Equestrian world ‘shocked to the core’ by death of rider Georgie Campbell

Georgie Campbell in July 2018/British equestrian rider dies competing at event in Devon
Georgie Campbell, pictured in July 2018, had competed in more than 200 events - Elli Birch/Alamy

The equestrian world is “shocked to the core” following the death of event rider Georgie Campbell at the Bicton International Horse Trials in Devon on Sunday.

Despite attempts to save her by medical responders, the vastly experienced and successful 36-year-old rider died at the scene after a fall.

Her mount had tumbled at a fence that was the second part of a combination of a hedge and a hanging log with a dry landing before open water.

Laura Collett, the British Olympic team gold medallist from Tokyo who suffered a life-threatening fall herself in 2013 which left her blind in one eye, paid tribute to her friend.

She said: “Georgie was the most genuinely lovely girl you could ever meet. She would light up any room with her smile and always made time to chat.

“She was a fantastic rider who produced many horses up through the levels. It’s hard to comprehend what has happened, a beautiful soul has been taken far too soon.”

Campbell, pictured in 2022, during the cross-country element of eventing
Campbell, pictured in 2022, during the cross-country element of eventing - Getty Images/Ryan Pierse

Campbell was based at Lamberhurst near Tunbridge Wells in Kent with her husband Jesse and was riding in an event called CCI4*-S (short) at the popular West Country horse trials.

Her mount, 11-year-old gelding Global Quest, who was uninjured in the fall, stepped up to 4 *level in 2022 and won at La Lignieres, the highlight of Campbell’s career, in France that autumn. Campbell had also ridden at Badminton and Burghley, 5* events, though not on this particular horse.

Taught to ride at the age of two by her mother, Campbell (née Strang) married fellow event rider Jesse Campbell - who competed for New Zealand at the Tokyo Olympics and is on the long list for Paris - in December 2020. They were previously based in Wiltshire before establishing Team Campbell Eventing in Kent.

Pippa Funnell, one of only two riders to have ever won eventing’s grand slam of Kentucky, Burghley and Badminton in the same year and a doyenne of the sport, said: “Words seem shallow to describe a person as unique as Georgie. She was absolutely beautiful both inside and out. She was such a special member of the eventing community, loved by so many. It has shocked the equestrian community to the core.

“Always gracious, thankful and fun but incredibly hard working and so very talented. I have had the pleasure of helping her with her dressage in recent weeks. She was a joy to teach. It was very evident she adored her horses and between them, I felt they had the attributes to go to the very top of the sport she loved.

“She was a much-loved family member and wife devoted to her husband Jesse. A very dear friend to many. It is so very tragic. My heart goes out to Jesse and all who loved her. The eventing family will all pull together to help and give each other support and comfort, particularly for those friends and loved ones that need it most.”

Campbell represented Great Britain numerous times during her eventing career
Campbell represented Great Britain numerous times during her eventing career - Alamy

William Fox-Pitt, a two-time Badminton winner who announced his retirement after 40 years in the sport earlier this month, said: “I knew her as a very competent, thorough, ambitious and accomplished rider who did everything well. She wasn’t someone you’d worry about [being a risk]. If you were wanting to learn, she was a good one to watch. She was very organised with her riding.”

After five riders were killed in British eventing in 1999, the sport has made huge strides in safety and horse welfare. Body protectors are now mandatory and previously “solid” fences are now held up with frangible pins, which means they collapse when hit hard.

Fox-Pitt, who spent a fortnight in a coma after a fall in France in 2015, added: “The fence she fell at has been there five years and jumped hundreds of times, I should think almost without incident. It asks a horse a very fair question and it was unbelievably unlucky it didn’t work out but, for whatever reason, horses can occasionally misjudge the simplest of fences.”

Last year, Zazie Gardeau, then the reigning European champion young rider aged 21, was airlifted to hospital after a fall at a different fence at Bicton left her with head injuries. She eventually returned to France, where she is still in recovery.

The measures taken to try to avoid serious injuries in eventing

As in horse racing, body protectors for riders are compulsory in the cross-country section of eventing. These are effectively padded waistcoats made of foam cells which are flexible enough to allow the rider to bend and move but, at the same time, provide an exoskeleton of protection in the event of a fall.

On top of this, riders can choose to ride with an airbag-type body protector which is clipped onto the saddle and inflates outwards the split second the rider becomes separated from the saddle - much like an airbag activating when a car stops very suddenly. These are not mandatory but down to personal preference, though many eventers choose to use this extra layer of protection.

The British standards on body protectors are constantly updated as they improve and the voluntary airbag version is incorporated into some body protectors as an all-in-one; some just sit on top of the mandatory one.

Front and back view of body protectors worn by riders
Front and back view of body protectors worn by riders

However, sometimes nothing will save a rider in a rotational fall when a 600kg-plus horse flips 180 degrees and lands on the rider. In racing, body protectors are good for saving ribs from flying hooves and the type of internal injury you might get being trodden on by another horse.

But jockeys still fracture a lot of vertebrae and the bottom line is that, sadly, in some cases, no amount of body protection is going to save a rider from being crushed.

Though jockeys sustain some serious injuries, because they are going faster and riding shorter, generally they are thrown clear of their falling mount.

Counterintuitively, perhaps, statistics show that during the cross-country phase in eventing - when the speeds are slower and riders have a longer length of stirrup - even though a rider does not have other horses to contend with when they come down at an obstacle, it is more dangerous.