the horses opportunity to settle and become better prepared for the jumping phase of the cross country. My belief is that this opinion will eventually fade – there will come a time when no professional rider will have ridden these phases, and the current format will be seen as nothing but the norm.
Something which will never change is that this sport is dangerous, and people will sustain serious and fatal injuries. These injuries are possible at all levels – go to any riding establishment and it is likely you will see a sign which states that riding is a risk sport, and anyone who enters into it does so understanding these risks. For horses are sentient beings. We can ask them to do our bidding, they do not have to comply. They get scared. They get sick. They have bad days. Any of these things can cause them to make a misstep, just as an error in judgement by the rider can.
Injuries can happen to any rider at any time – these kinds of incidents are not limited to professionals, experienced riders versus inexperienced, young versus older or purely within competitive environments. Does that mean the sport should be banned? No. Should the sport continue to develop in a positive way? Yes. Will I still be watching? Absolutely.