By Shelby Strah
There was a time when I used to think that I wanted to go pro, and like every other horse-crazy teenager, Rolex was a part of my life’s dream. At 16, I had competed in my first one star and was schooling Intermediate cross country questions. I was fearless. I used to make jokes at the more “seasoned” riders at the barn when they’d be nervous about a Novice table. I would tackle anything that was put in front of me and my eleven-year-old OTTB without hardly any hesitation. That was in 2010.
Now, I’m almost 22 and have a new horse named Hero that I’m currently competing at the Novice level and looking to move up to Training in the Fall. But every time I go on a course walk, I look over at the Prelim fences and even some of the larger Training ones, and I just think, holy shit, that’s scary. I have hesitations at maxed out Novice questions, and I wonder, where is 16-year-old Shelby? I’m sure taking a four-year
hiatus away from competing didn’t help my confidence, but now, I’m not sure that I ever want to compete past Prelim because of the increased risk as you move up the levels. That horse is my best friend, and I can’t ever imagine losing him in a tragic accident like so many others have, not to mention the possibility of losing my own life.
In 2016, we’ve lost more riders and horses than any other year that I can remember. Nearly all, due to poor course design and/or freak accidents, and my longtime trainer, Philippa Humphreys, was one of them. Too many horses and riders have paid the ultimate price. Most recently, Liz Halliday-Sharp lost her partner, HHS Cooley, at an Advanced horse trial in the UK. And over what? An extremely wide, open-log, square oxer that her seasoned and talented horse misjudged as a bounce. We all love our sport, and it’s what drives us to continue competing, but I would be devastated if I ever lost Hero, especially on cross country.
So what’s next for Eventing? We’d all love to see something change overnight and find some miraculous solution to the dangers that we face every time we’re out on course, but it’s not realistic. Personally, I’d love for our sport to be put on hold until this is figured out, so no one else gets hurt, but that’s not realistic either. The reality of these tragic accidents is that that’s exactly what they are: Tragic. Accidents. And yes, our sport holds a much higher level of risk than downhill skiing, and we are all aware of the risks going into it. The difference being, we are also putting trust into having fair terrain, an experienced course designer, and forgiving fences. This doesn’t just mean frangible pins, but looking at the jumps we are building from a horse’s perspective. We’ve made progress in the safety standards that have already been implemented, but we can’t settle for that alone. It’s not realistic. The future success of our sport depends on continued change in areas beyond frangible pins and qualification standards.