‘I can’t say I have ever considered serious injury’

The eventing world is anxiously awaiting more news about the health of leading British rider William Fox-Pitt after a fall last week in France. He is currently sedated in hospital following head injuries incurred in the accident at an event for young horses. The incident came at a time when the sport is already concerned about the serious neck injury sustained by another of the world’s best competitors, the New Zealander, Andrew Nicholson. In the wake of these high profile-accidents, our writer Eleanore Kelly, an eventer herself, describes her passion for the sport while acknowledging its inherent dangers.

What on earth would possess anyone to even get on a horse with headlines like these? And then ride a volatile animal weighing half a ton to jumps the size of a car at a speed of about 30 miles an hour? When a client brought her horse over for me to ride this week, she said: “Terrible news about Fox-Pitt. Doesn’t it put you off eventing?” She is a cognitive behavioural therapist and spends her day telling people not to be scared. I didn’t even stop to consider my response – “No way.”

Belton- small but clearer imageWhen I am in the start box ready to set off for the cross-country, I can’t say I have ever considered death or bodily injury. Andrew Nicholson clearly hasn’t either. Speaking after his accident in August he implied just what went through his mind straight afterwards: “It cost me winning the class, but I still had one more horse to ride. I hit the ground very hard. I got myself out from under the horse, who was on my leg, and tried to undo the horse’s girth so he could breathe more easily. But I realised I didn’t have the strength in one hand. The doctors arrived and I know I wouldn’t be a good patient when I know I’ve got another horse to ride. But the first job is to pass the doctor.” The clinical thought process innate in most elite event riders goes: “Is my horse all right?” Followed by: “Sod it, I won’t be winning on this one”. Culminating in: “I better convince Doc I’m fine so I can ride the next one.” Andrew has not been back on a horse since and is currently undergoing neuro-physiotherapy to retrain his nervous system.

I have been eventing since the age of 13 – more than 20 years. There have been broken bones, concussions, countless visits to A&E, facial injuries and a skin graft. Chilblains that appear in September and leave the following April. Boyfriends come and go when they realise they play second fiddle to my sport, which takes up most weekends. Who would pick a girl who turns up late to dinner, hay in her hair and with the slight whiff of Eau du Cheval?

But I wouldn’t change my passion for the world. To me eventing is the finest sport ever devised and I feel privileged to be a part of it. It is a sport which tests courage and instinct, discipline and persistence, trust and understanding. Above all it tests the relationship between horse and rider and it is this challenge that gets me and my fellow riders out of bed in the morning.

EK Pod dressageEventing is in three parts. They look contradictory but they do in fact complement each other. The dressage tests harmony and rhythm and balance. The cross-country (my favourite) tests courage, instinct and athleticism. Showjumping is the phase where most eventers claim to feel most nervous despite it being one of the safest. A clear round comes down to precision, training, complete focus and cool-headedness, both for horse and rider. Countless medals and championships have been lost by a careless hoof dislodging a pole. To win in eventing requires you be master of all these trades. The standard of the sport has increased dramatically in the last 15 years as it grows in popularity worldwide; bravado and athleticism across country are no longer enough.

Trust is built up over years. Your horse becomes your doubles partner and also your best mate. For the relationship to work, it rests on unconditional love from both sides. My horse helps me out when I miss a stride and doesn’t punish me for approaching a jump too quickly that it causes him to knock his legs. Just as he knows, come rain or shine, good times and bad, I will feed him and look after him. And this when I am in the depths of flu, moving back in with my parents at the age of 30 so I can afford to keep him, and discarding boyfriends who complained about my horse and my sport.

This is a sport where career-ending injuries to horses are more common than those to riders. Most elite riders cite this as the hardest thing to deal with. I am fortunate enough to say I have never had my heart broken by a person, but it has been torn out and scarred by at least three horses whose careers have been cut short.

Eventing remains a sport that inspires me as much now as it did when I was 13. Aside from the bond I enjoy having with my horse, the camaraderie within the sport, the incredible adrenalin rush, it is the profoundly deep satisfaction that comes from controlling your nerves and emotions when you are really on the edge.

In an interview just weeks after his death-defying and potentially career-ending accident, Andrew Nicholson said: “To win at any level in the sport, it’s a very fine edge and you have to go over that edge to win. You have to push that boundary to find out where you are in the game.”

A lesson for life perhaps?

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

ElK headshotEleanore Kelly is a multi-media journalist who competed in three-day eventing at elite level. She runs an equestrian business in Hampshire and still has a burning ambition to compete around Badminton. At present her role as an assistant producer for the BBC has to suffice. Click here to see her website, to follow her on Twitter or read more of her articles.

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