International investigators are called in as fourth rider dies killed

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The Independent Online
AN INVESTIGATION into equestrian safety has been launched following the death this weekend of Simon Long, the fourth high-profile rider to be killed in as many months.

Eventing officials probing Mr Long's death said yesterday that they intend to talk with equestrian experts investigating the three previous fatalities to establish whether there are any lessons to be learned.

The deaths have prompted questions over whether changes are needed to improve safety in a sport that has seen more fatalities in the last 10 years than Formula 1 racing. A total of 12 riders have died in competition accidents since 1989.

Initial conclusions by the International Equestrian Federation (IEF) working group, which is investigating Mr Long's death on Saturday at Burghley Horse Trials, in Lincolnshire, have exonerated the event's organisers. The ground conditions at the fence were deemed ideal and all procedures were carried out correctly. Mr Long received medical attention within seconds of his accident.

A spokeswoman for the IEF working group stressed that his accident did not appear to bear any relation to the previous three. "Riders make about 45,000 rounds each year which means that they jump approximately 1.2 million fences between them and we have had four tragic accidents at four completely separate venues," she said.

Mr Long, 38, lost his life after his nine-year-old horse, Springleaze Macaroo, somersaulted over rails at the Sunken Water, the 20th of 35 cross- country fences designed by Captain Mark Phillips. Speaking after the accident, Captain Phillips commented on the comparison with motor racing.

"If you go round a track enough times eventually you are going to hit something. If you are lucky you walk away. If you are unlucky you don't," he said.

"This year's fatalities have all been at different levels and different types of fences and different speeds. The only common denominator has been that there is a horse and rider jumping a fence."

Ian Stark, who represents the riders on the British Horse Trials Association working party, which was set up seven years ago to improve safety, acknowledged yesterday that there were no simple answers. "It's a fantastic sport," he said. "Everyone is competing here because they want to do it. We all know the risks and we have to minimise them, but we can never eliminate them completely."

The investigation, started by former international rider Judy Bradwell, president of the ground jury at Burghley and comprising Wayne Roycroft, chairman of the Australian Equestrian Federation, Jim Wright, chairman of New Zealand Eventing selectors and American Olympic rider David O'Connor, will look into design, construction and safety.

Some riders believe that the new scoring system for international events, in which every second over the optimum time incurs one penalty, is a potential cause of accidents. But Stark disagreed with the idea that riders are sacrificing accuracy for speed because they are aware that every second counts.

Mr Long was an experienced horseman who ran a competition and training yard at Bradford-on-Avon, Wiltshire. His death came the day after the funeral of Polly Phillipps, who died two weekends earlier at the Scottish Horse Trials Championship. Peta Beckett and an Australian, Robert Slade, were the two other riders to die at British events this year.

There was similar horror in 1993, when four riders died while competing in the space of three months. When the figure was reduced to three fatalities at British events for the five years from 1994 to 1998, everyone hoped that improved equipment - notably approved headgear and body protectors for the riders - had significantly lessened the risks.

Such protection, however, is clearly inadequate when half a ton of horse falls on to of the rider - as happened in all four of the fatalities which occurred this year.

Mark Todd, the Olympic gold medal winner who rode the course twice on different horses, said yesterday that riders realised it was a "high risk sport" but "none of us expect people to have to pay with their lives."

With the next big event - Blenheim - coming up this weekend, equestrianism has just one week to face up to reality.