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Riding for a fall

Edited version published: Inside Sport (November 2009)

It’s an overcast Queen’s Birthday weekend in Victoria, and I’m at an event that would tickle her majesty’s equine fancy - the Melbourne Three Day Event (M3DE) a top notch nag’s get together on the Australian equestrian calendar.

It’s Day Two, Cross Country, and horses and riders of all skill levels, from pony club hopefuls to bonafide Olympians, are traversing the custom designed and built course; 5.8km of 26 jumps multi-element jumps. An interested crowd of fresh faced, well to do country types looks on; men in stockmen’s coats and hats, women in jeans and designer gumboots, and jodhpur-clad, leather-booted teenage girls a plenty.

I’m just grateful I’m on the other side of the fence. A horse and rider round the corner and gallop full tilt down the straight, heading for a 1.2m high jump made from logs of wood stacked one on top of the other, chopping up the grass and making the dirt fly. They seem as one; the rider leaning into the horse, using weight and voice, perhaps a subtle pull on the reins, to communicate speed and direction, pace and reach.

As they slow to take in the jump, I can see that the horse’s chocolate brown coat is shining with sweat and good health. Its ears are pricked up and its thick black tail stands erect, bouncing in time with the rhythm of its hooves on the ground. The horse’s breathing loud and laboured, the rider’s fast and shallow. Together they rise and stretch and are up and over and away, off to the next jump. It’s a magnificent display of skill and power and control.

Eventing is a grueling competition of Olympic caliber, often called a horse triathlon as participants are required to take part in three events - dressage, show jumping and cross-country racing - over one, two or three days. The sport has its origins in the military, when horses were trained to perform show ground maneuvres and travel long distances to deliver messages. In 1948 Olympic eventing was opened up to civilians, including women.

Today, it is the only Olympic sport where human and animal are established team mates, and one of the few where men and women compete on equal terms. And it’s a dangerous business. In April 2008 the New York Times reported that twelve eventing riders have been killed worldwide in the previous eighteen months.

Since then, another four riders have died. None of these deaths took place in Australia, but we too have suffered the taint of tragedy: in May 1997 Olympic hopeful Anna Savage died during the cross country phase of the Naracoorte Horse Trials. In June 1999 Australian born Robert Slade was one of five eventing riders to be killed in UK eventing’s annus horribulus, when five riders were killed in as many months, and in April 2000, Mark Myers’ died when his horse misjudged a bounce jump at the Fig Tree Pocket cross country event in Southern Queensland.

You can get injured just standing behind a cantankerous horse, let alone sitting on one and attempting to steer it through, around and over complicated, strategically designed cross country courses and jumps. Today’s steeds weigh around 500kg, and stand at a minimum of sixteen hands high. It’s enough to put you off your feedbag.

No one knows this better than twenty-eight year old Bianca Craddock, who nearly died in March 2008 when her horse Scooter flipped and landed on top of her after misjudging a bounce jump (where the horse lands and must immediately jump over a second fence without taking a stride) at the Tonimbuk Horse Trials.

Scooter escaped unscathed, but Craddock wasn’t so lucky. She suffered head trauma, eight broken ribs, broken foot bones, a broken shoulder blade and collar bone, liver damage, internal bleeding and collapsed lungs. She was intubated onsite and airlifted to Melbourne’s Alfred Hospital, where she spent a week in the ICU and another week in the general wards. Wheelchair bound for the first two weeks after discharge, Craddock had a frustrating five month recovery period, slowed by four painful operations on her collarbone.

She has no recollection of the day of the accident or the two weeks that followed, but has been told that she and Scooter negotiated the first half of the course beautifully. But then disaster struck. “About half way around was a bank with a bounce to the second element and a turn to the third element. A small mistake on our part, and Scooter took off a fraction of a stride too far away, and didn't cleanly get all four hooves on the ground before he had to take off to get over the next element.”

“Scooter has a heart the size of Phar Lap and committed himself to try even though he wasn't ready. He never really got far off the ground and he hit the next element right at the top of his front legs, but with the momentum we needed to get up the first element his body continued in forward motion and flipped over the fence, landing smack bang on top of me.”

“It was a freak accident,” she says. “A million tiny things could have gone either way and any one of them would have completely changed the final result. I’m very thankful for my helmet and body protector; I'm not sure where I'd be without them.”

Craddock’s injury is typical, according to a 2008 research report by Denzil O’Brien and Prof Raymond Cripps of the Research Centre for Injury Studies at Adelaide's Flinders University. “Rotational falls pose the most danger to rider safety,” says O’Brien, “but the accident risk is also higher for step-in and step-out water obstacles than other types of jumps.”

O'Brien and Cripps collected data on 444 Australian events from 2002-2006, and found that of nearly 60,000 starts and 1.5 million jumping efforts, 1,732 falls took place, from which 374 injuries were reported.

“By far the majority of injuries reported were minor,” says O’Brien. “90 were only abrasions; 104 were fractures. 58 involved concussion or loss of consciousness, and there were no serious spinal injuries reported.”

Like all datasets, there are holes. Reporting to the study was voluntary, and in fact eventing – at both national and international levels - does not have a compulsory, consistent or systematic procedure for the collection of data in place. This makes it difficult to know what has really happened. But the laissez-faire attitude that has characterized eventing for much of its existence is changing; the sport is pulling its safety socks right up.  

“The Federation Equestrian International has been improving safety in the sport since the horror years of 1999-2000,” says O’Brien. “International occurrences of rotational falls are dropping, so they must be doing something right.”

“Whenever there’s an injury to a horse or a rider, we can never be certain what caused it,” acknowledges Bob Powles, a policeman with thirty-five years in the force under his belt, and Eventing Australia’s National Safety Officer.

“We’ve done some things that we have a gut feeling are going to help to fix things, but we’re not sure,” he continues. “So we’ve started collecting information from every event - local, state, national or international, on a whole lot of things: topography, weather, whether a fall was at a fence, if so what was the type of fence, what were the dimensions, how was it constructed, was it a multiple lot, was it located at the start, was it located at the finish, how many jumps were there in the actual event, and so on. We’re hoping that by collecting the same details, all over the world, we’ll see what’s coming up. We’ll begin to address those things and drive down the falls.”

“There is an element of danger in most sports where speed is involved; I think that’s unavoidable. But we can minimize the dangers,” he says, citing multiple checks of the course by tiers of delegates, and intensive monitoring of the horse’s physical condition by veterinarians before, during and after the course as important safety nets.

The introduction of frangible pins to the design and build of the jumps themselves is also helping to minimize serious injury. “In jumps where there’s a spread (a rail or an obstacle behind the jump that means the horse has to jump wider) although they’re tied and they’re solid, if a certain amount of weight comes down on that back rail it will bend and break the steel pin. Rather than tip the horse and rider over and make them fall, it collapses the back rail,” explains Powles. If a rider breaks a pin, they get penalised.

But if you fall off, you’re out. Recent rule changes mean that a horse and rider earn automatic elimination if they fall at an obstacle, even if all that gets damaged is the rider’s pride. And soon any fall, anywhere on course, will also get them kicked out.

“They could be galloping along when the horse trips on a rabbit burrow that no one’s seen, and the rider is dislodged but gets back up on their feet - they’re out. That’s quite a disadvantage in something like a team event,” says Powles, “but it shows that we’re taking it seriously. The protection of the horse and the rider is paramount.”

It hasn’t always been this way, recalls Sonja Johnston, a member of the sliver medal winning 2008 Olympic eventing team, and one of Australia’s most experienced horsewomen. “I remember doing pony club state championships as a 12 year old, and the only qualification I needed to do it was that my parents had to sign a piece of paper saying that if I killed myself that wouldn’t sue anyone!” she says, laughing.

Johnston is midway through the long drive back to the family farm in WA from M3DE, where she finished 6th, when we speak. Everyone knows it’s a risky sport, she concedes, but it’s a controlled environment.

“I know my horses really well; I’ve trained them and watched them evolve. We’re a partnership, I can read them. And they’re athletes. You watch them galloping and their ears are pricked and they’re looking at the next fence; you’re helping them out and they’re helping you out.”

“You’ve got to do it to really understand it,” she continues. “There are so many highly qualified people out there that check the safety of the courses and so on, before the riders even get to see it! I seriously believe I’m under far more risk doing this fifteen hour drive tomorrow, because I can’t control what the other bugger on the road is doing.”

Feats of pre regulation bravery are spoken of with head shaking, nostalgia-tinged admiration by today’s eventers. Like when five-time Olympian Bill Roycroft discharged himself from hospital and rode the show jumping round of the 1960 Olympics in Rome with his arm in a sling to bring in the silver.

Or, more recently, when Gillian Rolton won gold with a broken collarbone and ribs at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta after her horse Peppermint Grove skidded and fell during the cross country. Rolton rode on, only to somersault into the water at the next jump, wade out, remount again and clear fifteen more fences in three kilometres.

Her stoicism extended to refusing painkillers at the hospital in case she was needed for the final team jumping round the next day, and has earned her a place as one of our top fifty Olympians. “Everyone saw that as a tremendous achievement,” says Powles, “but that wouldn’t happen now.”  

“You can’t lose sight of the dangers, that’s for sure,” says Ewan Kellett, who designed today’s course and touches wood several times as we talk. “It’s got to be a challenge for the horses and riders, but the absolute bottom line is that it’s got to be safe. Safety is paramount. My wife events and the people that are eventing are our friends, it’s a really close knit community we have, so it really matters to me that it’s safe. I don’t like having horses fall; I want them jumping solid fences.”

“That’s why we test things; make sure we’ve got them right. We focus on straightness and rhythm, getting them to jump narrower fences and lines, rather than just having them jump punishingly brutal fences. We want the horses and the riders to grow in confidence; we want it to be a positive experience.”

And this weekend, it seems to be. I see a few minor spills around the water jumps – renowned trouble spots and crowd favourites – but they seem to damage the rider’s pride, more than anything else. One rider looks teary and humiliated in the aftermath; another throws his crop on the ground and stalks off in frustration.

Equestrians are a resilient bunch. Just over a year later and Bianca Craddock is back in the saddle. “I competed in the same event where I fell and it was a relief to get that behind me,” she says. “I do get a bit more nervous than I used to; I tend to think about the things that could go wrong, but it’s what I love doing, and I’ll keep doing it for as long as I can.”