Earlier this month there was a series of tragic events in Florida at the Red Hills Horse Trials competition. Horse trials, or "eventing," is an equestrian sport in which horse and rider participate in a number of disciplines including dressage (so-called dancing horses), stadium jumping (in which riders on horseback jump a course of fences in an arena or stadium) and cross-country (in which they jump a series of fixed fences in a course out in the open).

At Red Hills this month, two horses died going through the course and a 42-year-old Olympic-level rider, Darren Chiacchia, was critically injured. As of March 25, Chiacchia's Web site reported he was taken off a respirator, but was still in intensive care.

With all due respect to Chiacchia and other riders injured in this sport, this column is not about their safety. Unlike the horses, riders compete knowing full well the consequences, including death, that accidents can cause. Riders freely choose to undertake those risks. The same cannot be said for the horses.

The accidents can be horrific. Actor Christopher Reeve, for example, destroyed his spinal cord during an accident on a cross-country course. He ultimately lost his life. Tallahassee.com, the Tallahassee Democrat newspaper's Web site, described one of the horse deaths at Red Hills as follows:

"Amanda Hunt, a spectator from Monticello, said she saw a horse named Leprechauns Rowdy Boy hit his head in the second of a four-hurdle jump about 3:30 p.m. She saw the horse go into convulsions for about 20 seconds and then he was still. Red Hills workers put up a screen around the horse and took the horse off the field within 10 to 15 minutes, she said. 'It was horrible,' Hunt said. After the horse hit his head, his rider, Missy Miller, was thrown into the water that was part of the jump. She immediately got up and ran to her horse, screaming, 'Get him,' Hunt said. Red Hills volunteers had to calm Miller down, who was hysterical, she said."

Although it seemed to spectators that the horse died from hitting his head on a fixed wooden fence, a necropsy later confirmed he had a sudden pulmonary hemorrhage before hitting his head on the fence and died from that. Whatever the cause, equine deaths at cross-country events are hardly a new phenomenon. They could conceivably be prevented if courses were designed so that horses did not need to die getting through them.

Let me state for the record that eventing is hardly the most dangerous horse sport. We all know Barbaro's sorry tale. Horse deaths on the racetrack occur with alarming frequency due to broken legs, colic and other man-induced phenomena. Any sport that sets up tests that are so difficult to complete that horses repeatedly die trying, needs immediate and serious rules changes.

With that in mind I e-mailed Kevin Baumgardner, president of the U.S. Eventing Association, the board that governs the sport. He had posted a compassionate message to eventers on the USEA site expressing concern over the Red Hills tragedy. I asked him whether the USEA plans to "continue to allow the use of fences and combinations that are so difficult they cost equine athletes their lives. And how much attention does USEA pay in its upper-level course design to risks to horse safety?"

Baumgardner responded that horse safety was of the utmost concern and explained, "My fellow USEA governors and I just voted ... to move forward immediately with rule change proposals to reverse the trends in course design I identified in my (online) statement and slow down speeds where appropriate."

Slowing down course speeds and eliminating overly difficult fixed fences that do not come apart when horses (or riders) hit them would do much to make upper-level eventing safer. Just because human competitors want to test their abilities to ridiculous lengths does not mean equine athletes should be forced to do so as well. Let us hope that with USEA in compassionate hands, those who control the sport will make it tough but not deadly for its equine stars.

Bonnie Erbe is a TV host and writes this column for Scripps Howard News Service. E-mail [email protected].