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.”

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45 comments
AlexiaYa11
AlexiaYa11

I agree that there may be some horses who would rather end their lives at a glorious peak, like some human beings, rather than suffering through the pain and diseases. Yet most of the time, the riders conveniently decide that it's not worth the money and efforts, which is just a cruel and heartless thing to do.

Being a horse lover and hunter jumper myself, I have always held great compassion for horses. I do believe that Olympic horses who are not the winners deserve more attention than they are right now. Do a quick research on King Artus, and many other horses that competed in 2012-- they passed away suddenly since they are ridden too hard and that the owners do not care enough for them.

At least we have some organizations helping adopting OTTB in major countries, we really do need to call awareness to the health and care of horses, across the board.

This article makes me feel sad.

akilomi8
akilomi8

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. Good post information

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reillywren
reillywren

To all you guys who have never been around horses,

Don't comment unless you have some real research to back up your outrageous claims. I had a friend die who jumped a 2'6" fence that fell down when she crashed through it. In our area one girl died because she opened a coke can while on her horse. Riders and horses are constantly in danger. Most horse related deaths occur while the person is on the ground. There is a danger just being around horses. We do it for the love of our partners, the adrenaline rush that both the horse and rider feed on, and the lasting friendships with both our horses and other riders. Every little 10 year old on their tiny pony could die just getting into the saddle. Every month old foal can break his leg playing in a manicured field. It is what it is. All things that live eventually die.

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. 

MissyIhavenoavailablename
MissyIhavenoavailablename

@AlisonMercer Do you even jump? I jump. Its the most wonderful experience to be part of the horse, to give it a job and to spend every moment with these amazing animals. There are good people and bad people in every sport, most horse people will give their horses breaks when and if they need it, and a good rider will be a safe one.

LauraHodgson
LauraHodgson

@AlisonMercer  From reading your comments its clear to me that you don't have much experience around horses. I own a gorgeous OTTB (off the track thoroughbred) and keep him at a racing stables, and currently I am training him up for competition. From what you think of eventing, racing must be beyond the pale to you. Let me tell you that the horses at this stables are among the best kept I have ever known. I think your comparison between dog fighting and equestrian sport is frankly disgusting. My horse LOVES jumping, he sometimes can get a little too excited, and I have trouble holding him back. Yes there are some cruel horse owners, I have met a number in my life, but the majority of riders will do the best by their horses. I suggest that you stick to subjects that you know about, why not look in more depth at dog fighting which is REAL animal abuse. How dare you say that riders are "rich, spoiled, heartless demons"? I saved up for years to buy my horse (Ardie) and I would never do anything to hurt him. Last year, he injured himself in his paddock 'playing' with another horse, I didn't shoot him because he was lame! I let him recover for a month and then gently brought him back into work. You do seem to like throwing around the 'animal abuse' term, but do apply it to those who actually deserve it. Please spare people your narrow-minded and ignorant comments in the future. Thank you 

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!

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