ASPEN - The fatal injury of a mare on the field of the World Snow Polo Championship in Aspen two weekends ago has raised concerns about the health and condition of the horses in the annual event.
The animal, which was around 17 years old, was transported after collapsing at the scene of the competition to an off-site location where she was euthanized, said event director Barry Stout. He said the incident, while regrettable, was not a reflection of the care and training of the two dozen horses at his New Castle ranch that he supplies for the event.
"We've been doing the event for 14 years, and we've never had a horse get hurt," Stout said. "They are ridden extensively for a month to get in shape for the competition. Leading up to the event, all of the horses were in excellent condition."
Stout said the death of the mare - he would not provide her name - was "devastating." He said his team that organizes and coordinates the event has a U.S. Polo Association-sanctioned plan in case of such situations and that the plan was followed to the letter.
"We got the horse right on the trailer, and the horse was back in the [Aspen-area] stables within probably 15 minutes and cared for there," he said. "It was just a bad situation."
The mare's collapse occurred on Dec. 17 on Marolt Open Space property just west of Aspen in front of about 500 spectators, Stout said. The event had been moved from its intended location, Rio Grande Park, to Marolt property because of a lack of snow at the city's park.
A letter to the editor recently published by both The Aspen Times and the Aspen Daily News by a woman named Michelle Danielson was highly critical of the handling of the animals. It decried the lack of an on-scene veterinarian and said the horses were improperly shod for the wet and slippery grass beneath the thin and spotty layers of snow.
She wrote that one of the players was upset about the dangerous conditions and the fact that the horses were only wearing front shoes.
"In an event on snow, such as this one was, all the horses, in order to have traction on the slippery snow, should have had shoes on all four feet and caulks on the rear shoes," the letter read.
Stout doubts the validity of the letter. He said he knows of no one named Michelle Danielson and that it contained information he gave to a handful of people and which he deems as "proprietary." He also said politics may be at play.
"There's people in town who want to take the event over," he said.
Stout suggested that the allegation of improper shoeing was a nonissue. Rear shoes would have been provided had the organizers thought it would have led to better safety and performance, he said.
"The conditions could have been better," he said. "There could have been more snow."
He said he doesn't blame anyone for the accident but noted that the player aboard the mare could have been riding her too hard. Twice that day, the player was penalized by the head umpire for reckless riding, Stout said.
"I don't blame the rider," Stout said. "It was just a bad situation. It happened. We ask the riders to be more careful. It's polo."
In many sporting activities involving horses, including thoroughbred racing, animals often suffer injuries and occasionally have to be humanely destroyed.
Stout would not disclose the exact nature of the mare's injury, again describing the information as "proprietary."
Aspen City Clerk Kathryn Koch, who oversees the city's special events committee involved in approving the request of a site for the snow polo tournament, said Tuesday that she had not received any complaints about the way the horses were managed during the Dec. 17 and 18 event. Tom Rubel, the city's parks operations superintendent, also said he has heard of no criticisms.
However, Linda Lafferty, a polo aficionado who described herself as a friend of Stout's and a longtime member of the Roaring Fork Polo Club, said she couldn't stomach what she saw on the Marolt field on Dec. 17.
Lafferty - a local writer who in the past has covered the snow polo championship for The Aspen Times and previewed this year's event for the newspaper - said safeguards need to be put in place to ensure the health and safety of the animals.
In an email to the newspaper, confirmed by a follow-up phone interview, she said the event needs to hire a veterinarian who checks out the horses days before the tournament and who is on standby during the matches. The vet also should examine the horses before and after play, she said.
The horses should only be asked to perform during two or three chukkars per day, she said. A chukkar is a period of timed play during a polo match lasting somewhere between six and 7.5 minutes.
She said she believes some of the animals were made to compete for four chukkars or longer during the Aspen tourney.
"I am coming forth with this information for one reason - I cannot abide the abuse of horses," Lafferty said. "Something must happen to prevent this kind of behavior in the future."
The event also needs a field manager to see that the playing surface is safe and groomed well, she said. There also should be a "tack manager" to determine that the equipment placed on the horse doesn't harm the animal.
"Tack that is faulty can be an extreme danger for both horse and rider," she said.
At the event, a few of the groomers intervened to keep the organizers from forcing the animals to play five chukkars, she said.
Stout said the chukkars are shortened to six minutes for snow polo. He said none of the horses played for more than three chukkars per day.
"We're very conscious of the condition of the horses, and we always have been," he said. "This was just a freak thing."