Friday, October 23, 2015

Of Eventing, Risk Assessment, and William Fox-Pitt

If you have been following international equestrian news in the past week, and more particularly eventing news, you are probably already aware that one of the leading event riders in the world, William Fox-Pitt of Great Britain, fell from a horse while on course at the Le Lion d'Angers Young Event Horse CCI** Championships.

Fox-Pitt is a genuinely masterful rider and a lovely person. He is probably in the top 0.1% of most experienced, talented, and successful horsemen alive today.

from the Bromont 3 Day Event, photo by me

Following his fall, the course was held for an hour (it's unclear whether he was being worked on that entire time, or whether he was transported immediately and the hold was due to other logistical factors). He was brought to a hospital. He was medically sedated for observation due to a traumatic brain injury.

There have been no updates since, and no details, which is of course the family's prerogative; but it does not look good.

The Chronicle of the Horse forums, which, say what you will about them, are always a good place to go for ardent discussion of breaking news, have been covering the incident extensively, and sharing some really wonderful stories about Fox-Pitt's good-natured personality, sportsmanship, and extraordinary horse sense. (All of that also comes through if you've ever read his autobiography, which I highly recommend.)

from the Bromont 3 Day Event, photo by me

Fox-Pitt's fall has intersected with emotional ongoing debates about the nature of eventing as a sport: where is it headed, is it too dangerous, has it changed for the worse, and how to address the increasingly common news of human and horse injury and death in upper level eventing. (Some other bloggers have addressed this as well, among them SprinklerBandit's In Defense of Eventing.)

I don't have answers for any of that. I don't think anyone does.

Here's one thing I want to take a stand on, however. An argument which comes up time and time again when this discussion happens is that being involved with horses is inherently dangerous. When a horse dies on the cross-country course, someone is guaranteed to say, "Well, he could have tripped out in pasture." When a rider dies or is seriously injured while competing, someone is guaranteed to say, "Well, I know someone who died just leading their horse back to the barn."

from the Bromont 3 Day Event, photo by me

I'm officially fed up with that argument. Below, I have copied the text of a post I finally made after I got angrier and angrier reading the COTH thread. The post I responded to is at the top, in italics.
Honestly...I've known riders killed going for a walking hack on a reliable horse. I've also known (not just know of) people with TBIs in a coma for days doing dressage. I've also known 3 people killed by horses just handling kicked in very normal situations with normal horses. My worst injury came during a dressage school. I don't think you ever know what will cause you to question the danger....but most people I do not really think understand the danger until they do. Our minds do not let us think about otherwise we would all never get into a car on a daily basis.   
While I wholeheartedly agree with the second half of this post (that we must all make our own personal decisions based on our own risk assessment), I keep hearing this argument over and over and I'm starting to get frustrated with it.

For me, it's a false equivalency. It's the same argument used to justify not wearing a helmet - "I can get killed at any time around horses, so why bother wearing a helmet while riding?" Yes, you can, and yes, you should. The two situations are not mutually exclusive.

Horses are dangerous. No one sensible would say otherwise; we can all reel off the names of riders seriously injured or killed in freak accidents. My worst riding fall came while walking on a loose rein in a field; after my horse hand spent a solid 90 minutes behaving abominably, he calmed down, was quiet and well-behaved...and tripped. I went off. My helmet split. I got a concussion and screwed up my back permanently. So believe me, I get the "horses are dangerous at all times" argument.

But. Here's the thing. Saying that extrapolates from the anecdotes and the statistically practically inconsequential freak accidents and tries to create a big risk umbrella that belies the significantly higher risk that any rider takes on when raising the activity and difficulty level of an equestrian sport.

What I'm trying to say is: yes, you can be injured while just standing next to a horse. But your odds for being injured go up as you go along the continuum: longeing, riding, dressage, jumping, and cross-country. Riding a horse cross-country is without question one of the more dangerous things you can do on horseback. It just is. There are more variables, there is more speed, there is more adrenaline, and there are infinitely more things that can go wrong. Ratchet that up as you go up the levels, with more athletic horses, bigger jumps, faster courses, and trickier questions. It becomes a sheer numbers game.

Possibly the best event rider in the world was very seriously injured riding what seems to many to be a straightforward fence, at a level he had done hundreds of times before. The fact that troubles me is that we've cornered the numbers game so that even the very, very best that have ever participated in this sport cannot do so safely. Not with any consistency. It's not a question of whether they will be seriously injured. It's a question of when. If not the riders, then the horses. I find that deeply troubling and unbelievably sad. 
The problem is not "oh well you could get killed doing anything with horses." The problem is that eventing seems to have become an unacceptably high risk endeavour, and we can't catch up fast enough with safety measures. The former does not justify the latter. 
Look: I love eventing, but when you add up the numbers of horses and riders seriously injured or killed, you can't ignore the pattern. So far, the answer seems to be, well, that's the price we pay for having eventing as a sport. And that frustrates me.
from the Bromont 3 Day Event, photo by me

The "you could get killed doing anything around horses" argument is the "guns don't kill people, people kill people" argument of equestrian sport.

They are both true, but simply saying them and refusing to consider statistics, evidence, and attempt a more nuanced understanding of risk assessment is naive and counterproductive.

We need to nip this argument in the bud, acknowledge that there are things we do that can dramatically increase or lessen the danger and risk inherent in any particular activity, and not simply say that all the risk levels involved in horses are equal, and therefore we sign an imaginary contract saying we're ok with whatever happens next. We should not be ok with what happens next.


  1. First I've read of this, thanks for sharing.

  2. I was very sad to hear of WFP's injury and certainly wish him a full recovery. That said, I hope this accident serves as a catalyst for change in the sport.

  3. Great post. I hope he gets better!

  4. Not much to add except that I like the way you put this. It's a tough question with hard answers.

  5. A very well-reasoned perspective. No easy answers, that's for sure.


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