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May 16, 2012

One Cross-Country Accident We Can Prevent

When flags fly on cross-country, they can become a danger to the horse. Photo by Allie Conrad.

I’m pretty sure Will Coleman never expected to be loading Cool Connection into a trailer and rushing him off to a surgery center in New Jersey only minutes after starting out on the Jersey Fresh CIC*** course this past weekend.

I watched the scores all day and frowned when I saw that Will Coleman and Cool Connection—owned by the rider, Tivoli Farm and Jim Wildasin—had a fall. I didn’t realize the seriousness of it at the time, but I soon got a phone call detailing the horrific—and entirely preventable—fall.

Will described it best on his website,, which I will include here:

“Cool Connection was out next and jumped the first five fences fine. But, at the influential bank down to a skinny at fences 6 and 7, he dropped down the bank very quietly, forcing us to move up to the skinny. As he left the ground, he drifted right, as many horses were doing, so I held him left, hoping to keep him between the flags.

What happened next is the freakiest thing I’ve ever had happen to me or a horse of mine in my lifetime. "Noodle" hit the flag quite hard and sent it flying in front of him. The top of the flag rotated and stuck in the ground in front of him, leaving the bottom part of the flag sticking up on a 45-degree angle from the ground. As Noodle’s hind end finished the jump, it came down directly on the suspended flag, literally spearing the horse through his groin/sheath area and coming out by his anus.

When this happened, he responded to the pain by bucking incredibly hard, but as he was already probably travelling at 400 meters per minute, he couldn't keep his feet, and over-rotated, sending both of us somersaulting. This all happened in a matter of seconds, and I really had no idea what was going on until the horse, scrambling on top of my legs, finally got up and ran off towards the barn. At this point, as I lay on the ground, I saw the flag sticking out of his hind end, now broken, and a lot of blood.”

Cool Connection ran all the way back to stabling, in a blind panic, jumping anything in his way to get back to his stall where he was found, grossly injured and in need of emergency surgery. He was rushed to the New Jersey Equine Clinic, which was thankfully just up the road, where shards of wooden flag—upwards of 16 inches—was removed from Noodle’s body.

That’s a pretty horrifying—and yes, freak—thing to happen to your horse. An accident almost identical to this killed Icare D'Auzay at the 2007 Badminton CCI**** (England). I am sure that Team Coleman is relieved that their horse will recover in time, but I can imagine they are pretty upset.

This got me thinking about flagging jumps and a conversation I had with the director of the Boekelo horse trials (the Netherlands) at The Fork (N.C.) this past April. They have been working hard on a safer flag design to prevent exactly this type of thing—it’s so odd and creepy that Will happened to be standing there for it too. He mentioned a few designs that they’d played with and discussed the expense affiliated with each option. The cheapest was a piece of corrugated drain pipe screwed onto the jump and slit down the side, allowing a knocked wooden flag to be popped out when needed and placed effortlessly back with minimal interruption. The more expensive option was using bendable flags similar to what is used in slalom ski racing.

I watch a LOT of events, and I’ve seen a LOT of flags broken off and replaced—so much so that I chuckled while watching the flag-replacer guy at the evil double corners at The Fork this year have to run back and forth so much that he finally just left his drill out there inside the cutout of the jump.

Isn’t it time to rethink flags, particularly at the upper levels and even more so at corners, skinnies and tight combinations?

Sure, replacing flags is going to be expensive, but then again so are horses—particularly proven upper level horses. No horse should have to go through what Cool Connection is going through right now.

I’m not saying that all wooden flags everywhere should be replaced at every event, but an impromptu risk-based analysis (you can take the nerd out of the software development world, but she’s still going to be a nerd!) says that corners, skinnies and combinations need to be re-thought.

Pardon me a moment while I play Queen of the Universe again.

Were I Queen, I would find $5,000 somewhere and create a contest. Who can come up with the best, safest design of a cross-country flag for under $10 per jump. Winner takes all!

I know, money is tough to find, especially in this economy, but it’s easier to find than a good event horse!

It’s time for some ingenuity on behalf of the U.S. Eventing Association, its members, and Cool Connection.

Allie Conrad is executive director of CANTER Mid Atlantic, which provides retiring Thoroughbred racehorses with opportunities for new careers. Allie founded the organization in 1999 at Charles Town Racetrack (W.V.) after purchasing her beloved Thoroughbred Phinny, who had more than 60 starts at Charles Town, at the infamous New Holland Auction in Pennsylvania. A resident of Southern Pines, N.C., Allie also works full time as a project manager for a Washington, D.C., consulting firm. You can learn more about CANTER Mid Atlantic on their website,

4 years 35 weeks ago
So how is the horse?
Did he make it through the surgery OK? Read More
4 years 35 weeks ago
Alkathene waterpipe
Dr. Susan Dyson, DVM of the UK solved this problem a few years back. She caught on her camera a similar incident that resulted in a fatality. Since then Britain requires that all flagpoles be made of... Read More


4 years 35 weeks ago

Safe Flag option

I have wondered if a pool noodle would work for the flags? They are definitely cheap - well under the $10 mark. They could slide down into a recessed PVC tube or some other material that would be harmless (set down deep into ground or jump so they would not be able to break and splinter.) to hold them and keep straight. They give completely, are easily replaced and easy to see. They may not be real pretty. If that is important then a decorative sleeve could be easily and cheaply made to slide over them and make them fit in better with the course design! Anything to prevent that type of horrific accident happening again! Hope this helps! Laurie Shannon
4 years 35 weeks ago

How about...

rubber!!! Thin round rubber replacements that would bend but would still look rigid and work the same way!
4 years 35 weeks ago

flag marking

even pvc same with the plastic flexible pole (I work in the ER things get stuck everywhere ) can break and the wood come out of can happen again... did you see at the fork how many flags, got torn down?? and each time they were try to put it back on with more strength so it would move. how bout cloth stapled to the side ( set up regulated size) tack them on to each side...if we need out of bound lines then we do what football and baseball have been doing and chalk them that way judges will know for sure if a foot in or out of the lines. just a quick suggestion to allow for change so this doesn't happen again.I would hate to Will right now. Heather
4 years 35 weeks ago

I like the Noodle Idea

I'm sure they could have them made in any color and they are flexible and won't hurt anyone and they certainly won't stick in the ground. Super idea!!
4 years 35 weeks ago

They should just paint the

They should just paint the side of the jumps. right side red and the left side white. It would be easier then trying to find a way to reinvent the flags. As long as there is something on the top of the jump Ie a flag eventually someone will hit it, but if we put paint or something ON the front of the jump then it should work, using something like they do on stadium jumps Also if yoru Running a CIC* and up you should know what way your going. Especially on cross country there is usually only one way to jump a jump, unless there are a few option or something like that.
4 years 35 weeks ago

Alkathene waterpipe

Dr. Susan Dyson, DVM of the UK solved this problem a few years back. She caught on her camera a similar incident that resulted in a fatality. Since then Britain requires that all flagpoles be made of some sort of Alkathene waterpipe. The US shouldn't be behind in a situation concerning safety, since it is more safety concerned than most other countries!
4 years 35 weeks ago

So how is the horse?

Did he make it through the surgery OK?