Last month I headed out to spend a sunny summer’s afternoon in the countryside enjoying top class sport at an international horse trials event which was being held near to where I live. I wandered among the myriad trade stands, admired the lithe athleticism of the horses heading down to the cross country start, watched a little of the show jumping and soaked up the building atmosphere of excitement and anticipation, blissfully unaware of how tragically the day would end.
I made my way out to the cross country course, pausing briefly to allow a young man on a coloured horse to pass. He thanked me politely and smiled before patting his horse and trotting away down to the cross country warm up area where I lingered for a few minutes watching him popping confidently over the practice fences.
I began to walk the course, stopping at each fence to watch a horse and rider go through. I stood in the warm sunshine with a small group of smiling, happy spectators and we craned our necks for a better view as the commentary box announced the next rider away from the start. It was the young man on the coloured horse I had spoken to earlier. They cleared the first three fences effortlessly and in good style; people clapped, impressed.
The fourth obstacle was nothing special; a simple combination of bog-standard, solidly built cross country fences which had been jumped countless times before without incident. But the coloured horse approached at a rate of knots and misjudged the striding catching a foreleg as he took off, somersaulting over the fence. Hands flew to mouths as our little group uttered a collective gasp of horror. The young man was not thrown clear as you would expect with such a fall but instead remained with his horse, vanishing beneath it, still in the saddle.
There was a tense silence. The coloured horse scrambled to his feet apparently none the worse; but his rider remained where he had fallen, unmoving. The event doctor was, fortunately, stationed nearby and rushed to the stricken rider. Screens were erected around the prone form to afford some privacy whilst he was attended to. The commentary box announced that the riders on course would be held while the casualty was treated but the delay was expected to be a short one. Over the half hour that followed the commentary continued, running through the event sponsors and giving updates on who was leading each section together with assurances that everything was fine; there would just be a further short delay while the young man was thoroughly checked over by the doctor.
Then a paramedic car arrived followed closely by an ambulance, both with blue lights flashing. Much frantic activity ensued behind the screens. Suddenly, the air was filled with a heavy, whumping sound. Heads turned skywards and we watched as the bright yellow air ambulance helicopter landed. People took photographs and chattered excitedly as the crew disembarked and the rotors slowly stopped. I felt a flutter of nerves in my stomach.
A doctor wearing an orange jump-suit ducked as he cleared the slowing rotors and walked toward the ambulance. There seemed to be no urgency in his demeanour and following a brief conversation with the ambulance crew the rotors began to turn again; the crew boarded and the chopper departed, minus any casualty. Something was horribly wrong.
Some of the crowd lost interest and wandered away, assuming the young man would now be taken to the hospital in the ambulance. Perhaps his injuries didn’t warrant a flight in the helicopter. A few moments later, two police cars arrived. Uniformed police officers joined the throng who were now gathered beside the ambulance and the commentary box at last fell silent. At that moment, the sun picked out the silhouette of a girl kneeling behind the screens with her head in her hands. Then the announcement was made that; due to unforeseen circumstances, the event was abandoned and would all spectators please leave the showground.
As a former police officer I now understood what was happening. The coloured horse’s rider was dead. The police attended as a matter of procedure; to take a report of a sudden death. No suspicious circumstances; just an accident. When the field was empty of spectators, the undertaker would arrive in his discreet, black van and the young man would be taken to the nearest mortuary. The sun went in; a chilly wind sprang up and I began to cry.
Fortunately, such events are rare. In the UK there have been just four fatalities during horse trials in the last nine years. Most serious injuries however do seem to occur as a result of rotational falls where riders sustain crush injuries to the chest and upper body. Event riders accept that there are risks involved, but the sport is becoming increasingly aware that it carries a degree of responsibility to do whatever it can to minimise the worst happening.
Several years ago, following a number of serious rotational falls, fence construction and design was radically overhauled. Special ‘frangible’ pins were introduced making fences more likely to collapse in the event of a horse colliding with the obstacle and courses were made kinder and less technically challenging. Every event now has a riders’ representative whose duty it is to raise any concerns competitors may have about an obstacle they feel is not safe and organisers are duty bound to hear such concerns and act upon them if necessary.
Riders competing in the cross country phase must wear a body protector. Recently, a new design has hit the market. It’s a cross between a standard body protector, which offers a degree of protection to the upper torso and shoulders, but with the additional modification of airbag technology. The jacket is attached by a cord to the saddle. When the rider parts company with the saddle, a trigger is activated. This punctures a canister of Co2 which causes the jacket to inflate providing support to the wearer’s spinal column, neck and torso and offering some protection from crush injuries sustained should they be rolled on by the horse. British Eventing is now considering making it a rule that all riders wear one of these special inflatable vests whilst competing. At a cost of £400 each, safety doesn’t come cheap, but the investment might just save a life.
R.I.P. Tom Gadsby.