A year ago, at the OVCTA Big Fall Show, an accident occurred in warm-up. A competitor was seriously hurt. She was life-flighted from the show grounds and spent several months recovering. She has made a complete recovery. Thankfully, her story has a happy ending.
A few months back, she came to our OVCTA board meeting to discuss warm-up safety. Not etiquette, safety. Her thoughts and resulting suggestions made extremely good sense. Since then, I’ve been preaching it to my students ad nauseam. Of course, riding a youngster at Dressage at Devon got me even more fired up about this particular soap box.
The soap box goes like this—when you get on a horse, you are responsible for the safety of everyone around you. You cannot blame the horse, or the left-shoulder-to-left-shoulder rule that half of the world forgets. You, as pilot, need to keep your eyes up and keep your horse far enough away from other horses to prevent accidents by preventing herd instinct from kicking in, literally or proverbially.
Horses are horses, and are hard-wired to certain instinctual behavior, regardless of their training. Their instincts say that when a horse is crowding their personal space, he is asserting authority. In a pasture, when Bucky crowds Angel, Angel either moves away from Bucky, showing submission, or fires a kick at Bucky, telling him she’s the boss. Once this hierarchy is established, both Bucky and Angel can happily graze.
Put Bucky and Angel in a crazy, stressful warm-up, in an unfamiliar setting, with a bunch of other strange horses, and, for the horses, hierarchy is up for grabs. This whole equine discussion is going on while we are focused on competing for tiny pieces of satin.
Our race for satin brings out the “it’s-a-horse-show -I’ve-gotta-get-this- absolutely-perfect-right-now” behavior, i.e. looking down, and problems arise. There we are, being all self-focused and perfectionistic, unaware of the battle for herd hierarchy around us, and we don’t notice the other horses until we are too close.
One of two things happens. Our confident, powerful dressage horse does what dressage training was originally created to do—he clears a path through the battle field. The less confident horse gives way, maybe towards another less confident horse, who also gives way. Or worse, towards another confident war horse, and less confident horse panics. By this point, the rider on the confident horse is half an arena away, not even realizing the chain reaction they started.
Or the second thing happens. The insecure horse tries to look around and get a feel for the heirarchy, which gets the rider correcting the horse’s head and looking down, which makes the horse feel more fussy and claustrophobic, and the rider more tense and frustrated, creating more tension, to the point of boiling. About that time, that confident war horse enters stage right, and the insecure horse looses it.
In both scenarios, injuries can be prevented if we just stay aware of what’s going on around us.
As a coach, I can help prevent injuries by making my job of be my student’s “eyes on the ground” on step further. In addition to helping her be confident about her horse’s tempo and balance, and I can also keep her clear of traffic jams.
As a competitor, I can prevent injuries by keeping my eyes up and communicating with the other competitors. “Coming up behind you,” or “outside,” said at the last minute does not justify cutting someone off, but said early enough can prevent many disasters. If I’m riding a particularly insecure or inexperienced horse, I can communicate that to my fellow competitors. This does not absolve me of responsibility, but hopefully it will remind my fellow competitors that I’m in there, and to please look around occasionally. Or I can warm up my Nervous Nellie in a quiet, out-of-the-way warm up.
But my contributions are not enough.
Every one of us needs to wear the responsibility for everyone’s safety like a coat. We need to be aware of each other, and communicate with each other, and know that we, personally, can keep our fellow riders from harm.
Because the best happy ending is the accident that never happened.