Less than a month ago, Olympic Bronze medalist Darren Chiacchia was living the good life: competing his string of upper class Three Day Event horses, teaching his students at his farms in New York and Florida, and working towards representing the United States in a second Olympic games in August. Today, his family is happy to see him shuffle fifty feet with the assistance of a walker and make eye contact with them when he is mumbling incoherent words.
On March 15, Chiacchia suffered life threatening injuries when his 7-year-old, up-and-coming eventer, Baron Verde, took a misstep before a jump, flipped over in the air, and landed on the 43-year-old on course at the Red Hills Horse Trials in Tallahassee, Florida. His injuries included contusions to both lungs, multiple rib fractures, a partially collapsed lung, a fractured hand, and severe head trauma. Chiacchia remained unconscious at Tallahassee Memorial Hospital for more than a week and was unable to breathe without the assistance of a ventilator for more than a week and a half. He also developed a fever and pneumonia in relation to his injuries.
While the extent of Chiacchia’s fall is much more serious than the usual Cross Country fall, it does bring to light the importance of safety during Three Day Eventing competitions. Not only is rider safety important, the safety of their equine partners is equally important.
The United States Eventing Association (USEA) has been working diligently over the past decade to make Eventing a safer sport for all those involved. They have changed rules, implemented new ones, and even dedicated an entire page to Safety on their website to promote keeping horses and riders safe while in competition and in training.
Recent Horse and Rider Deaths
The Cross Country phase in Eventing has always been dangerous due to the nature of the sport. Galloping over varying terrain and jumping over nearly solid fences carries a risk that is nearly impossible to avoid. Falls are all but guaranteed over the course of a rider’s career. Unfortunately, in extreme cases, death – of both horse and rider – will be the end result of a botched fence or a simple misstep.
The most recent high profile rider death in the Eventing world occurred in November 2007. Twenty-one year old Eleanor Brennan, a British citizen living in Virginia, when she was competing at the 2007 Ocala Horse Trials where her horse, Mr. Barnabus, fell over a jump and landed on top of her – a fall similar to the one suffered by Chiacchia last month. She suffered fatal head and chest injuries and was pronounced dead at a nearby hospital. Sadly, the horse snapped his neck in the process of falling and died instantly.
In the past year and a half, twelve Eventers have lost their lives during competition around the world. Several of them were competing at the lower levels of the sport.
Many high profile horses have also been killed or euthanized after suffering injuries on Cross Country courses. Recently, Task Force, also known as Jedi, a 16-year-old Australian Thoroughbred gelding ridden by Jan Byyny shattered his stifle during warm up for Cross Country and was euthanized on March 22. Along with Jan, Jedi was the seventh place finisher at the 2005 Eventing World Cup in Sweden – the highest placed American pair – and was an alternate for the 2004 Olympic team.
Another equine death that rocked the Eventing community worldwide was that of Le Samurai (Sparky) at the 2007 Rolex Kentucky Three Day Event – the most advanced event held on American soil each year. About 30 seconds before the last fence of a clean Cross Country run, Sparky, a Thoroughbred / Holsteiner gelding ridden by American rider Amy Tryon, took a severe misstep which severed his suspensory apparatus below the fetlock joint of his right foreleg. Despite the bobble, Tryon continued with the last fence and dismounted just after crossing the finish line. Attending veterinarians examined and treated Sparky for four days, but euthanized him after realizing that the extent of his injury would not enable him to retire in comfort.
However not all these fatalities are due to unsafe riding or falls at jumps. Some are just a horrible matter of coincidence. At the same event that injured Chiacchia, Direct Merger, a 1996 Irish Thoroughbred gelding ridden by American rider Jonathan Holling, suffered fatal Pulmonary Hemorrhaging on course. Ironically, on the same day, Leprechaun’s Rowdy Boy, owned and ridden by Missy Miller, also suffered fatal Pulmonary Hemorrhaging along with a severely broken neck after a fall and died on impact.
“To have one horse die of pulmonary hemorrhage on a day is bad news,” said Capt. Mark Phillips, the Coach of the US Eventing team, in a recent article on the USEA website. “To have two on a day is rare in the extreme. However we know that this phenomenon does happen out there; it happened to [2000 Olympic Gold Medalist] David O’Connor with The Native at Red Hills a few years ago. It has nothing to do with the fences or the courses, every rider just hopes it firstly does not happen to them, and if it does happen that it’s not two strides out from a big fence when the consequence for the rider can be more catastrophic.”
Staying Safe On Course
Some of the risks involved with riding Cross Country are unavoidable. But there are some precautions that riders can take to keep themselves and their mounts safe while on course. Many of these precautions are enforced by USEA rules.
For example, in the United States Equestrian Federation (USEF) rule book – which the USEA abides by – all riders are required to wear medical cards on their arms in waterproof plastic cases while riding in all jumping events. Also, all riders are required to wear ASTM / SEI (American Society for Testing and Materials / Safety Equipment Institute) approved helmets with the harnesses fastened while jumping and they are required to wear a protective vest while riding cross country. These are also recommended to be ASTM / SEI approved, but it is not required.
One of the goals in Cross Country is to make the ‘optimum time’ on course or at least come in under the time allowed. In this recent past, this has begun to cause problems at the lower levels where inexperienced riders pushing their horses too fast and taking the jumps at a dangerous speed. To counter this, the USEA has implemented ‘Speed Faults’ for the lower levels of Eventing. In Beginner Novice, Novice, and Training Levels, the rider will be penalized for finishing the Cross Country course in too short of a time span. The USEA hopes that by doing this, riders will learn to slow down and be safe on course rather than galloping at unsafe speeds and jumping fences in an out of control manner.
“It is the riders’ responsibility to ride their horse at a speed appropriate to its ability and experience and the prevailing conditions on any one day,” said Phillips. “’Making the time’ is a way of life growing out of courses where heights are a meter or less and where the speeds are considerably slower. At all levels, and especially Preliminary and above, riding your horse and jumping the fences must be the overriding priority.”
There are also several rules that the USEA enforces to help keep the horses safe. They specify that a rider will be disqualified if they are seen riding dangerously, using improper equipment, or abusing their horses in any way. Abuse is defined on page 25 of the USEA Rule Book and is very specific so that no horses can be intentionally hurt while in competition.
Also, the USEA supports using protective and supportive boots and leg wear for horses. They also allow bell boots to help prevent the horse from pulling a shoe while on course.
Running martingales are also allowed to help riders control a headstrong or excitable horse from throwing his head up before a jump and misjudging the distance which could cause a rotational fall over the jump.
As a result of Chiacchia’s fall, the USEA is in the process of holding a series of emergency Eventing Standards Task Force meetings. On April 10, the committee proposed a rule change to mandate the use of the frangible pin system in all jumps in which it is appropriate. The Frangible Pin system allows a usually solid Cross Country jump to fall down should it be hit appropriately by a horse in trouble.
Frangible pins were first developed in 2001 by Great Britain’s Transport Research Laboratory after analyzing the films of 100 horse and rider falls from the Eventing world. Many of the most serious falls, they noted, occurred on the Cross Country course when the horse hit his legs between the knee and the elbow, causing them to rotate over the jump and land in a position to crush the rider.
Since its development, the USEA has recommended the use of them, but it has never been required. The Task Force hopes that the rule change will be formally adopted at the USEF Eventing Technical Committee meeting on April 23.