Ride On Time in Triumph: Canadian Equestrianism and Injuries


Injuries remain common in all sports. Each comes with statistical tendencies in injury rates and severities. Equestrianism harbours its own unfortunate cases, even among the most accomplished riders in the sport’s Canadian history.

Not a lot of up-to-date information exists on the rates of injuries in the 2020s for equestrians, however, the Government of Canada has some statistics from 1996 archived. I could be wrong here. At the time, 48.1% of injuries were children 10-to-14 years of age. For riders, this, probably, makes sense as those are the ages many youths enter into horse riding.

As with anyone entering a sport for the first time, injuries will occur. 76.5% of all equestrian injuries were women. Again, this makes a lot of sense, as most of the riders are women in Canada, if agglomerating the participation numbers over all age cohorts. Those with more experience in the industry would be able to provide plausible reasons as to the injuries occurring in the summer (40.9%), the weekends (46.9%), and between 12:00 and 20:00 (62.2%).

These statistics seem to tell a story of summer weekends between 12:00 and 20:00 as the most likely time for injury, especially amongst 10-to-14-year-old girls. The majority of these injuries (62.1%) happened when the rider fell from the horse. As someone new to the industry, this is commonly stated. It’s dangerous to ride a horse. If you ride, you’re going to fall. If you fall, you’ll likely get hurt. Regardless, take some Advil and get back on the horse, the day is still here, and long.

In the industry, in equestrianism, in Canada, the risk of injury is high. Yet, as I have witnessed in working in the industry, the people, mostly women – who tolerate me (lucky me), remain devoted to the activity. They love riding. They love horses, particularly theirs. They love the social life. They love the art and sport of horsemanship. In Canada, one could, with a neologism, legitimately quip, “The art and sport of Horsewomanship.”

As stated in the first article entitled “Canadian Equitation Equation Introduction: Langley, Horse Capital of B.C.,” the major players in the history and active communities of equestrianism can be catalogued rather tightly: “Amy Millar, Eric Lamaze, Erynn Ballard/Erynn L. Ballard, Ian Millar, James Day, James Elder, Jill Henselwood, Laura Balisky (Tidball-Balisky/Tidball), Lisa Carlsen, Mac Cone, Mario Deslauriers, Michel Vaillancourt, Nicole Walker, Thomas (Tom) Gayford, Tiffany Foster, Yann Candele.” I am happy to include others. Neither snubbing nor ignoring, merely an organic development of knowledge from a base zero.

Others exist. Yet, the aforementioned comprise a close-knit listing of the country’s best in class over a span of several decades, as noted by Olympic participation, for example. The natural question in a brief look at statistics more than a quarter of a century old: “What about the most accomplished riders?” Indeed, they have experienced extreme injuries, several of them. The biographical data may be disparate for some.

Nonetheless, these individuals will partake of a natural consequence of riding horses for a long time and jumping at the 1.60m level. One could infer: If jumping higher, then falling farther, so injuries being more severe when occurring.

By the way, equestrians state things in a particular patois. They have a world unto themselves, thus a lingo, too. In this manner, most Canadians would state 1.60 metres as “one point six zero metres.” Equestrians say, “A metre sixty.” Language always gives people away. Horse people, in this way, have a consistency with everyone else, in nuanced speech acts and patterns delineating a linguistic culture.

Let’s look at them alphabetically from first name, as presented above:

Amy Millar does not seem to have suffered a major injury when looking into popular reportage. Unless, naturally, or of course, I am missing a narrative. The only period of requiring time away from riding appears to be giving birth (son, Alexander; daughter, Lily).

Eric Lamaze, as some commentators note, looks as if deserving of a book devoted to his professional narrative. The death of Hickstead with an acute aortic rupture at competition, the cocaine basis for rejection in competing with an overturn of the decision by an arbitrator (and cold medication, diet pills, and cocaine, in a later occasion), the Olympic medals and comebacks, the battle with brain cancer, and, most recently, the announcement of formal retirement in March of 2022, can set some points of future reflection and writing. As this particular article’s foci are injuries, he was out for three weeks from a foot injury with aggressive surgery involving screws at one time, which seems minor to other eventualities of personal choices, in some considerations, and happenstances of unfortunate fate, in others.

Erynn Ballard/Erynn L. Ballard, in May of 2013, fell and broke a collarbone and damaged a shoulder joint. This resulted in nerve damage and a nearly paralyzed arm. Within one year, she returned. Another story of triumph amongst Canadian equestrians.

Ian Millar, “Captain Canada,” had an accident at his farm in Perth in October, 2020. He was 74-years-old. When riding a young mare that reared her hind legs, came down hard and spun around, Millar went through the air, landed, and the mare came down on him 3 times. He suffered major blood loss in his left arm above the elbow. He reported seeing nerves and muscles in the injury. He returned after treatment to his home in about 6 hours.

James Day harbours an incredible equestrian pedigree in Canadian show jumping history. To his credit, as far as I can find, I do not see a history of a major injury for Day.

James Elder, similar to Day and of the same pedigree, I cannot find an explicit story – perhaps, due to the historical nature of the accomplishments and legacy – about an injury.

Jill Henselwood, similar to Day and Elder, did not acquire a major injury in the midst of performing in a basic review of some online resource. For a period of her career, Henselwood had significant luck, by some reportage.

Laura Balisky (Laura Tidball-Balisky/Laura Tidball), first Canadian and youngest woman to win both the ASPCA Maclay Medal Final (1980) and the AHSA Medal Finals, does not seem to have a significant injury on the records in a simple examination of records.

Lisa Carlsen, as another without an apparent record of injury, seems to have come out unscathed in the major injury department of Canadian equestrians.

Mac Cone appears to only have an injured horse hindering career progression on the record.

Mario Deslauriers did not appear to suffer a significant injury. In fact, he simply appears remarkable for returning after 33 years to the sport.

Michel Vaillancourt did not suffer from a major injury. However, his father, in fact, died from an accident in 1971, where his mount fell on him, which seems particularly tragic for a young man.

Nicole Walker had an incident, according to her, of ingesting coca tea, which lead to a drug test resulting in cocaine metabolite benzoylecgonine identification. A Prohibited Substance under the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) Code, this resulted, eventually, in Canada’s disqualification from the 2020 team spot at Tokyo. Panam Sports accepted the coca leaf consumption claim. She suffered a more serious professional injury of the knee. She tore the ACL or anterior cruciate ligament, had minor tears of other ligaments, and fractured the fibular head. She recovered by 2021 and has been competing successfully. Another rising story of success and triumph.

Thomas (Tom) Gayford has been a historical figure, as with James Day and Jim Elder, as highly successful figures in Canadian show jumping. However, as with Day and Elder, I cannot find a significant injury of the gentleman. Although, one can find lots of medals.

Tiffany Foster, when schooling an inexperienced 6-year-old mare, attempted to teach the mare to jump a line of small jumps measuring about one metre in height, or a cavalettis, slower than before. Something bad happened. Next thing Foster knew, she woke up, face in the sand with “searing pain” – then unconscious again. She awoke strapped-up in an emergency room in a local hospital. She had a burst fracture at the T-6 vertebrae, loose bone particles floated around her spinal cord. An 8-hour surgery led to “a plate, six screws, six clips, and two titanium rods inserted, and [her] spine fused from T-2 to T-10.”

Yann Candele, as with others, does not appear to have suffered a major injury, while being a successful international show jumper for Canada.

Injuries don’t always happen to equestrians. When they happen at the highest level, they tend to be significant and require weeks to months of reparative work. All this analysis side-steps the lifelong issues, potentially, sitting before all equestrians with issues of the hip, back, and elsewhere, due to the strain on the body from riding. These side-stepped issues are not pins, screws, bolts, and titanium plates; they’re gradual erosion of the body in an all-consuming, entirely demanding professional sport. Others can be examined of prominence in equestrianism in Canada, and more in-depth research can be done. Nonetheless, all this says, “It’s a lifestyle.”

Life lesson: Apparently, injuries are common at all levels, sometimes highly damaging physically, with international show jumping as a do-or-die sport; bottom line, equestrians make a ‘beast of burden’ do something almost civilized, somewhat human-like, with an ever-present risk of bodily damage at all stages and ages.

Photo by Anna Claire Schellenberg on Unsplash

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