Post Mortem Results in on Red Hills Horse Trials Deaths

Two horses died from pulmonary hemorrhages at the Red Hills Trials

Post mortem examinations completed on the two horses that died on March 15 during the cross-country phase of the Red Hills Horse Trials three-day event in Tallahassee revealed the cause of death of both animals was pulmonary hemorrhage. The report conducted by the Large Animal Clinical Sciences Department of The University of Florida stated, “Despite the excellent organization of the Red Hills Horse Trials, the competent veterinary team on site, and the rapid response in both cases, nothing could be done to save these horses and there are no known methods to have prevented these rare occurrences.”.

According to Eleanor Green, DVM, Chief of Staff, Large Animal Hospital, University of Florida, complete post mortem examinations were performed on both horses Saturday evening, March 15, 2008. The owners gave permission to share information about the causes of death.

Preliminary results have indicated that Direct Merger, ridden by Jonathon Hollings, died because of pulmonary hemorrhage, which is bleeding into the lungs. Leprechauns Rowdy Boy, ridden by Missy Miller, also had a pulmonary hemorrhage and sustained a severe fracture between the third and fourth cervical vertebrae of his neck during a fall at a jump.

Fatal pulmonary hemorrhage is a rare condition in elite equine athletes, yet in cases of sudden death during exertion it is at the top of the list of possible causes. The scenario is similar to sudden death from heart disorder in basketball players, in that the occurrence is very uncommon, but a heart disorder would be the most likely cause when a young, healthy athlete dies suddenly during exertion. “It is exceedingly rare for two horses to be affected on the same day during the same competition,” the post mortem report concluded.

Mike Sigman, DVM, Veterinary Delegate of the Fédération Equestrian Internationale, the organization that oversees eventing competitions worldwide, headed the veterinary team at the Red Hills event. Sigman said, “Consideration for horse safety and response to incidents is always exceptional at Red Hills. Both incidents were handled as well as possible. Everything that could have been done to aid these two horses was done. If we could have saved the animals we would have. Unfortunately no one could have helped them. When speed is involved in any sport, accidents will happen.”

Thomas Barron, Board Chairman of the Red Hills organization, said, “Safety of the mounts, riders and spectators is a top priority of this event every year. Our Safety Plan is reviewed and revised after each Trial. We have emergency medical personnel on site, as well as veterinarians. Nothing is left to chance. We require riders to wear appropriate safety gear, as do other events of this kind. But like any sport, there are always risks involved. We deeply regret the accidents which took place over the weekend.

“Since its inception,” Barron continued, “the Red Hills course has been designed by Mark Phillips, U. S. Olympic Equestrian Coach, and riders planning to enter the event are provided a description of the course, terrain and course difficulty well in advance. Mark Phillips is a recognized authority in his field. His courses are designed to safely test the ability of horse and rider. There will always be situations where a horse will refuse to go over an obstacle for some reason, and this weekend was no exception, but the refusals were scattered about the course as they have been in previous years.”

Darren Chiacchia, a member of the U.S. Olympic Equestrian Eventing Team was injured in a fall on the Red Hills Cross Country Course on Saturday as well. He is currently hospitalized at Tallahassee Memorial Regional Medical Center with head injuries. Updates on Darren’s condition may be found on his website.



  1. If the descriptions of a course are available before an event and accidents happen anyway, because riders overestimate what they and their horses are capable of (although that doesn’t seem to have been the case here), perhaps more rigid requirements need to b eset up to force teams to qualify properly for any top eventing competition!

  2. I read that one horse had an “accident” but from this report it would be reasonable to believe that the accident occured when the primary cause of death occurred – pulmonary hemorage. Pulmonary hemorage is not caused by accident. It’s a weakness in the condition of the horse. It may have been exacerbated by over exertion but it could just as easily have happened in the home arena. It’s silly to blame the event or to jump to the extreme of suggesting that the horses are being exploited. These horses are athletes and *LOVE to perform.

  3. Oh, please, Martin. Don’t be ridiculous. Yes, horses love to compete, but how many horses VOLUNTARILY work themselves to death? Passion does NOT eliminate the need to be fully conditioned–a human athlete may love to run, but that does not in any way, shape or form allow them to go run a marathon in record time without being fully prepared to do so. And clearly, most horses don’t condition themselves, so the blame (although that word may be a bit extreme) falls squarely on the riders and the event planners.
    I agree with Gesa, as I did in the previous article. Maybe “Both incidents were handled as well as possible” but veterinary care is to mop up the mess, so to speak: 1oz of prevention is worth 1lb of cure, right? In this case, assuming the horses were in peak physical condition, perhaps the courses were just too tough! Is it really worth having two horses die of the same “rare” condition just to see which rider can push their horse the hardest (which often drives the horses into the ground)?

  4. I think it is very unfourtunate that these two great athletic horses had to pass away from the pulmonary hemorrhage. I give my sympathy to the owners and riders of these great horses.


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