March 23, 2008 -- When we talk about "a show of heart" in the equestrian world, the phrase usually refers to a horse, rider or driver whose bravery overcomes the odds in competition.
But the tragic fall that left eventer Darren Chiacchia hospitalized in critical condition has given the expression another meaning, as fellow horsemen and women rally to help the popular athlete.
Members of a multi-discipline group that includes some of the biggest names in U.S. horse sports have shown where their hearts are by keeping Darren's business afloat as he lies unconscious in a Florida hospital. They also are taking part in the effort to pay his medical bills.
Darren was injured at the Red Hills Horse Trials in Tallahassee, Fla., March 15, when his mount somersaulted at the fifth fence on the preliminary course, landing on him. The horse was virtually unscathed, but Darren suffered a head injury, as well as broken ribs and a collapsed lung that have led to pneumonia, requiring him to be on a ventilator. Although he cannot speak, friends and family have been buoyed by the fact that he is able to squeeze relatives' hands and wiggle his toes, all very good signs.
But with Darren in a hospital bed, there was no one to run things at the Ocala, Fla., farm where he is based for the winter. National four-in-hand driving champion Chester Weber, only a few weeks away from defending his title at his Live Oak show in Ocala, stepped in to act as CEO of Darren's enterprise.
"I wanted to make sure that when Darren gets out of the hospital, his business is still intact," said Chester, speaking to me by cell phone from atop his carriage, where the clip-clop of his horse's hooves mingled with our conversation as he conditioned his team for their upcoming challenge.
"There's nothing worse than getting out of the hospital at 42 years of age and finding you're back at square one," noted Chester.
"Darren is a great horseman, and the horsemen around him love to be with him and respect him," Chester observed. He is supervising the different aspects of the farm, including overseeing the diligent staff, horse sales and lessons.
Meanwhile, a crisis management counselor dispatched by the U.S. Equestrian Federation (USEF) has visited the farm to help everyone there cope with the trauma of Darren's absence.
Several trainers from a variety of disciplines are pitching in to teach Darren's students. They include eventer Jon Holling, a close friend of Darren's. He lost one of his advanced mounts, Direct Merger, to a pulmonary hemorrhage on the World Cup route at Red Hills on that tragic day, which also saw Missy Miller's horse, Leprechaun's Rowdy Boy, die of the same cause on the advanced course.
Jon helped Darren's students at Red Hills and continues to teach at his farm. Eventer Missy Ransehousen is pitching in, as are dressage trainer Robert Dover, and show jumpers Lauren Hough and John and Beezie Madden. The fee for their lessons is being donated to Darren.
Chester pointed out that while none of the volunteers can afford to work at Darren's business full-time, the bases are all being covered because "everyone takes a small swat at it."
When Lauren helped coach the eventers short-listed for the Hong Kong Olympics in a clinic this winter, it deepened the friendship she had struck up with Darren during the Pan American Games last summer. Darren went on to take some private show jumping lessons with her, and the morning of his injury, they spoke on the phone, with Darren talking about how well everything was going.
News of the accident, "really hit home for me," said Lauren. "He's a really genuine person. This industry is a big world, but it's also a small world at the top, and anything I can do to help him at this point, I'm sure we would all do the same for each other," she continued. "It's really no effort. It's something I'm happy to do."
The Equestrian Aid Foundation (EAF), on whose board Darren serves, has started a designated fund for him. All of the money donated will go to help Darren. Click on the link above for more information about how to donate.
Robert Dover, a founder of the organization, is optimistic about his friend's chances.
"With every day that goes by, it's more hopeful," he said. "A person in less good shape would not have survived. He's a tough strong guy."
But, he noted, "he's a typical horse person who did not insure himself properly." Darren only had minimal insurance, Robert said, noting his hospitalization and rehabilitation could cost in the $1 million range. Lack of insurance is unwise considering the risks involved in eventing.
"A third of [EAF's] new applicants are from the three-day world," said Robert, who questioned why break-away fences aren't used throughout every cross-country course.
"It would cause riders to realize that they have to see distances to fences on cross-country," said Robert. "It would be better for the fences to break away and cause less injuries and deaths to riders and horses and just cost the riders points."
Robert noted that Darren's accident was a classic situation, "a typical rotational fall" over an unforgiving fence, commenting that such an accident and its consequences are rare in show jumping, where the rails fall down.
Coincidentally, the U.S. Eventing Association (USEA) had a long-planned retreat this weekend to discuss the safety aspects of the sport. That's a whole other story, because there's so much to say about the organization's initiatives. But having talked with the dynamic USEA president, Kevin Baumgardner, I think many of the issues will be addressed to the best ability of the association. I'm sure there will be some changes made, at least at the lower levels of the sport, although what happens at the top end depends more on the FEI (international equestrian federation) and USEF. Hopefully, sanity will prevail at some point. There have been, as Robert points out, far too many serious and fatal accidents. Things can't go on like this.
On a personal note, when I heard about Darren's injury, I thought back to a long conversation we had at the U.S. Equestrian Team's Hong Kong benefit last month. Darren told me about each of his horses in turn, and it was fun to see his excitement as we discussed his prospects. Each horse was a different dream for him; I hope he gets to make those dreams come true.