BY MEREDITH ANN SIMMONS
Crack. Pop. Whoosh. The wind was knocked out of me as I hit the ground. I didn’t need a doctor to tell me—I already knew I had broken my ankle.
When a Perfect Trip Ends Badly
Rewinding the tape to a few minutes before I hit the footing, I had finished my first three trips on my grey gelding, Joey. My trainer quickly switched my saddle to my other horse, and I went back into the ring on my bay, Pilot. The forecast had been threatening rain all day. By the time the 2’ class began, the skies had opened up.
The rain only misted during my trips with Joey. It wasn’t our first time riding in the rain, and we did well. But by the time I mounted Pilot for the same class, it poured. Several riders before us had scratched mid-ride because they couldn’t see through the downpour. Despite the blinding storm, the starter reiterated that the course was safe, and the class would only be cancelled for thunder and lightning. With that in mind, I decided to show. I assumed because the class was not canceled, it meant we would be safe.
You know what happens when you assume, right?
Is that Saddle as Secure as the Footing?
With Pilot, our first three fences were possibly the best jumps of my life. The fourth? My wet boots and soaked breeches lost the grip on my saddle, and I flew right over Pilot’s head. What would have normally been an easy balance correction turned into a massive injury.
Before I knew what had happened, the air was rushing back into my chest, and I had medical staff standing over me. In my last coherent thoughts as medics loaded me into a cart and pain overtook me, I remember being angry that I had trusted the starter about the course being safe as long as there was no lightning.
Paying For Your Injuries in More Ways Than One
In the medical trailer, the team tried to hide their worry and called an ambulance, where I was whisked to the hospital. There, I learned what I already knew – I had broken my ankle.
A few days later, back home in New York, the economic cost of a fall like this hit me. I would not only be paying show fees, but hospital fees, ambulance fees, and costs for the horses I wouldn’t see for months. That said, I’m a lawyer. I can afford an unexpected major expense. But this might be a huge concern for working students or a rider whose income barely stretches to cover their hobby.
However, the emotional costs of an injury like this are pretty universal and cannot be overstated. Even as I write this, months out from my accident, I still feel like that slippery saddle destroyed the confidence that had been built up in me by months of hard work.
Creating Competent Horsemen While Improving Safety
Why is it that we’re reluctant to cancel classes for anything but life-threatening lightning? Is it because we’re trying to create equestrians who can ride under any conditions? During training, most trainers I know wouldn’t allow their riders to ride outdoors in the conditions I experienced last July.
More realistically, I believe there simply isn’t enough time or space to reschedule classes due to inclement weather. Maybe in the future, that means building time in shows to reschedule classes or ensuring that classes run on time (my dream!). Horse show operators should be able to make money – there’s no question about that. But making money should be balanced with rider safety.
In a world where competitors want to rack up points and ribbons and operators want to maximize profit by satisfying the most people for doing the least amount of work, preemptive scheduling doesn’t seem to be a priority. I’m newer to the horse world, but from the perspective of a lawyer, I can tell you that greed, extremely large and unpredictable animals, and bad weather don’t mix. Cancelling a class is a lot cheaper than being sued.
But You Signed a Waiver
The question I’m still left with is this: Why wasn’t that class cancelled or postponed? Riders were coming off their horses and walking out because they couldn’t see. And I don’t mean “couldn’t see a distance.” I mean, they physically could not see through the rain. This isn’t the first time I’ve asked myself the cancellation question when facing inclement weather at a horse show, either.
To be clear, I’m not looking for anyone to blame for my accident. I have the utmost respect for the folks who treated my injuries. The follow-up from show officials was terrific. More importantly, I was the one who decided to take that trip. But I decided to ride based on information from an official. And maybe that official was not providing unbiased information about rider safety.
It’s also true that I signed a waiver. But waivers aren’t worth the paper they’re written on if show organizers are negligently putting competitors into dangerous situations. Riders also need to ask themselves if they want to keep paying for the privilege of having to scratch for their own safety.
It Doesn’t Have to Be How We’ve Always Done It
As a relative newcomer to this sport, I have to ask whether accepting that “this is how we’ve always done it” with regard to inclement weather is the right choice. As a former marathon runner, I saw a drastic number of safety and security changes during the 2010s, due in no small part to accidents, injuries, and the Boston Marathon bombing. These changes show that safety updates in a popular sport are possible and scalable, even if they cause short-term logistical discomfort.
So the question I pose is: Do we really want to wait for a major catastrophe before we improve safety around showing in inclement weather? Maybe personal injuries are evidence enough. My advice would be that in cases of inclement weather – with or without lightning – the show should not go on.
Meredith Ann Simmons is a lawyer and writer based in New York City, where she lives with her family and her dogs, Roo and Sunday. A West Coast native, she still struggles to brave riding in the Northeastern winters, even after nearly 20 years on the East Coast. With a background as both a lawyer and master’s in public health candidate, Meredith is passionate about improving safety and access in equestrian sport.