Georgie Campbell death a reminder of eventing’s annus horribilis of 1999

Georgie Campbell - Georgie Campbell death a reminder of eventing's annus horribilis of 1999
Georgie Campbell tragically died on Sunday, following fall at Bicton Horse Trials - Alamy /Elli Birch

British eventing suffered its ‘annus horriblis’ in 1999 when five riders died in fatal falls. The sport is inherently safer these days, but the death of Georgie Campbell in a fall at Bicton Horse Trials on Sunday reminds us that when it comes to riding horses, even up a country lane, is not an entirely risk-free enterprise.

The day before the Campbell tragedy, Australian international rider Elliot Patterson succumbed to injuries sustained three weeks previously in a fall coming out of a dressage arena. His horse, riding on a long rein as it cooled down, spooked at something, lost its hindlegs and fell over. Despite the seemingly innocuous circumstances and the rider wearing a helmet, Patterson never came round.

Four of the five deaths in 1999 were due to rotational falls where 600kg or more of horse flips 180 degrees in mid air and lands upside down with the jockey directly underneath it. In horse racing, because it is at a faster pace and the jockeys ride shorter, riders tend to get catapulted clear.

The damage in a rotational fall is caused not only by the force and weight of the horse effectively squashing the rider but often by the hard pommel of the saddle connecting with the midriff or pelvis and doing internal damage. In some circumstances a suit of armour let alone a body protector or air-bag jacket or state-of-the-art helmet is not going to save you.

In 2000, the now Duke of Devonshire, with a committee which included people from outside the sport, like F1 world champion Jackie Stewart, as well as some within, produced the Hartington Report. Following its release, there was a greater emphasis on risk management in eventing and continued development of safety out of which came the invention and introduction of frangible (designed to shatter) devices, such as pins and clips on fences.

Campbell riding Cooley Earl – since greater emphasis on risk management in eventing
Campbell riding Cooley Earl – since greater emphasis on risk management in eventing - Getty Images/Scoop Dyga

The concept is that rather than up-ending a horse into a rotational fall, using a complicated set of physics, a fence now collapses or drops when hit hard enough sparing that eventuality. If a rider breaks the pin or clip and knocks a fence down he is deducted points so its secondary intention is to encourage accuracy over speed.

It also focused minds on course design, fence profile and ground management. Fences such as picnic-style tables have been redesigned and do not see many solid obstacles without ground lines these days. Course designers now know better how a horse sees in shape and colour so take that into consideration. The are also more vets and doctors on course, riders are coached better, their protective equipment is better and they are more aware of their responsibilities.

The International Federation for Equestrian Sports (FEI) takes risk management and collecting data very seriously. Over the period from 2012 to 2023 there has been one fall with no rider injury for every 21 starters, one fall with slight injury every 260 starters, one fall with serious injury every 674 starters and one fatal fall for every 28,476 starters.

More specifically, in that period, horse falls have decreased 36 per cent and rotational falls have gone down by 55.5 per cent, from one rotational fall for every 377 starters in 2012 to one per 851 starters in 2023.

However William Fox-Pitt, who spent two weeks in a coma with head injuries after a fall in France in 2015, believes the sport should not be over-santised to the point where the cross-country phase is just another round of showjumping in an arena.

“We all know what can happen,” he says. “It’s the elephant in the room. We’re all reeling [from the Campbell incident] but our sport is a risk we all take. That’s the thrill, the challenge and the satisfaction of conquering all the elements.

“We have the best in body protectors, air vests and helmets, it’s very up to date with all its protections, the fences, I don’t think you can make it much more safer than it is already. I’d hate it to be destroyed by safety. If things can be learned from this fall by all means learn them but I’d hate for there to be a knee-jerk reaction to it.”

Other high-profile riders to to have been badly injured recently include Nicola Wilson, who sustained multiple neck injuries at Badminton in 2022 but, though not back competing, has returned to coaching, while Caroline March, who was paralysed from the waist down in a fall in 2022, died in Switzerland earlier this year after writing an open letter to friends saying that it was ‘not an existence I want.’

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