Over the years I have attended many horsey events both as a competitor, judge and spectator. One thing that has always been evident is the organisers’ concern for the safety of both horse and rider and for those who are there purely to watch. Health and safety regulations are something any public event in the UK is usually riddled with; from marathons to village fetes and anything in between, safety always comes first. It never used to be like this but the dramatic increase in lawsuits brought against all and sundry by injured third parties in recent years has left everyone terrified of being sued. Horsey events are no different and, following a couple of serious accidents involving runaway equines, safety precautions these days have become even more stringent.
There follows a somewhat alarming tale of a near-miss tragedy, which could have so easily have been avoided; take note all event organisers! My other half and I attended a point-to-point race meeting yesterday. The venue is in lovely open country with a river running alongside part of the track and is accessed from a busy main road via several miles of quiet country lanes. Yesterday was a Bank Holiday and the weather was reasonably clement so there was quite a big crowd. The main public area had the usual plethora of trade and food stands, bookmakers’ boards, a bar and parade ring whilst the main public car-park, which is set on a hill overlooking the racecourse, was packed with families picnicking, kids playing football, dogs running around, etc.
As is usual at these events, a number of mounted hunt staff and volunteer followers were stationed around the course during each race to sweep up any loose horses and escort them safely back to their connections at the conclusion of the race. Point-to-pointing is effectively amateur steeplechasing and spills are inevitable and regular occurrences. Indeed, OH and I were just arriving at the last fence having walked around the two mile course when the commentator announced that one horse and rider had parted company and sure enough, a loose horse galloped past us and into the fields beyond the finishing line.
The huntsman who was policing that area went off in pursuit, but the miscreant was not for catching and proceeded to make the most of his day out by cavorting around the field refusing to be caught. Two more horses decanted their riders over the two final fences in the finishing straight and came careening into the field to join their chum, sending spectators (me included) scurrying for cover into some nearby bushes. Some ten minutes later, all three had been cornered by several mounted hunt staff and, after some half-hearted frolicking, duly decided that they’d had their fun and that haynets and evening feed beckoned. The incident ended happily for all concerned and added to the fun and excitement of the day.
OH and I decided to watch the penultimate race from the same vantage point as we had a good view of a large part of the track from there, including the finishing straight. Once again there was an announcement from the commentary box that number 17 had ‘dropped the pilot’ at fence 3 and was loose on the course. The huntsman moved into intercept position and number 17 duly cantered past us and up the field. And this is where things went pear-shaped.
Number 17 was clearly not only very fit but agile too, neatly side-stepped his scarlet-coated pursuer and his coloured cob, turned around and began charging back towards the public area which was cordoned off from the race track at that particular point solely by a thin piece of blue cord. The area immediately in his path was filled with parked cars, children playing and people picnicking, totally unaware that half a ton of adrenalin-fuelled, racehorse was heading straight for them; completely in flight mode.
Several of us ran out and waved our arms frantically which mercifully averted disaster; well almost. What no-one seemed to have noticed or heeded was the open lane. A narrow track right beside the course which is used to provide access to the sponsors’ car park, led up through country lanes to eventually meet up with the main road. The gates were wide open; presumably the organisers thought that too much inconvenience would be caused to sponsors wishing to leave early if the gates were closed. Number 17 swerved when he saw us, clattered straight past the outstretched arms of a handful of spectators and his distraught groom, disappeared through the open gates and thundered out of sight up the lane.
Immediately, the huntsman set off in hot pursuit followed by a vet in a Land Rover and the poor groom puffing along behind on foot. Later in the afternoon, we met up with the huntsman who reported that all was well and that number 17 had been caught; two and a half miles up the lane, just a hundred yards before the main road. The horse was none the worse for his adventure and miraculously no-one was injured; all’s well that ends well, although I shudder to think what might have happened had he not been caught before he reached the main road with its Bank Holiday traffic and heavy goods vehicles.
As we returned to our car, I noticed that the horsebox park below us was also un-gated; grooms were busy leading their charges around; loading and unloading horses from lorries and trailers. It was another accident waiting to happen.
We can only hope that the afternoon’s near disaster will serve as a lesson learned by the organisers and that next year the gates will all be closed and properly stewarded.