Picture this: An adorable little girl, your little girl, looks up at you with her big puppy-dog eyes, and in her sweet baby-voice asks, “Daddy, can I have a pony?” How could you say no to that precious little face?! Images appear in your mind: She’s riding a horse, her hair flowing freely against the wind. She looks so happy. So, ignoring the fact that horses cost a decent penny (and longing to hear the words, “You’re the best, daddy”), you respond, “Yes honey, you can have a pony!”
But there’s one fact about horse-riding that might not have crossed your mind: It can be a very dangerous activity – sometimes even fatal. Every time a rider mounts a horse, there is the frightening possibility that they may fall off. According to Safe Work Australia, there are an estimated 20 horse-related deaths every year in Australia alone. We’re only halfway through 2016 and I’ve already marked it as the nation’s ‘year of too many freak horse-riding accidents’.
On Sunday, a horse trampled and killed 12-year-old Billie Kinder in the Hawkesbury region north-west of Sydney. In May, 19-year-old Caitlyn Fischer died after falling off a horse during an international equestrian event in Sydney’s south-west. Also, 31-year-old trainer Hana Dickson died in a riding accident in Western Australia. In March, rising equestrian star Olivia Inglis, aged 17, was crushed to death when her horse tripped and landed on top of her during a competition in the NSW Hunter Valley.
These young women once begged their daddies for a pony. And then they endured every rider’s worst nightmare. They willingly put their lives in the hands of something that could either set them free or injure them beyond repair, and they faced the worst consequence. When Olivia died, a Scone Horse Trials spokeswoman told Sydney Morning Herald: “Unfortunately, Olivia’s horse made a mistake and hit the obstacle which meant the horse fell and landed on her.” Olivia put a lot of trust in her four-legged friend, and he failed her.
My favourite sport is netball. I love the running and dodging, the impressive passes, the unexpected intercepts, and the endless debriefing with teammates post-game. I’ve witnessed and endured countless knee and ankle injuries, shameless shoving and bleeding scratches on skin from sharp opponent’s nails. But the chance of witnessing death during a netball game is very, very rare. I mean, on court you literally get punished for getting too close to someone! So I have some questions for the equestrian community: Why are you still riding, when your horse could quite possibly kill you?! Why not follow me and pick a hobby that strives to keep you safe? Is the risk really worth it?
These questions left me unsettled for a long time. But then I met 20-year-old Emily Mann. Emily got into riding as a distraction from the changes and limitations on her lifestyle after being seriously ill, and she’s stuck with it for 14 years. Now she’s part of the NSW Young Rider Squad. She was at the Sydney International Horse Trials at 10:40am on Saturday the 30th of April, about to compete, when the Cross Country competition was canceled for a heart-breaking reason: Caitlyn Fischer, a rider who was close to Emily’s age, died. “I didn’t know her personally,” says Emily, “But I knew part of her: the part that was nurtured by riding.” What shocked me was this: Emily did not let the death she witnessed discourage her from continuing to ride.
“Riding is my home, my safe place and a part of who I am,” she says. “It taught me responsibility, care, maturity, commitment, resilience and I don’t know who I would be without it. What has happened to Caitlyn and all the other girls causes more despair to the horse community than any other. But most of us will still ride because we celebrate what that person loved and what we love to do together, because we know the risks and we understand the commitment. So where do I go when I hear news about horse-riding deaths? I get on my horse, because that’s where I can think and be vulnerable.”
Emily describes the Australian equestrian community as “a family that is grieving”. This family often expresses their grief on social media, as hashtags #rideoncaitlynfischer and #rideforolivia quickly went viral. Keira Byrnes, a rider at Eregon Park Performance Horses, wrote a Facebook post that’s been shared almost a thousand times. It reads: ‘To have a prey animal trust his life to a predator at the top of the food chain; not only that we won’t hurt them, but enough to let them jump when they can’t see the landing, jump into water and trust us that there will be solid ground underneath, trust that we know what is around the next turn…It’s a bond I think is unheard of outside of our sport. I can’t think of another single example of trust that matches what we do.’
Wayne Roycroft, from the International Equestrian Federation, told ABC News: “Accidents do occur, to be honest it is part of our sport.” Lucy Higginson, editor of Horse and Hound magazine, told BBC, “Most people accept riding is a risk sport. The reward and the thrills more than make up for it.” To me, the outsider who knows nothing about horses, riding seems like a mere hobby, so why risk your life for it? But clearly to riders, it is much more than that. It is a way of life. It is part of their identity. And the young female riders who have died this year? At least they died doing what they loved.