Equestrian Eventing: The Olympics’ Most Dangerous Sport?

The slightest miscalculation in the cross country can cost medals, as well as possibly lives

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Markus Schreiber / AP

Karen O'Conner of the United States competes with her horse, Mr Medicott, in the equestrian eventing dressage competition during the equestrian eventing dressage competition at Greenwich Park at the 2012 Summer Olympics, on July 28, 2012, in London.

On the eve of the London Olympics’ equestrian contests, the wooden squirrels of Greenwich Park are standing at the ready. They’re perched around 4-foot chestnut logs — one of 39 obstacles that horses competing in eventing must negotiate, along with ersatz picnic baskets, figurines of the Wind in the Willow’s Ratty and Mole, and a giant polystyrene planet with rings made of steel. Competitors will finish the park’s 3.5-mile course by leaping through a giant horseshoe.

Welcome to eventing — the equine equivalent of the triathlon — which combines the disciplines of dressage, show jumping and cross country. It is also a sport enjoyed frequently by the wealthy and sometimes even by royalty. But for all its trappings of refinement, eventing is perhaps the most dangerous sport in the Summer Olympics—to both horse and rider. The slightest miscalculation in the cross country can cost them a medal, and possibly their lives.

The sport has claimed a spot in Olympic competition since 1912, yet its risks have been a point of ongoing controversy. Unusually deadly periods of rider deaths worldwide, including 12 in a year-and-a-half between 2007 and 2008, caused even those at the heart of the sport to voice ambivalence about its hazards. In 2008, the president of the International Equestrian Federation (FEI), Princess Haya Bint Al Hussein, warned that equestrian sports might not make it into the London 2012 Games. The International Olympic Committee “has very reasonable and legitimate concerns about eventing safety,” she told Britain’s Horse and Hound magazine. “Walking away and saying ‘Thank God nobody died,’ isn’t good enough.”

(MORE: Q&A: Olympic Equestrian Mary King)

In response to the fatalities — and the negative publicity they attracted — eventing’s governing bodies have focused on reducing the sport’s risk for riders: the FEI now collects data on falls and rider injuries, and encourages rider responsibility and protective equipment like inflatable vests. British Eventing (BE), which oversees the sport in the U.K., has pioneered research into frangible pins, which are designed to prevent ‘rotational’ falls — where a horse somersaults over a jump and crashes onto its back — which permanently disable riders 25% of the time. Since 2006, BE has required the use of frangible pins — which are designed to collapse (and thereby lessen the severity of the horse’s fall) if too much of a horse’s weight rests on it — on all fences that can accommodate them. (Some jumps, including many solid obstacles favored by eventing traditionalists, cannot be made frangible.)

Today, the FEI emphasizes that over the past eight years, while more than 3.3 million cross-country fences have been jumped at international level, only seven riders have died. Yet though national and international eventing bodies have turned their attention to human safety, animal welfare advocates say the sport has not done enough for other athletes involved: the horses. “The cross country course design has become too challenging,” says Dene Stanstall, the horse consultant for U.K. non-profit Animal Aid. “They risk breaking the horses’ necks or backs.” Critics acknowledge that measures taken to prevent rider injuries — such as reducing the chances of a rotational fall — may benefit their mounts by proxy. But given that 283 horses tumbled at FEI competitions just last year, and at least twelve event horses have died falling on jumps since the start of 2009 in the U.K. and U.S. alone, Stanstall says a more direct focus on horse safety is needed. “There is a moral question here. Is it sport to put horses lives in danger?”

Despite the danger to the animals, statistics are hard to come by: neither the FEI nor British Eventing currently maintains a comprehensive database of eventing horse injuries and deaths, though the FEI says it is in the process of developing one. Part of the difficulty, explains Carolyn Simm, training and safety coordinator at BE, is that some riders might be reluctant to report injuries for fear of damaging a horse’s “commercial value.” If a horse’s injury worsens, preventing it from returning to competition, its owners can decide to have it put down after the event and not tell anybody. “The client can do whatever they want, because it’s their property,” explains Ellen Singer, a veterinarian at the University of Liverpool’s Equine Hospital. “In most legal systems animals are considered property, not like you or me.”

(MORE: 50 Olympic Athletes to Watch)

Still, in the small world of eventing, horse fatalities are no secret. Several riders competing at the 2012 Olympics have had horses die during competition. In 2008, British eventer Zara Phillips lost 10-year-old mare Tsunami II after it somersaulted over a hedge and broke its neck. Later that year, Olympic horse Call Again Cavalier was euthanized after breaking his leg while being ridden by Phillips’ Great Britain team mate Mary King. In 2009, U.S. eventer Phillip Dutton lost his 9-year-old gelding Bailey Wick in a rotational fall — Dutton was thrown clear while the horse landed on its neck.

Among those horses that have died in recent years is 11-year-old Porloe Alvin, who, at the 2010 Burnham Market horse trials, flipped over a jump and reportedly broke his back. At the Badminton trials in England in 2010, 11-year-old mare Desert Island twisted and broke her leg on the corner of a fence; afterwards she was put down. In June of this year, 15-year-old gelding Sugoi, a 2008 Olympic competitor, broke his neck on a fall at Tattersalls International Horse Trials near Dublin. Horses that survive with injuries often suffer the same fate. “If you have a horse which can no longer do the job for which you bought it, and you can’t afford to keep it, you can either have it put down, or you can sell it,” says BE’s Simm, who points out that disabled horses who are sold could possibly end up in the hands of a neglectful owner. “Are you actually doing the right thing by your horse, by patching him up?”

The death of a horse is always taken in eventing circles as a tragedy, perhaps most of all by riders themselves, who spend hours each day with their athletic partners. Yet despite the risks, eventers are willing to put themselves and their horse in danger, competition after competition. Some in the eventing community say it’s a form of denial that keeps the sport going. “You never expect it to happen to you,” says Denny Emerson, two-time president of the U.S. Eventing Association and former member of the U.S. World Championship eventing team. “If you did, you wouldn’t do it.”

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Riders and owners reject any suggestion that they don’t care about their horses and say that eventing horses lead very privileged lives. “People in third-world countries should be as lucky as to be an upper-level event horse,” says Emerson. Most in the eventing community also believe that horses are willing participants. “I really do think that the horses choose to do this,” says David O’Connor, the president of the U.S. Eventing Association and individual gold medalist at the 2000 Sydney Olympics. “They might not have chosen to start doing it, but they really can choose not to do it at any time.”

As the Olympics begin, however, critics maintain that the sport’s governing body and participants are still far from making it sufficiently safe for horses and riders alike. While frangible pin technology to reduce rotational falls has been available since 2001, the FEI still does not mandate its use in competition. And there are other safety features, such as “deformable” foam logs (which cushion horses that slam into them), that exist but are rarely used. At the Olympic site in Greenwich, only three of the some 40 fences on the cross-country course will be fitted with frangible pins. “The Olympic competition is run under FEI rules so there is no requirement to use frangible/deformable technology,” wrote course builder Jonathan Clissold in an email. “It is the course designer’s choice.” Animal advocates say this is unacceptable. “Horses are being put into dangerous situations,” says Animal Aid’s Stanstall, who rejects the idea that horses choose eventing and its risks. “They are programmed to do this. From a very early age, they’re taken from their mothers and are trained to do the three disciplines. They are almost given no opportunity to do anything else.” Choice or no, Olympic cross country course designer Sue Benson says that an extremely challenging course at the Games is not in the interest of the sport. “I never wanted any seriously unpleasant pictures to be beamed across the world.”

For now, Greenwich Park is serene: all equine competitors are safe in their luxury stabling, equipped with misting fans and 70,000 carrots. Even if there are dangers ahead, they’re probably not aware of them. And some in the eventing community, including those at the forefront of efforts to reduce risk in the sport, think it’s better that way. “Certainly horses don’t have that ability to see into the future or predict it like we do,” says O’Connor. “I’m very aware of the risk. I’m sure the horses don’t think that way — they enjoy the moment of the game.”

MORE: Five Places to Escape Olympic Crowds

33 comments
Akilafan
Akilafan

Your information is very good. Best history is probably the god code Secretariat, in 1973 won the Triple Crown with the 3 speed record so far has not been destroyed, ran 1 1/4 miles (mile) at a rate of 1 '59 2/5 ", 2/5 Preakness with 1'53" Everyone is convinced that there is to be one of Secretariat winning speed instead of 2/5 1'54. "so far this issue has not stopped controversial. by 2012, thanks to modern technology, the board reviewed Pimlico for the horses at the Movies 1973 Preaknes to determine the pace, and has agreed, adjust the speed of the Secretariat is exactly 1 '53 ', is the new record of the Preakness.!

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AlisonMercer
AlisonMercer

this is disgusting . the sick mentality of [people who push these animals so hard to risk their lives and the idiots, yes idiots, who pick up for it and say the horse loves it. sorry but these sickos do not give a damn about the horse. if they did they wouldn't put it in such dangerous situations. THE horse learns it but to say the horse loves it. ok a horse can enjoy jumping over something but it has no choice in being in these horrific competitions.and shoot it when it doesn't perform right.animal lovers don't do that , it is a sick mania for competition and it is animal abuse. you might as well pick up for dog fighting and say the animal loves it. those dogs rip each other to shreds so they must love it or they wouldn't do it. lol. what is wrong with peoples brains?  animal abuse is what it is, deny it all you guy want but it is abuse. 

thuthao
thuthao

Welcome to eventing — the equine equivalent of the triathlon — which combines the disciplines of dressage, show jumping and cross country. It is also a sport enjoyed frequently by the wealthy and sometimes even by royalty. But for all its trappings of refinement, eventing is perhaps the most dangerous sport in the Summer Olympics—to both horse and rider. The slightest miscalculation in the cross country can cost them a medal, and possibly their lives.Goot post 

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congluxi
congluxi

The death of a horse is always taken in eventing circles as a tragedy, perhaps most of all by riders themselves, who spend hours each day with their athletic partners. Yet despite the risks, eventers are willing to put themselves and their horse in danger, competition after competition. Some in the eventing community say it’s a form of denial that keeps the sport going. “You never expect it to happen to you,” says Denny Emerson, two-time president of the U.S. Eventing Association and former member of the U.S. World Championship eventing team. “If you did, you wouldn’t do it.” thank post

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akilose
akilose

Despite the danger to the animals, statistics are hard to come by: neither the FEI nor British Eventing currently maintains a comprehensive database of eventing horse injuries and deaths, though the FEI says it is in the process of developing one. Part of the difficulty, explains Carolyn Simm, training and safety coordinator at BE, is that some riders might be reluctant to report injuries for fear of damaging a horse’s “commercial value.” If a horse’s injury worsens, preventing it from returning to competition, its owners can decide to have it put down after the event and not tell anybody. “The client can do whatever they want, because it’s their property,” explains Ellen Singer, a veterinarian at the University of Liverpool’s Equine Hospital. “In most legal systems animals are considered property, not like you or me.”  Thanks information. I like Equestrian Eventing

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Orville Hahn
Orville Hahn

The communication between the human and horse is magical. Can things go wrong ,of course. Horses and riders did not make it to this level of communication, sitting on the couch watching TV. The rider without a doubt knows the risk and the reward. The horse may not understand the risk. Believe me the horse would rather be out working than hanging out in the barn.  Only the horse people understands what I'm talking about I think. 

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l0bl0
l0bl0

Personally I don't think equestrian events even belong in the Olympics. It's supposed to be a competition of human ability, not animal ability. Plus bringing the animals into it puts them at risk of injury that they don't deserve simply for being horses. I'm no PETA activist, but I don't think an event that depends on animals being obedient without even understanding why they're doing these events belongs in the Olympics.

Jonathan Ruppin
Jonathan Ruppin

Yes, it's definitely the most dangerous sport. In none of the others does a 'competitor' who, say, breaks a leg then get put down.

gustafus
gustafus

This horse lover is appalled... I just watched the cross country event for minutes.. .and a Japanese man ran his horse almost to death... the horse collapsed and will probably be sold for dog food now.

These people in Cross Country are demons... rich, spoiled, heartless demons.

I don't like watching this sport... I love horses too much.

Not a one of these creeps will feed a wounded athlete ... if the horse doesn't perform... it dies..... HATE THESE PEOPLE

zinggzingga
zinggzingga

They're British, not American. The British relationship with horses is very no-nonsense. Yes,  you love your horse to bits, but if he's going to suffer more in his rickety old age than it's simply logical to put him down. Quick and painless. Seems cold to many Americans but there is no debating that these athletes love their horses. 

Also, the horses are obeying out of trust and loyalty but there is no denying that most high-level horses love what they do. Horses are athletes and extremely smart animals who understand the risks in some sense, hence why they'll often refuse a fence they aren't set up properly for. Even as an old guy it's nearly impossible to keep my horse from jumping - he sees a fence and lights up with excitement. Jumping is the love of his life and I have no doubt that high-level event horses feel the same way. 

BritishBean
BritishBean

What I find hard to get my head around is the almost schizophrenic attitude these riders have to their horses. They seem to be full of affection and adoration for the horse when it's performing well for them, but then you get a comment like this, from Mary King in the Qamp;A with her also on this site:

He was an older horse, and no point in trying to operate on him and keep him alive, because he was coming to the end of his career anyway.

I find it hard to believe that the horse loves eventing so much that it would rather be dead than go into retirement. The judgments these riders make about what is best for the horses seem rather conveniently to match up exactly with their own needs as riders. When they get all emotional about having their own horses killed, does it not occur to them that one good way of avoiding killing the horse would just be not to kill the horse, and better still not put it in danger in the first place.

Lydia285
Lydia285

Horses really will do anything for us.... They think that their owners will protect them always and they don't think 'what if i fall and hurtle to the ground and smash my spine'.  We have always been putting them at risk throughout history and we are continuing to do so.

Jo-Ann Adams Honeywell
Jo-Ann Adams Honeywell

In re: Equestrian Eventing: The Olympics' most dangerous sport? The horses that are competing in the Olympics as 'EVENTERS!" really DO want to be there! These pony's ALL have worked extremely hard, from the baby jumps ~ALL THE WAY  up the levels, one step at a time.  I've seen plenty of horses that simply refuse to go any higher than Novice Level, or can't go higher than Prelim. Some refuse to do well in the dressage portion, others don't mind hitting a few rails (not careful) in the  Show jumping phase. I've even seen horses that won't even go over a log on the ground, never mind gallop through some  unknown weird water. Those are NOT the horses honored to be competing today at the  2012 London Olympics  TRUST ME if a 1200 pound horse doesn't really want to do something THEY AREN'T GOING TO DO IT! THESE ARE THE WAR HORSES OF TODAY! Incredible athletes performing their hearts out! They deserve our applause!

AlisonMercer
AlisonMercer

@Orville Hahn a horse pushed to break it's neck or collapse yes , the horse chooses that . yeah great . wonderful . magical. you don't have to let rot in a barn by not killing it in a filthy competition which has nothing to do with love of horses. so let the horse work but putting it in extreme danger is not the same thing. really, are you  that out of touch. it is magical in the sickest way possible anybody could even defend this by what you say. it is magical when people love their horses and take care of them and even ride them without putting them in these sick competitions. only a real animal lover would understand that. go whip  a horse into submission and talk about how magical the relationship is you fool.

BeReasonable85
BeReasonable85

Consider this...what's the difference in having this event where all these horses do is obey their rider and risk the possibility of getting hurt vs. human beings doing the same thing (obeying their trainer/coach, etc.) and risking the same? Sports come with the common risk of getting hurt, and sometimes even death occurs.  If equestrians dont belong here, neither does anyone else. Its all the same thing, its the risk each competitor takes..

AlisonMercer
AlisonMercer

@gustafus they are demons. it is not loving a horse any more than slitting the neck of a pig is loving the pig. these people are monsters

mrdzordz
mrdzordz

@gustafus   Boy, I don't know what country YOU live in, but that sure isn't what is seen here in the US!  I still have my now 32  (almost 33) year old ex-Advanced event horse.  He is still spoiled rotten every day, and will have as wonderful a life as I can give him until he says he's had his fill of this world.  And, as to the animal advocate's comment that  “They are programmed to do this. From a very early age, they’re taken from their mothers and are trained to do the three disciplines. They are almost given no opportunity to do anything else.” OMG, he/she makes it sound like the Russian athletes of old!  Horses are NOT taken from their mothers to learn to do eventing.  Usually, they begin eventing after a (usually failed) race career, or when they show a certain boldness, or boredom with what they consider too easy, or great movement for dressage PLUS the qualities that make excellent and brave jumpers.  They are then brought along from the very lowest levels, jumping simple and small logs, tiny ditches, little banks and drop fences--gradually building their confidence and ability to answer the far more complex questions seen at the upper levels of the sport.  If one of these horses loses his confidence, or hurts somewhere, you can be quite sure he will let his owner know that.  While I know there are some 'bad apples', as in EVERY walk of life, I know far more people whose biggest fear, when they leave the start box to go XC-- is NOT for their own life--but for the welfare of their horse.  Eventing is, I would say, the horse sport in which the horse and rider know each other really really well, and depend on that relationship for success--and yes, for their very lives.


Georgie Eileen
Georgie Eileen

Well, this sounds like a well researched and factually backed up comment. (sarcasm)

I am also a horse lover and both myself and my horse LOVE the cross country event. If you really are as horsey as you think you are, you would know what a special bond there is between a horse and rider and they push each other to their limits.

This makes me so mad, you have no idea how much effort and love horse people put into their horses. Do you really think they would spend 10 - 15 years training these horses and then shoot them because they didn't perform?

 The only time that horses are put down is when they could not recover. If you have ever seen how incredibly stressful it is for a horse (such an active animal) to be restrained for months while a broken leg heals, and then seen how much pain they are still in after, you would have a different opinion!

BeReasonable85
BeReasonable85

gustafus-1. you cannot possibly be a horse lover and speak like that; 2. "if the horse doesn't preform...it dies...", that is the most idiotic statement I've ever heard, which leads me back to my first point, if you were a horse lover, you would know this is not true. These horses are better taken care of than probably some people's kids you know.  They are just as much of "teammates" and any basketball team, etc. at the olympics.

AlisonMercer
AlisonMercer

@BritishBean these people are so twisted in their mentality . they live and breathe what they do because they are forced to do thst.these idiots seem to be saying if the horse wasn't in an extreme dangerous situation it would die of depression. now that is messed up. exactly not putting it in extreme danger would be a god way of not having o kill it in the first place. how hard that simple humane idea seems to be. 



simillaron
simillaron

@BritishBean I agree with you. I'm glad Sonia van Gilder Cooke wrote about this -- not at all what I was expecting.

Gracie Grimes
Gracie Grimes

You obviously have never been around or on an eventing horse. These horses live and breathe what they do. If you don't put them to work, they jump the fence and get into trouble, or play too hard in the field and hurt themselves. The fact is, horses are large and may seem hardy, yet they can just as easily have a life or career ending injury in the field as they can under tack. 

bchig
bchig

You're a fool if you think the horses that make it to this level of competition are anything more than obedient animals following as directed out of trust. Unfortunately, that trust is misplaced in the hands of people that feel an animal's life is an acceptable risk in the interest of sport.

l0bl0
l0bl0

Because humans are entering the competition of their own accord and know exactly why they're doing it. Horses have zero say in the matter and aren't capable of understanding why they have to do all these tasks, and then they might injured to the point that they have to be put down. At least when a human gets a career-ending injury he understands why it happened and we don't take him out back and shoot him.

AlisonMercer
AlisonMercer

@Georgie Eileen they shoot them be cause they don't perform all of the time or ell them for slaughter. why deny it? the real horse lovers are the ones who are appalled at the abuse these creatures are put through because of the greedy human being obsessed with competition. you wouldn't put a horse in such a dangerous situation if you truly cared about it .   you people are delusional or flat out liars. you wouldn't put the horse in a situation in which it can so easily be injured if you loved it sicko


gustafus
gustafus

 you are dreaming... I have enough horsey friends to know differently... of course daddy or someone covers for the crime... but these people DO NOT feed horses that don't perform... they kill em.

AlisonMercer
AlisonMercer

@Gracie Grimes they get into trouble if not pushed to die. ok wish someone would push you to run till you collapsed , you have no choice . you must really love it hey!

Gracie Grimes
Gracie Grimes

Again, have you been around any of these athletes? Yes, trust is a large part of the relationship between horse and rider, but there is no way you are going to take a 1200 lb animal over a trakehner or navigate a coffin if they don't want to be there.

Squidink
Squidink

Laughing at "taking them out back and shooting them". If you had the slightest knowledge of eventing, you would know how inactraute that statement is. When a horse gets an injury with even the SLIGHTEST chance of recovery, we will rehab the horse. These horses are the pride and joy of equestrains lives, I will go hungry before my horse does. We don't just throw them away when they are permanently injured, you either retire them in a field, find an easy job for them, or god forbid they are unable to function properly after an injury, you have them painlessly euthanized by a vet. It's not like we can just buy another one and it's all better. We spend years with each horse and develop a mutual trust with them. It ruins people to have to put a horse down, and I've seen people quit riding because they could never imagine continueing without their horse. And to this whole "the horse has no choice" crap, I've seen plenty of horses that didnt want to jump, so they found a new job doing flat work or something else. These horses LOVE their job doing eventing, trust me if they didnt want to something they wouldn't do it. My horse literally runs at jumps and flys over them because he loves it so much, he HATES sitting in his stall and becomes grumpy when he can't be ridden. It takes a special horse to do upper level eventing, those horses are one in a million and are treated as such. Maybe if you actually understood what you were talking about, you'd realize that horses are these people's lives and love them probably more then their own children. So please, next time you comment on something make sure are aware of what you are talking about.

Beth Harden
Beth Harden

Clearly you don't know horsey people or horses. i agree that not every person who rides are nice to their horses, but 9 times out of 10 they will treat them well. 'zero say in the matter' if a horse doesn't want to do something, they are NOT going to do it, believe me, i know, if a horse doesn't want to jump you cant make them, simple as. It takes years for a rider to get a horse to this standard, it is such a hard sport to master, it is just as much the rider as the horse. And yes if a horse brakes its leg it will probably get shot, but that is not because they will not perform, horses legs are different to ours, if they brake one it is unlikely ever to heal again, unless the horse stays still for about 3 mouths, if they so much as move and hurt it again it will add another few mouths onto the healing cycle, and then it would go on and on and never heal.

Also, i have an eventer with a career ending leg injury, but not a brake. you know what i am doing with him, spending over£3000 on vets bills to make sure he will be ok, then i will spend mouths looking for someone to give him the time and care so i know he will be fine in a good home. I have a friend who has kids and a full time job but still make the time in her day to get up at 6am every morning to get to the yard and feed her horse her meds which cost £200 a pot and re bandage her legs to protect them. Another friend i know has spent over £7000 on fixing his horse who cant even be ridden again yest the horse was intended for showing and the list goes on.

oh and there is no such thing as an obedient horse just a horse that loves what its doing, all you have to do us look at their body language when they jump.

And lastly, if we didnt use horses to ride, then they would have all been slaughtered years ago, the only reason horses have survived is because we use them.

AlisonMercer
AlisonMercer

fliping oiver and breaking their back lol, yeah wonderful compared to the troublr they woul get in otherwise. you are sick in the head


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