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.”.
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.