The eventing world has been up in arms about public statements made about the euthanizing of Emily Cammock’s Rolex horse Dambala – both the original statements and the kerfuffle about them on the Chronicle of the Horse forums.
I’ve read just about everything from both sides, and thought a lot about this in the last day or so. I’ve thought a lot about upper level eventing in general in the last few years as well, the risk factor, the trajectory, the public image.
Before I get to my opinion it might help you to know that the first and only Rolex Kentucky Event at which I spectated was in 2008. It was a weekend of incredible highs and unbelievable lows. I was at the starting box and the finish line to see Karen O’Connor ride Teddy around. I still get a lump in my throat remembering that pony, being able to see him in person. I remember Courageous Comet’s gallop. I remember seeing Phillip Dutton’s cross country position for the first time in person.
You know what else I remember that day? Walking up a hill and arriving at the crest just in time to see screens go up for The Quiet Man.
I remember a few hours later, walking up another hill, just about to crest it, and hearing screaming as Frodo Baggins flipped over the flower basket. That collective crowd-wide indrawn gasp, and then screaming. I didn’t end up going over the hill – I couldn’t face it. The friend I was traveling with that weekend was in the front row at the flower basket with her daughter. They watched Frodo convulse and die right in front of them, watched Laine get airlifted off course. I lay on the grass, my coat over my head to shield it from the sun, and cried, and tried to read. It felt like hours.
I remember standing at the Head of the Lake watching Boyd Martin take an unbelievably nasty fall into the water – it was not a drop that year, but his horse glanced off, he hit the ground hard and went into the water face-down, and was still. The EMTs, in one of the most impressive quick responses I’ve ever seen in person, were in the water with him in seconds, stabilized his back, and flipped him over so he could breathe. He came to within seconds (he may never have been fully unconscious, just stunned), and walked around a bit, and then tried to mount his horse again – this was before one fall and out. He couldn’t find the stirrup with his foot. He stabbed his toe at it two, three times, and kept missing. I remember standing there and praying that he would call it a day. Please, don’t get back on that horse. He didn’t, and he withdrew his other horse for the next day.
I love eventing. I loved most of that weekend at Rolex. But I can close my eyes and still put myself in that moment, seeing the screens go up, hearing the screams, watching Boyd still in the water.
Which brings me to this year. An equine athlete died as a direct result of injuries incurred while eventing at Rolex.
Part of the deal any professional rider makes – in exchange for riding at the highest levels, in exchange for supporters and sponsors, in exchange for the world stage at a 4* event – is to put themselves in the public eye. It’s unavoidable. It’s a trade that many are willing to make. Perhaps 50, 75 years ago an event rider could come to a major event and simply be there that weekend, be in the moment and ride, and fade away afterwards.
Not anymore. The world is bigger, and it is more connected. It is more expensive, with a bigger stage, higher sponsor demands, and more opportunities. I’m not lauding or lamenting that; it simply is. Eventing has been moving this way for some time now. It can’t be a niche sport and survive. It has a passionate fanbase, and an increasingly internet-savvy following.
When a horse dies on course at Rolex, questions need to asked. Period. When a rider issues an initial statement that seems to imply the decision to put that horse down was made based on whether or not he would continue to have a career, that looks bad. Really bad.
Should we trust Emily Cammock implicitly? Should we always assume that riders at Rolex have their horse’s best interests at heart, and of course they explored all the options before making the decision to euthanize?
I would really, really like to. But we can’t. No one is immune; not on that stage. If we stop asking questions when the worst happens, then we let it happen unscrutinized. Does it cause some pain to those who have had to make those horrible decisions? Yes. But that’s part of the trade. You lose some of that anonymity and that privacy when terrible accidents happen. If we’re going to make this sport better, safer, and more responsible, we need to know what happened. I’m not saying we hound someone, or pre-judge, or behave in any manner that is not kind and respectful. But we need to ask questions.
In this case, the follow up statement clarified the decision, and said what we all hoped: that retirement was considered and even planned, but wasn’t possible.
Look: I would love to live in a world where terrible accidents happen at Rolex and we can assume that everyone involved does the best they can, makes the best possible decisions, is altruistic and selfless, and that the accident itself was a pure accident. We don’t. We live in a world where people do terrible things to horses, and too often no one speaks up.
Can you imagine if something happened and we didn’t ask questions? If we just treated it as the norm? If we accepted horses dying, injuring themselves, being euthanized, and just shrugged if off and said “I’m sure everyone is doing the best they can” and moved on? No. That’s not honest, and it doesn’t help anyone.
Bad things thrive in silence, in quiet, and in obscurity. We can’t contribute to that by throwing our hands in the air and looking the other way when something terrible happens on the biggest day of eventing in America.