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“It Was the Worst of Times.”

Screen shot 2014-06-15 at 09.07.16I wrote this article ages ago but then shelved it, as the tone seemed too sombre. After yesterday’s Black Saturday, two rider fatalities in one day, it seems appropriate.

This photo is from way back in the mists of time, Savernake Advanced, in 1999. The grey in the picture is my best ever horse, Skylarker (Doris), a wonderful Skyboy mare. I’d bought her as a show-jumper from Vere Phillips and turned her to eventing. She was smart and opinionated, and very difficult on the flat, but she was a freakishly brilliant jumper and utterly loved it, as shows in the pic, I think. Most of that long-ago weekend at beautiful Savernake Park is seared indelibly in my memory, even now, 15 years later.

1999 was the most ‘annus horribilis’ eventing has ever had. Five event riders died in the U.K. that year. Four of those were top level riders. It was also the year that BE had changed the penalty system so that 1 second over time on xc = 1 penalty, not 0.4 of a penalty. More than doubling the effect of being over the time – who is to know whether this contributed to any of the fatalities? At least one, I suspect. The penalties were changed back to 0.4 per second over the time after that season.

We had day-before dressage, and while we were warming up for our test there was an extremely long hold on the Novice xc course and the air ambulance was called. I clearly remember watching it take off and go over our heads, and recall sitting there, staring at it, concentration gone, sending devout prayers up to whoever was in it. I never really did get my focus back on the dressage after that.

This was the days before Social Media, so there was no wildfire news-sharing that night. On arrival back at the event early the next morning I saw a friend in the lorry park, who told me the terrible news, that Peta Beckett, who had been on the British Team the previous year, had, tragically, died. I didn’t know her but I’d seen her around at a few events and warmed up beside her at Tweseldown OI that spring, and she’d always been smiling and laughing. She had two young children.

They made the decision to carry on with the competition.

Half way through our SJ warm-up, they held a minute’s silence for Peta. It really brought home the risks we all take for the sport we love. I pulled myself together to show-jump, and we did a good round, except for at one big parallel right in front of the judge’s box, where I put her a little deep, a spot she never relished, and she just rubbed it out in front.

I couldn’t get my mind back in the game. I walked the xc again with my best friend, and told her how I planned to jump all the fences, but I really wasn’t in the mood. Fortunately she made me focus and get on with it, when my heart really wasn’t in it. It was a big enough track and needed respect and attack, not faffing around and half-heartedness. I intended to go all the direct routes.

We started well, all good over the first few fences, then had a bit of an eek moment at the serious bounce of logs to a skinny – I think the mare was a bit surprised at how big the logs were, she didn’t usually have to make much of an effort, even at Advanced level. Trying hard, she skewed a bit over the one coming out, and was very honest to jump the arm of the following skinny for me on an acute angle, as I wasn’t exactly in the best position at that point! A few more good jumps, then there was a fence with two options out, built in a bomb crater. Doris skewed dramatically down the drop after the first element for some reason, most unlike her, and I instantly abandoned my plan to go the direct route, a curving few strides through the bomb crater and out over a very skinny upright log (which someone who did it later described to me as “like jumping a flag”) instead going the longer route over a wider fence, safer but losing precious seconds. A few more fences went well, then we came down to the water: a house, few strides to a decent log drop into the water, then through the water and two big steps up on a bounce distance, one stride to a large flower bed skinny.

She jumped the house and log really well, and, as usual, trotted through the water. (She’d been over-bold as a Novice and I think I made a mistake in keeping her in trot too many times. Lesson learnt.) Knowing her very well, I let her stay in a good trot, but I’m sure the crowds wondered what on earth this numpty was doing, trying to come to two big Advanced steps from trot, let alone attempt the direct route out (which I was told only a few of us did all day, the others being top Pro riders.) But I knew my mare, and sure enough, she powered unhesitatingly up the steps, took one perfectly straight stride, and absolutely flew the flower bed. I said “good girl” and gave her a big pat in mid air, and we got a loud cheer from the big crowd, which put an even bigger smile on my face. I guess the crowds were shocked that the muppet who trotted through the water had just managed to do the direct route so well. It was an amazing feeling, I can feel it right now as I rerun the memory. This is why we do it.

The next few fences were fine, although we weren’t exactly copybook through the 90 degree angled brushes a couple of strides apart. Jumping into the second water she managed to spook at the pipe on the left bank carrying water in, which she saw in midair as we came over the fence, and which made for an interesting landing and cost us a few more seconds, but we carried on, clear all the way, and the photo is of the final fence. Bizarrely, it was the one I was most worried about on the whole course – a BIG wide parallel (no frangible pins in those days) and I thought I might fiddle to it and make a mess of it, but luckily I saw a really nice shot off the corner, we still had plenty of petrol in the tank, and she sailed it out of her stride and finished full of running. I should have gone faster, in retrospect, but I’d thought the hills might take more out of her than they did.

We got some time penalties, mainly due to the unplanned detour at the bomb crater, and either those or the fence down put us down into 6th place… if we’d SJed clear, or gone faster xc and avoided 5 time penalties (just 5 seconds!) we’d have won the section. I still kick myself for those two mistakes… my lovely generous Doris truly deserved that win, bless her, although I guess I probably didn’t.

My then-trainer had a good day to get a placing in the other Advanced class, on a horse he had totally retrained after the previous rider had blown its brains. I had witnessed my trainer having to dismount from this horse in the middle of a BD test when it reached meltdown point. He’d calmly done a circle and saluted the judge, got off, patted the horse, and led it out of the arena. Started again. He’d spent hours and hours patiently and meticulously rebuilding that horse’s confidence, in all phases.  It looked fantastic, fit and well. They sailed round clear, after a good Dressage and SJ. On the way back to the horsebox park, after he’d dismounted, the horse collapsed and died of a heart attack. The owners, lovely people, were totally devastated, as was he.

There was no prize giving. The day was very subdued. I just collected my rosette and prize money from the Secretary, said my Thank Yous, fussed my horse, and started the long drive home. Savernake never ran again. I was told that it was because the landowner was so upset about the fatality that had happened on his land, that he could not bear it again. The repercussions of days like that are huge and far-reaching.

Words cannot express how unfair this sport of ours is. It is totally random, like life. Those of us who do it, who absolutely love it, who know that the feeling of riding a good horse cross-country and both getting it all right really is like nothing else on earth, also fully realise that that is a double-edged sword, and that at any moment our luck might run out, in spite of all the ‘safety measures’ introduced. It doesn’t always have to do with competence, as we all know. Better riders than most of us have died, and not necessarily because they made any mistake at all. We entrust our lives to our training of animals that are amazing athletes and generous, responsive partners, but which aren’t always bright enough to poo in a different corner to their water and food. A horse can misjudge a fence by an inch and that can be that. We all know this.

I love eventing with all my heart, and that was one of my best ever results, but it was a very tough weekend. Tough weekends keep coming, it’s the nature of our sport. There have been full rotational falls when a horse overjumped and didn’t even touch the fence, and also at show-jumps. Even if the powers that be made all the fences collapsible it wouldn’t totally eradicate the danger. Riders choose to do it. We know and accept the risks.

It’s utterly tragic. The loss of a good horse and two riders yesterday, two such bright stars as those two young men, makes me feel absolutely sick and numb with grief, so I cannot even begin to imagine what those nearest and dearest to them must be feeling this morning.

My very deepest most heartfelt condolences to all those who have lost loved ones to this sport.

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  • Loved this, it is so spot on, although it did make me cry a bit…..

    Chin up, breathe and live to face another day, for that is the point.

    However, if it were my son….I dread to even imagine.

  • Well written Kerry. I remember that time all too well, I was only pre-novice eventing at the time but it affected me greatly mentally, there was always that “what if” thought in my head, particularly as I had a very young son and a husband. Days like yesterday bring back the memories of that dreadful year and the riders that were lost, so for the families that lost their husbands, sons, wives, daughters etc, this must be an awful reminder. The safety measures that have been put in place since have, I believe, really helped save lives but as with most sports, there is an element of risk and eventing is very high risk, we know this but we still choose to do it. My thoughts are with the families who lost their loved one’s yesterday and to those who lost them in the past.

  • Very sad and tragic events … However I disagree with people and you I am afraid that keep saying this is the nature of our sport ! It’s Part of it … How ridiculous …… !! You don’t compete in a sport to risk your life it is not part of it at all … Some sports come with inherent dangers ofcourse … Such as horse riding …. But we can and must do more to make it safer. The aport is in decline anyway compared to other equeatrain sports with tv ratings and sponsors dropping the sport has not grown or developed much at all over the years and trust me it won’t attract sponsors if it is associated with competitors dieing …..
    The last death of a driver in an F1 car was Ayrton Senna in 1994, but in the early years the toll was alarming and a lot higher . But the sport changed and made changes in safety and design of it’s courses to stop this occurring, since 1994 there have been no deaths .. Eventing needs to change and change now !!! Changes have to be made …. It is not part of the sport I find this attitude almost unbelievable … It’s lovely you had a great day on your horses but emotions don’t matter here I am afraid it’s life and death and for the sport to survive it cannot continue like it does

  • I remember that year better than most “99” I was Polly Phillips groom and had work for Vere since 1996 what you write is so true this week has seen some extremely sad times again my thoughts go out to the family’s of those that have lost loved ones this weekend

  • Mary Kate, you were impacted more than most then. Polly was lovely (I only met her once or twice) and an utterly tragic loss.
    “Honest, rationale and logical”, since you haven’t left your name, I’ll have to just call you that.
    You pick out F1 as a very specific example, and claim that the sport has changed so there are no deaths any more… but you ignore other motorsports which unfortunately still have fatalities – a NASCAR driver died a year ago in fact. That makes 10 NASCAR deaths since 1994. 2 at Le Mans since then. I haven’t investigated further, but those are not reassuring facts. F1 and Nascar and Le Mans cars are not that dissimilar.
    There are other very dangerous sports. Rugby (paralysing injuries more than deaths, I know), mountaineering (countless, as many participants are doing it for fun and not in a competition, so their deaths are not recorded (the best figure I can find is 28 per year on average in the U.S. alone).
    Those who participate in it, KNOW that Eventing is dangerous. We are not fools.
    Eventing has changed a LOT. We now have inventions such as the MIM and Frangible pins. A friend was at an event yesterday spectating and thought that frangibles prevented a few potentially very bad falls. I thought the same at Badminton, and photos from Bramham tell the same story.
    Attempts really are being made to make the sport safer, but we all know that riding horses over jumps is intrinsically dangerous. I’ve been told of a horse which actually didn’t touch a xc fence but overjumped it, landed too steeply, and had a full rotational. Show-jumps can and have caused rotationals. So, even if every single xc fence was made collapsible, there would still be accidents. It would of course change the face of the sport beyond recognition, and increase the cost exponentially, if every fence was collapsible and had to be re-set after a horse hit it.
    Plus… I want to be able to go and jump logs and ‘normal’ xc fences, and I’m sure other riders do too. If we wanted fally-down fences, we’d stick to show-jumping.
    While riders are still willing to accept the risk, we still have a sport. If people don’t like it – either as a rider, or a spectator – there are many other far safer things to do, or to watch. That is everyone’s individual prerogative.

  • It’s so sad 🙁
    Have to say a lot of what Denny Emerson said before and says again still makes sense. From Denny “My own feeling, one which I`ve expressed numerous times, is that our speeds are too high for these modern, highly technical courses. When I started eventing in 1962, 52 years ago, I can absolutely assure you that cross country was FAR less “tricky” than today, but the speeds then were EXACTLY the same as now, which, if we are truly analytical, doesn`t make a lot of common sense”

    He doesn’t mince words – article here:

  • I watched my partner, of 10 years get killed at Burghley in 1999.
    To say it was completely devastating, is an understatement.
    15 years on and I still get choked up thinking about it.
    My heartfelt love and kindness, to all involved.

  • Well written and completely heart wrenching. About 2 weeks after this I had a hideous rotational fall at Windsor 3DE. I had known Peta quite well as I was based in Warwickshire at the time, I remember lying there unable to breathe thinking my time had come too, but, as my mother would say, only the good die young, and that wasn’t my day. I lay in hospital that night with a collapsed lung wondering if I could ever feel the same way about dressage?? I decided I would never be good enough and steeled myself to go eventing again, but I was never as good again. A completely awful year. I truly believe that air jackets and frangible pins have made eventing a safer sport. But this weekend brings home the fact that it will never be risk free. My 8 year old son is now beginning his eventing career, and I wonder if I am doing the right thing, but I think that we have to keep sight of the fact that there is risk in all aspects of life. I hope this doesn’t sound harsh or uncaring, but I know I’d rather go doing something I loved like eventing than of cancer or crossing the road. I have been very close and avoided it, please don’t think badly of me for saying this. My heart, of course, goes out to all, past and present affected by eventing tragedy xxx

  • A comment from a different angle. Three weeks ago my 88 year old mother died; she’d had a faulty heart for a few years and her hospital stays were becoming more frequent. She still helped out at Riding Club competitions where she could, even though earlier this year adding up dressage scores in a cold indoor school put her back in hospital a couple of days later. Two weeks before she died her 4 children took her on a canal boat holiday for a week. We knew that she would likely end up in hospital again, or worse. We were right. BUT, she’d had a fantastic week which had given her something to aim for. She thoroughly enjoyed it and was happy and content. She had lived life to the full. It’s much harder for those left behind and my condolences go to the families and friends of those lost prematurely – I’ve been there too. May you have someone to hug.