Riding Kills Horses, Too

Attention to riding accidents misses harm to horses.


Corrected on 4/11/08: An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified the location of the event at which two horses died in March. The event was at Red Hills.

While it is nothing short of thrilling that the New York Times placed a story about eventing fatalities on its front page yesterday, it is nothing short of infuriating that the report missed or bypassed a most important point.

Yes, riders are injured all too often on artificially pumped-up courses. Some even die. But equine athletes—the horses themselves—die trying to get through these courses. Unlike human riders, these horses do not knowingly undertake the risks. It is high time we stopped sacrificing horses' lives to massage human egos seeking unnecessarily tougher athletic tests.

I wrote about this two weeks ago in my Scripps Howard Newspapers column. And I should mention that I own seven horses and compete in the hunter ring.

Eventing is a three-phase Olympic sport that tests horse and rider teams in dressage, stadium jumping, and cross-country. At a horse trial in Florida last month, an Olympic rider, Darren Chiacchia, was seriously injured, and two horses were killed trying to complete a course that could easily have been made equally challenging yet less dangerous. Chiacchia's injury, the Times reports, provoked an eruption of online discussion in the eventing community about the excessive difficulty of some course designs.

The dangers posed on cross-country courses come in two forms. First, huge wooden fixed fences that horse/rider teams must jump do not come apart when horses stumble and hit them. Second, horses are sometimes forced to maintain speeds at the gallop that their hearts simply cannot abide. The two horses that died at Red Hills last month both died of heart attacks. This proves the inaccuracy of the common saying "healthy as a horse."

Cross-country is by far not the most dangerous horse sport. We all know Barbaro's sorry tale. Young horses are regularly "euthanized" at the track after breaking legs and sustaining other injuries. Many of these injuries are also easily averted.

Challenging athletes is one thing. Pushing them to inhuman extremes is another. It's time to make eventing and all equine sports safer for the horses, too.