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.”

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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.”

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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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