I have done my piece filled with emotion due to the recent tragic death and now you will find my non-emotional response. This is not a new response for me, by the way. I have been quietly lobbying away now for years at this, but perhaps now is as good a time as any to bring light to it. But before I start in on my view of how to decrease rider fatalities in the sport, I just have to debunk two myths that are so prevalent on social media and make me very cross:
1. That the powers that be in our sport and many upper level riders are ambivalent to the safety issues of our sport. As said, I refuse to get emotional in this piece, but will only say that the above is such an erroneous belief held, I’m sure, by a small, but vocal ignorant minority.
2. That the sport is more dangerous now, and has more fatalities now then it did in the ‘good ol days of long format.’ This is factually wrong. The people espousing this opinion are FACTUALLY incorrect. I remember well the last full format four star at Rolex, as I was lucky enough to partake in it. It was in 2005. Some of the very worst years for deaths in eventing were in the 1990s. Simple math, thus, tells you that it was during the long format days that some of the worst death years occurred. I think the people that espouse this belief of the good ol days being safer have either a foggy memory or were unaware of the facts due to the lack of widespread internet use back then, but it is simply untrue.
While I can agree that some very important horsemanship has been lost to some with the disappearance of the long format, I am totally fed up with those that want to tell us there are more deaths now then there were before or that there is a correlation between deaths now and the lack of long format. I can appreciate that when I am older I too will probably be one of those that like to think that my generation did it better, but the truth is that where deaths are concerned your generation did not do it better and I am sorry that I offend your values and tradition with my FACTS.
Ok, now that I have cleared up those myths, let’s get to what I believe we can do now. No, I do not think we will avoid all deaths. Yes, I think we can reduce them. How? Get rid of tables and especially square faced, vertical, tables at all levels prelim and up, UNLESS they can be approved collapsible tables.
Facts show that a large number of deaths have been caused by tables.
I have asked many and have not once had a sufficient answer to my question, “Why do we need these tables?”
And until I can get an answer to that, I will hold strong to my belief. Get Rid of Them.
And here is why:
1. Square tables are, more than any other type of fences, death traps. People think that tables are galloping fences (more to come on that later) of boldness when, in fact, tables are accuracy questions. Square tables are as much, and more, a question of accuracy than a corner or a skinny; albeit perhaps a different kind of accuracy. Why? It is very rare to have a stop or a run out at a table. People will jump tables one thousand times fine. But the one time they do not? They rotate and are seriously injured or killed. A rider mistake, when made grave enough at a big enough table, will more often than not be lethal. From the data I can find, more than any other fence type, people die at tables or square oxers that are not frangible. I see no reason to keep these fences around any longer unless they are made collapsible.
2. There are many other types of fences we can replace a stand-alone table with. Trakehner, elephant traps, ramps, bull finches, triple bars… I am sure there are many others out there that can take the place of our tables…not to mention collapsible tables. There is no one ‘test’ of horse and rider that these jumps fulfill that cannot be fulfilled with a safer obstacle.
3. Training. Due to the nature of our modern sport, be it right or wrong, and how vastly more technical our show jumping has become, we are training our horses to be more careful jumpers. We use poles on the ground all the time to teach our students and our horses the correct place to get closer to the base and jump around the fences throwing a much better jump than in the past decades where you saw people jumping around at the upper levels on flat fast horses having rails at fences that were smaller than they are now.
I think we have improved the way we as eventers ride and train our horses to jump, but this said, in teaching them to be more careful, they are less apt to take the flyers over the cross country jumps and instead want to add one in to get closer to the base and jump more carefully over the fence. Thus, when a rider makes a mistake and sees the ‘long one’ to a table, perhaps in the old days when the horses were not trained in the same manner like we do today, then would take off from there perhaps banking the jump or coming down a bit on the back side of the fence, but now? We encourage them to be careful so instead of leaving long they are going to try to fit one in to jump better, but sadly, at that square table at those speeds cross country they don’t have enough time to get their legs out of the way and thus tragedy ensues.
While a different type of fence with a different facial profile would be more forgiving of this instance, tables are not. It also bares mention the fact that just like in pure show jumping, our rails and cups are much different now to what they used to be. Our rails are much lighter and our cups flatter thus having forced us to produce a very careful showjumper. Yet the cross country materials we are now using have gotten bigger and heavier and thus physically less able to give away. While in the ’70s they may have had a very large open oxer made of thin birch rails we are now building them out of tree trunks…just an interesting observation.
4. Trainers. Too many trainers out there teach to treat single fences cross country like galloping jumps. Then on top of that they teach to just come in a ‘rhythm’ and let the horse figure it out. This is so very wrong. Yes, of course, the rhythm needs to be there, and the balance, but ALSO a recognition of the distance, the take off point. Preaching irrelevance to awareness of take off points, at anything above training level should be seen as willfully endangering one’s students. One needs to see and recognize a distance at the upper levels. Perhaps not the ‘best’ distance every time but A distance. If you don’t see it you shouldn’t be riding down to it. Look around you people! Watch Phillip or Toddy as they ride four horses around upper level courses and they see it every single time on every horse. And in the one out of a thousand times they do not see it? They will support that bit in the horse’s mouth if they have to to make it happen.
As well, some trainers don’t know what a ‘galloping’ fence is. They think that any stand-alone fence is a ‘galloping’ fence. A square table is never a ‘galloping’ fence. While at Jersey Fresh I tagged along while Leslie walked the course for the two star and they had the same exact fence built to two star dimensions as Philippa met her end at at the end of the two star course a few fences from home stood alone. When Leslie walked up to that fence his advice was to be as respectful and careful at that fence as with ANY other fence on the course. That it was not a galloping fence at all and that stood alone, near the end of the long track. It needed the upmost attention and care. But like I said, many trainers out there would have considered it a ‘galloping’ fence and thus we have too many riders out there that don’t know how to respect these jumps.
To me, the above four reasons when put together, make an undeniable argument that unless tables can be safely made collapsible they must be disposed of all together. I am sure there is a table with a certain degree of ramped face and certain width on top that would be acceptable and drastically reduce the risk factor as it would give the right amount of angle in front to allow the horse to get its legs out of the way, but that takes time and engineering and research to produce so until that is done I say get rid of them altogether and replace them with something else.
I am thoroughly convinced that my argument holds merit and like I say, I have asked countless trainers, riders, course designers and builders from two countries why we need the square tables and not one person has been able to supply me an answer.
I can only find two problematic scenerios with my argument and they are:
1. Cost. It will be very cost prohibitive for events to have to go out and replace their tables with either something else or collapsible fences. We would have to rally together as a community to help fundraise for all of our events to make these changes in the name of safety.
2. Will the rest of the world follow? Maybe? Maybe not. There were a few years that the UK outlawed tables and perhaps if they see America do it they may follow suit. Who knows? And if they don’t will it be ok for our team members to go from never jumping a table to having to attend a Burgley where there may be some great big tables? I am not sure the answer to that… More a question for David O’Connor, but in some ways I think visionaries in safety have to not be afraid to be the leaders.
Again, I do not believe my idea will rid of all deaths. Not at all. I am only addressing the most obvious killer and surely that is the best place to start?