It's hard to imagine losing a horse or rider to an accident. I think everyone realises the risks of cross country eventing and it's why it's a sport that is not as popular compared to other disciplines and I think for good reason.
Cross-country is known to be the most dangerous portion of the three-day eventing, a triathlon for horse and rider teams, composed of three types of competition that require endurance, and test the bond between the horse and rider team.
Dressage, which is sometimes known as horse ballet, tests a rider’s discipline as they guide their horse around a set course of movements as gracefully as possible. Each move in a dressage test is scored between a 0 and a 10, with a 10 being the highest mark a rider can achieve for a move. At the end of the round, the marks for each move are added together to come up with a final score.
Cross-country follows the next day, and is an endurance test that sends horse and rider over a course of 30 to 40 jumps long, set over a large green area. Obstacles are usually built from solid objects such as trees, boulders and sometimes even vehicles. If the horse refuses the jump, there is a penalty of 20 points. There are additional penalties for subsequent refusals, with the third causing elimination. Finishing the course over the time allowed will also cost the rider one penalty per second. If the horse or rider falls on course, they are eliminated.
Finally, on the third day, horse and rider must have enough strength left to compete in show jumping, where they must get around a set of jumps in an arena. The jumps are built of poles instead of solid objects, and will fall over if the horse even brushes them slightly. The team must complete the course as fast as possible without knocking any of the fences down. Penalties in show jumping are similar to those in cross-country, with four faults given for each jump knocked down, or refusal to jump a fence, with a third refusal resulting in elimination. Completing the course over the time allowed costs the rider one penalty per second, and a fall results in elimination.
It’s believed that since 1997, nearly 40 people around the world have died in various levels of competition in the cross-country portion of eventing competitions. In at least 25 of these cases, the rider died after the horse tripped and somersaulted.
Cross-country is not only deadly for riders, but for their mounts too. While information about horse fatalities is harder to come by, at least 19 top level eventing horses died in 2007 and 2008 while competing in the cross-country portion of the event.
Despite the danger, the sport has a long history, and is even popular among British royalty. Queen Elizabeth’s granddaughter Zara Phillips is competing in the 2012 Olympics as a member of the British team.