Final Postcard: 2008 Eventing Safety Summit

Concepts and suggestions coalesce into possible action items on the final day of the U.S. Equestrian Federation/U.S. Eventing Association Eventing Safety Summit. Postcard sponsored by WeatherBeeta.
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Concepts and suggestions coalesce into possible action items on the final day of the U.S. Equestrian Federation/U.S. Eventing Association Eventing Safety Summit. Postcard sponsored by WeatherBeeta.

Lexington, Ky., June 8, 2008 -- Professional technical delegates. Expansion of the course design advisor program into the lower levels. A watch list of dangerous riders. Frangible pins for all!

It was time to get down to the real business at the U.S. Equestrian Federation/U.S. Eventing Association Safety Summit today, as the concepts floated on this important weekend coalesced into bullet points that could become action items--or already had.

USEF CEO John Long | © 2008 by Nancy Jaffer

USEF CEO John Long | © 2008 by Nancy Jaffer

It was quite a feat of organization to take the ideas expressed by so many in the group of more than 250 attending and boil them down into something that will be winnowed and evaluated by "senior team members" of the USEF and USEA. Once that is done, according to USEF CEO John Long, the organizations will come up with a plan to prioritize and implement those deemed worthy, though some would have to go through the normal rule-change process.

The idea, John said, "is to preserve what we've got, but come up with ways in which we can facilitate and accommodate change. If we can do that, we can take this discipline to another place."

John asked those attending to be thinking five years ahead and envision what the sport will look like in 2013 as they made their suggestions. One of the many things this summit did was pave the way for the next generation of eventers. The future certainly is coming at us fast.

Those who attended had high praise for the way the summit was organized. The fact that so many BNRs (Big Name Riders) were on hand with organizers and other officials, as well as lower-level eventers and eventer parents, was quite impressive. There is no question that all these people love their sport and want to get it through these tough times.

John said he felt "there is really a consensus about many things we can do to take the sport to the next level."

I asked Bobby Costello, the eventing athletes' rep for the USEF, what he thought of the weekend.

An interesting comment came from Kristyn Shayon, a hunter/jumper rider from Atlanta. I thought she showed great initiative and insight in attending a conference for another discipline.

"The entire equestrian sport is grappling with a lot of the issues that you are taking a hard look at here," she told the summit. "This is a real opportunity to address some of the core stuff that will help folks, regardless of what discipline you're in, and move our sport forward. Giving the group a 'bravo', as an outsider I appreciate the work that you're doing for all of us in equestrian sport."

Those in attendance were getting more than talk: They got action. USEF President David O'Connor and his USEA counterpart, Kevin Baumgardner, move fast (the summit was organized in about a month). They announced this morning that the organizations bought $6,000 worth of frangible pins for whatever events want them. The pins are used to stop rotational falls at certain types of jumps, enabling logs to drop to the ground. Following the announcement, there was discussion about adding a penalty to riders' scores if their horse hit a fence so hard it breaks the pins. No one wants competitors to be casual about fences with "give" that are outfitted with the pins or are deformable (crushable). The penalties would discourage riders from galloping down to them at break-neck speed, figuring "what the heck, if I hit them, I won't be in trouble."

To recap, for those of you who didn't read yesterday's missive from this gathering the summit was called in response to a rash of serious falls, human and equine. One of the questions being asked here (and elsewhere) was why these falls are happening, and David came up with an interesting conclusion.

"There is a shift in our sport," he suggested, noting his generation came from other sports: fox hunting, steeplechasing and in the previous generation, the cavalry, where skills were learned that became valuable when these riders turned to eventing.

"The world has changed a lot: people coming into the sport are not coming from the same backgrounds," he pointed out.

Most lack experience riding at speed, galloping across fields as the pace of development has eaten up open land.

David called it a change in the culture, saying, "The sport is getting to the place where we replace experience with education." That may be the key phrase of the entire summit.

One person in the audience pointed out event horses are also less-educated these days, as many of them no longer come from the fox hunting and racing ranks, as more and more warmbloods take the place of off-the-track Thoroughbreds.

These factors are prompting an even greater push for expanding the Instructor Certification Program. The scenario also puts more responsibility on Technical Delegates. David would like to see them become full-time professionals, assigned by the federation to events, rather than being obligated to the events that hire them, which results in little criticism of these competitions. Thus, a problem at an event may go unrecognized. It's a hot-button issue for David, who wants eventing to lead the way for all USEF disciplines in terms of assigning stewards to shows, rather than having them hired by the same shows repeatedly.

Honest criticism is one key to improving safety, and David suggested that the lead of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) be followed in that regard.

The FAA will say if pilot error caused an accident. In an era when people tend to blame others for everything, David said, "We have to be willing to stand up and say, 'That was my fault,'" a phrase that should be used when appropriate not only by riders, but also course designers (though it was mentioned that fear of litigation could be a damper in that regard).

"We are not going to stop falls all the way around and get down to zero in horse falls," he stated. The real barometer of success, he said, "is do you see that number coming down?"

Kevin noted, "How great it is to work with people in this sport and that this sport will continue, and continue as the sport we know. That's crucial, and I feel very, very confident about that."

Darren Chiacchia is hoping to compete again next month. | © 2008 by Nancy Jaffer

Darren Chiacchia is hoping to compete again next month. | © 2008 by Nancy Jaffer

Saying that people were worried "we were going to change the sport," David observed, the feedback from the horse industry at large as the tragic falls kept mounting involved "a huge range of emotion, from 'We need to stop doing this' through 'We need to go back to 40 years ago.'"

The summit gave people the opportunity not only to compare notes, but also to catch up with each other in a non-competitive setting. Everyone seemed to have a special reason for coming, and when I saw Darren Chiacchia today, I asked him about his. It's hard to believe that a catastrophic fall put him in a coma less than three months ago and triggered the start of the examination of how eventing is being run these days. Darren is, as I said yesterday, his old self.

During the summit there was, of course, the expected plea for the return to the long format (the one that includes roads and tracks and steeplechase, which is no longer used above the 1-star level). That prompted a moment of levity.

"And now for the 800-pound gorilla in the room," said David, as he was about to broach the long format/short format subject. At that moment, U.S. eventing coach Mark Phillips, who had been commenting often during the summit, stood up to speak, generating peals of laughter from everyone on hand. Maybe you had to be there, but it really was funny.

Other thoughts from the summit:

  • A suggestion from the vaulting ranks that everyone 10 or under should take tumbling lessons so they can learn how to fall. David pointed out the one discipline that never has safety problems is vaulting, "and they fall off for a living."
  • The principle that responsibility equals accountability.
  • Additional research is needed into equine cardio-pulmonary functions.
  • The need for better post-incident forms and use of that information, part of an overall push for better data, though legal issues could be a damper there.
  • More emphasis on the "to finish is to win" attitude typical of endurance, rather than on collecting ribbons.
  • Not announcing the cross-country times of riders in a division while it is ongoing so those later in the jumping order don't push to go faster in comparison.
  • Increasing rider awareness by letting them know what they're doing wrong and not being afraid to speak up on the subject. The Watch List of 25 competitors who have been riding dangerously would be part of this, and there is talk of an anonymous tip line to alert officials to those who are "an accident waiting to happen."
  • Making safety and horse welfare a priority of eventing's new culture.
    There's lots more, but these are among the highlights. Did I feel like giving up a late spring weekend with my horses to sit in a large room and focus on eventing's problems? No, but sometimes the good of the sport has to come before personal pleasure. That's particularly true in this instance, since eventing is the issue of the moment in the non-racing equestrian world. I'm glad I came. Hope you give these things some thought, too, no matter which breed or discipline is yours.Regards,