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Another Horse-Sports Tragedy

An atrocious string of thoroughly unnecessary and completely man-made (or man-caused) equine deaths lengthened this weekend with the Saturday death of a horse named Tigger Too in New Jersey at the Jersey Fresh horse trials.

I've written in this space about the "euthanization" of two horses at Florida's Red Hills cross-country trial in March. Two more were "euthanized" at Kentucky's Rolex competition last month. And, of course, one week ago, before a worldwide TV audience, filly Eight Belles was sacrificed on the altar of human ego, after "running her heart out" at the Kentucky Derby.

I put euthanization in quotes because, as I've noted earlier, the proper term from my perspective is "slaughter." These horses were knowingly put in harm's way by their human owners.

Maybe this time, just maybe, this expanding list of catastrophes will cause changes in both sports (eventing and thoroughbred racing) to put the health and well-being of the horse front and center where it belongs. I'm writing, yet again, about the issue of inhumane treatment of equine athletes because I'm sure Tigger Too's death will not produce the kind of publicity Eight Belles's death received. But it should.

Tigger Too was owned by David O'Connor. O'Connor, his website notes, won individual gold and team bronze for the United States at several recent Olympic games:

David brought home the first eventing Gold Medal for the United States in more than a quarter of a century, when he clinched the individual eventing championship on Custom Made at the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney with the best score in Olympic history. Alongside Karen (his wife who is also an Olympic eventer) he and Giltedge helped the USET capture the Team Bronze Medal in Sydney, and the Team Sliver [sic] in Atlanta.

O'Connor is now president of the U.S. Equestrian Federation, the governing body of American rated horse shows. The federation has proposed tough, sorely needed rules changes to rein in upper-level eventing for the sake of horse and rider safety.

The most contentious of the rules said that riders and horses should be suspended from competition for up to six months and lose their qualification at the level in which they were competing, following a rotational fall.

It has since been amended to say that ground juries should have the option of banning riders for up to three months following a horse fall if they believe it was caused by dangerous riding.

Horse and rider would be eliminated from the competition after a rider fall and suspended for a month for a horse fall at a jump. USEF president David O'Connor said: "The suspension is meant to be a deterrent, to reduce dangerous riding."

The suspension, in its original, more punitive form, should be enacted. Fences, as I've mentioned earlier, should also be made to come apart upon impact.

Eventing fatalities occur most often in the cross-country phase, in which horses are forced to run too fast for long periods of time and/or jump obstacles that are obscenely difficult. The obstacles or jumps are designed to "challenge" the horse-rider teams. But in truth, upper-level eventers assume an ethic of "toughness" and machismo that promotes untenably difficult courses. This "machismo" ethic applies to female as well as male riders.

Extreme obstacles cause so-called rotational falls, in which the horse hits the fence with its forelegs, causing the rider to fall ahead of the horse. The horse's momentum carries it over the jump, after which it falls head over heels and lands on the rider. This YouTube video provides a more graphic description of rotational falls than words could ever provide. None of the horses or riders shown were seriously injured.

In eventing, perhaps something good will come of the unnecessary misery at Red Hills, Rolex, and Jersey Fresh if the federation succeeds inpushing through the tougher version of its rules changes. If public pressure on the racing industry forces changes in its conduct, perhaps Eight Belles and all the others killed like her in training or racing accidents will not have died in vain.

By Bonnie Erbe