At Horse Show, Actor's Accident Is Taboo Subject Riders Are Aware That What Happened To Christopher Reeve Can Happen To Anybody.

Posted: May 30, 1996

DEVON — Almost exactly a year ago today, actor Christopher Reeve was thrown from his horse when it unexpectedly halted in front of a jump at a Virginia competition. Although Reeve was wearing a helmet, he broke his neck, damaged his spinal cord, and is now a quadriplegic.

This week at the Devon Horse Show and Country Fair, some of the nation's best equestrians make the sport look effortless. The well-postured riders, on their burnished, buffed horses, take difficult jumps with such ease and grace that it is easy to ignore the danger that many say is inherent in the sport.

And Reeve's accident is a taboo subject to many here.

``It was all over TV and the magazines, but I don't think I've ever heard horse people talk about it,'' said Rob Burroughs, a horse groomer at North Run Farms in Buffalo, N.Y. That farm, like many other horse organizations, made the trip to Devon to compete in the horse show, which runs through Sunday.

``Hundreds of people fall off a day,'' Burroughs said, but death or paralysis in the sport is not common. Reeve ``just fell off the wrong way,'' he said.

``I wouldn't think too many people would want to talk about it, but Christopher Reeve is an example of how dangerous this sport can be,'' said Gary Goller, a member of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, which performed at the show earlier this week.

Susie Schoellkopf, the owner of SBS Farms in Buffalo, said that the severe nature of Reeve's injuries is an anomaly, and that she does not talk about his accident with her riders.

``We're defensive about it, because it doesn't happen that much,'' she said.

Many of those who spend much of their time around horses say that most are temperamental animals with distinct personalities. Like humans, horses get nervous at big competitions. But unlike their riders, horses lack the cognitive resources to deal with the hubbub of major competitions.

Instead, as people in the horse world put it, horses get ``spooked.'' When frightened, even the best-trained will rear, buck and neigh.

Reeve's accident is widely considered to be a freak occurrence, but, as many riders say, spend enough time riding horses and eventually you'll fall off. To make it in this sport - where the main athletes weigh about 1,500 pounds - you have to be tough as well as good.

Katie Prudent, the owner and rider for Plain Bay Farms in Middleburg, Va., who is trying out for the Olympic equestrian team this year, is living proof.

Six years ago, the horse she was riding fell to its knees after a jump, and she fell off and hit her head. Prudent did not want to discuss the details of the accident, but said she had brain surgery. At another competition a few years later, her horse fell through a jump, and she broke her collar bone.

``I would say almost every rider has broken something,'' she said. ``But at our level, on a percentage basis, you don't see a lot of very serious accidents.''

While walking Brother, an amber-colored American thoroughbred with veins bulging to the size of string beans and nostrils as big as pickles, Burroughs said he once broke a few of his ribs when his horse hit the brakes in front of a jump, sending him sailing.

Patty Foster, a trainer for Rolling Acre Farms in Brookville, Md., said the horse show at Devon is different from other shows, where the rings are surrounded mostly by trees. At Devon, she said, the scene is not as serene: Children run by the exhibit ring, people open umbrellas just a few feet from passing horses, and nearby carnival games and rides create a cacophony that can put even the most docile horse on edge.

In the doorway of the Plain Bay Farm barn at Devon, workers put up a rope to keep the public out. ``Our horses aren't mean, but if they don't know you, they may bite,'' said Rebekah Robinson, a groom with the farm. ``We don't want to be responsible for any little kids getting hurt.''

Amy Grim, a groom for Snooty Fox Farms in Allentown, said someone slammed a window shut in their Devon stable a few days ago, surprising one of the horses. The horse ``freaked,'' she said, and knocked down the stable door with a swift hind-leg kick.

``You never know what's going on in their minds,'' she said.

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