Horse enthusiasts accept risk of injuries like Reeve's as part of the sport

June 04, 1995|By New York Times News Service

CULPEPER, Va. -- The hurdle where a horse threw actor Christopher Reeve was considered so elementary that few people saw the accident that paralyzed him May 27.

Most spectators were gathered farther down the meadow at the course's more demanding jumps -- over a ditch, a stone ramp and a water hazard.

Mr. Reeve, who had insisted on performing his own stunts while filming the Superman movies he starred in, fractured two neck bones when his horse balked at a three-foot-high stack of cedar logs at Commonwealth Park here.

This is the heart of horse and hunt country, and the accident produced only momentary alarm in local stables and tack shops.

While expressing sympathy for the actor, many riders said they gave his accident barely a thought as they saddled up this week. A few asserted that danger was part of the allure.

"There's always danger," said John M. Heckler, 67, a stockbroker from Middleburg, Va., who was paralyzed below the waist five years ago, when his galloping horse stumbled in a hidden hole during a fox hunt.

Two years later, Mr. Heckler was back on a horse and now gets around with braces and a walker. "Riding is therapy," he said. "I figure, the horse got me here, and it's going to get me out of here."

His neighbor, Kathryn Clark, the widow of an investment banker, snapped her neck and bruised her spinal cord when a pony kicked her five years ago. Mrs. Clark, now 67, was paralyzed from the neck down.

She resumed riding 16 months later, but eight months ago fell off her horse and broke her right leg.

She says she intends to ride again. And she said that because an intense competitor had a better chance of coming back, she expected to see Mr. Reeve in the ring again.

His doctors and relatives are more cautious.

Several doctors who specialize in spinal-cord injuries but have not examined Mr. Reeve said they viewed the outlook for him as grim. Without unusual improvement, they said, he would probably spend the rest of his life in a motorized wheelchair, towing a ventilator the size of an orange crate and relying on an attendant for feeding, hygiene and getting in and out of the chair.

Yesterday, for the first time since the accident, riders gathered for a horse show at the stadium and stables of Commonwealth Park here, 75 miles southwest of Washington. Mr. Reeve fell during the cross-country phase of a grueling event known as combined training.

"All my friends said, 'You're going to Culpeper?' " said Heather Phillips, a 17-year-old from Fayetteville, N.C. " 'You're going to do the same thing as Christopher Reeve! Maybe they'll put you in his room.' "

She reined in her mustang, Misty. "If you've done everything safe, you never lived," said Miss Phillips, a 10th-grader. "There wouldn't be any race car drivers or bungee jumpers."

Her stepfather, John Parker, 35, said: "It's a known fact that if you hang around horses, sooner or later, you're going to get bit, kicked, stepped on, thrown. You can't always be prepared for it, or you wouldn't enjoy yourself. Just get back on -- if you can."

Statistically, severe injuries are rare, officials of equestrian organizations assert. The U.S. Combined Training Association, based in Leesburg, Va., said that of 51,813 riders who participated in events similar to the one Mr. Reeve was in during 1990 and 1991, only 0.36 percent were involved in jumping accidents.

But a report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta said that based on accidents in 1987 and 1988, the most recent complete figures, "the rate of serious injury per number of riding hours is estimated to be higher for horseback riders than for motorcyclists and automobile riders."

During those two years, the report said, horseback riding produced 92,763 emergency room visits in the United States. Of those, 19 percent involved injury to the head and neck, as in Mr. Reeve's case.

Five percent involved injuries to more than one part of the body.

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