This Saturday is the Kentucky Derby. On Sunday NBC will cover last weekends Rolex Kentucky 3-day event. Will I watch them? I don't know. I haven't watched the derby in years. Its not that I don't agree in any way with racing horses however, its such a high risk endeavor for them. Catastrophic breakdowns happen when the body is stressed to the point that it is in racing- particularly if the horses are not appropriately prepared or asked to run for the money when the signs are there. I know there are ethical and horse first trainers out there and that they do sometimes also win.... Now, as a show-jumping rider Michael Matz was an idol which made me so excited to follow Barbaro last year. But, tragedy struck and its hard to watch and hard to know that of the horses starting a race like the Derby its not wholly uncommon or out of the norm for one of those horses to suffer and injury and possibly a complete breakdown. I don't enjoy watching them run that much to risk seeing one of them come to such a fate.
Then there is Rolex. Now, I've done very low level eventing and cross-country jumping. I've felt a horse get excited and WANT to go run and jump. I know that when we run and jump anything the horse could trip, fall, crash. However, in stadium jumping the fences fall. Horses occasionally lose their footing running on a grass field and fall, but rarely does that end up in anything other than some sore muscles. Heck my horses can and do fall running of their own volition in their own pasture! Its those danged huge solid fences that don't come down where a horse can get tangled requiring extraction, flip and die, or otherwise suffer serious if not life ending injuries. And as almost everyone knows now, 2 horses died on Rolex this year. Did the rider's do something grossly wrong? No. They just had mistakes, missteps, and subtle problems that resulted in serious tragic endings. The problem is that in the sport of eventing years past and now, with long and short formats, a misstep can result in death and major injury at a significantly higher rate than in show jumping, or certainly dressage! Yes, I ride dressage so it may seem I have my bias, but this was a huge part of why I came to this sport.
I thought at one time I wanted to do endurance. I crewed for top riders at Tevis, who conditioned their horses well, had solid rapports with their horses who were thus calm, competent, and highly successful. However, I did not like seeing the numbers of riders who had no basics in seat and position, grossly impacting their horses negatively both by physically hindering and laming the horses as well as being totally unsupportive of the mental states of the horses resulting in crazed animals metabolically crashing as a result of tension and nerves. This sport sees its share of equine deaths in spite of veterinary screening at frequent stops along a ride. Can it be done right? You bet! Sadly, I think that this is one sport that could nearly eliminate those occurrences and be an "extreme" horse sport without much risk of extreme consequences. Unfortunately, however, I find that I no longer head up early in the morning to Robinson Flat, and hit Foresthill by early evening only to head to Auburn at mid-night to watch the front runners come in even though I would most certainly participate in this ride if I had all the circumstances together to do it right.
For the coming weekend however, and NBC coverage of the Kentucky Derby and Rolex?.... no, I don't think I'll watch. Because, I ask myself- would I watch the Rolex coverage if I knew there were no horse deaths? And my honest answer to that is, no. I want to support horse sports on TV, but I don't really want every non-horse person in the world to potentially see the most disastrous consequences of enjoying sport with our horses. We have show-jumping Olympic selection trials that could be shown. There are dressage selection trials coming up. I'm sure there are other big time Reining events that could be shown. What about vaulting? Its gorgeous and amazing all in one.
If the eventing powers that be can find a way to eliminate the potential for rotational falls that almost single handedly pose the risk for death as a result from mishapped jumping effort then, I would probably get right back into watching the sport. It is a tremendous test of horsemanship. A highly respectable testament to the abilities of the horses and riders. Forgiving fences would NOT minimize that respect in any way whatsoever. If anything it would make the horsemanship and the horsemen and women involved in the sport far more respected.