Lexington, Ky., June 7, 2008 -- I'm used to going to U.S. Equestrian Federation meetings where less than a handful of riders--the people with the biggest stake in competition--have bothered to show up.
So what impressed me immediately about the first USEF/U.S. Eventing Association Safety Summit was the number of riders I saw.
Everyone from Bruce and Buck Davidson to Phillip Dutton, Kim Severson, Gina Miles, Darren Chiacchia and Amy Tryon is here. That gives you an idea of what serious issues we are dealing with this weekend. It's not overstating the situation to say the survival of the sport, at least as we know it, may hinge on the solutions that began developing in a featureless ballroom at the Hyatt hotel.
Eventing has gotten an unwelcome dose of the spotlight after a series of accidents this year, beginning with Darren Chiacchia's near-fatal fall at Red Hills in March. (Darren, by the way, looks great, fit and ready to ride.) Two horse deaths at Rolex Kentucky and a fall there that left Laine Ashker in critical condition (she has since recovered) drew media attention to eventing. Banner headlines in The New York Times spurred interest from those who probably had never heard of the sport before. HBO and ESPN reporters are here, as well as representation from the Humane Society of the U.S., which after the 1992 Olympics pushed for changes in eventing (such as elimination for a fall of horse).
USEF and USEA asked for suggestions after they announced the summit, and they received more than 1,000 emails. Every idea was noted, though of course, not all were brought forward. But many were considered as the organizations set their agenda, concentrating on four main areas: Course design, veterinary/medical, rider education and qualifications of competitors. What comes out of here will go to various committees, and then it will be up to USEF to implement, though I don't think that will be a brief process. There could be more summits and certainly a great deal of discussion at the USEA convention in New Orleans this December.
The focus here, as USEF President David O'Connor told us, was the idea that "we can improve safety by reducing one thing: Horse falls. If we can get to the place where we can reduce horse falls by a tremendous number, we will have done a tremendous service for ourselves, our sports, our members and our horses."
He put forward some interesting statistics: there's only a 2 percent chance of injury if a rider falls. There's a 50 percent chance of injury if a horse falls, but 85 percent chance of injury in a rotational fall.
"If we can solve the horse fall, we're playing at the 2 percent level," David pointed out.
But how to do it? That's where it gets complicated. Paul Gallagher and his colleague Diana Shayon of giant public relations/public affairs firm Burson-Marsteller acted as facilitators to keep everyone on track. Using big sheets of paper and marking pens, they noted salient points, which were then posted on the walls and will be compiled tonight to give direction and conclusions to tomorrow's final session.
You know it can be like herding cats when it comes to channeling the conversation of people with strong views on equestrian topics, but they did a good job in my view. Some of the 250 in attendance, however, thought they were too rigid; they would have liked a more wide-ranging conversation.
In general, though, everyone got as many chances to speak as they wanted (though U.S. eventing coach Mark Phillips got the most; he offered insight on nearly every subject, particularly the way they do things in his native Great Britain).
There are indeed some things we could copy from the Brits, the most interesting of which was the Watch List discussed by Mark and Leslie Law, the British Olympic individual gold medalist who has relocated to the U.S.
It seems folks who are riding dangerously at the upper levels in Britain are put on a list by officials, fellow competitors or whoever sees them as an accident waiting to happen (a phrase used quite often today). Before it does, those on the list have a chat with British coach Yogi Breisner, who likely will suggest they get some help. The list is available to officials, prompting them to keep an eye on the folks named as they ride around a course.
Although the concept could be useful, the implementation here would be difficult. A number of other ways to insure riders didn't get in over their heads was suggested, including a system that would offer both plus and minus points for those seeking a total that would get enable them to move up to the next level.
David had some interesting statistics about increases in horse falls. In 2003, there was one for every 431 starts at Preliminary level; in 2007, there was one for every 264 starts. At intermediate, there was one for every 234 starts in 2003; last year, it was a scary 1 in every 156 starts.
"Disturbing, huh?" said David.
One solution he has pushed that has yet to become a rule change is to have yellow flag warnings on cross-country, so competitors can be aware they are riding dangerously and do something about it before they receive a red flag and are eliminated.
There was a discussion of frangible pins, which enable logs on cross-country jumps to drop after receiving heavy pressure, preventing rotational falls. They will be mandatory in all fences suitable for their use by December 2009, though they are not the whole answer. Speaking of falls, some in attendance were unhappy that the USEF executive committee last month enacted a new rule, effective immediately, calling for elimination of riders after one fall, instead of two. The FEI followed suit this month. There was a feeling that the safety summit should have been the forum for discussing this before it was passed, with the contention that it will have a disproportionate effect on the lower levels, which is not where the recent serious injuries and deaths have occurred.
On the education front, the Instructor Certification Program obviously is going to play an ever-bigger role in the future, though financing is needed to insure everyone who wants to be certified can participate.
I'll be back with you tomorrow on more details about the consensus (read the final postcard), but I wanted to give you at least a peek as to what went on here for eight hours.
It's great that so many in the eventing world are pitching in with ideas, but I don't envy the sport's leaders: They have quite a task on their hands. While eventing will always be a risk sport, I don't doubt that with effort there will be improvements. This is a good step in that direction.