With the 2016 Olympics in full swing, I am loving the live streaming of the equestrian events. In the past, I’ve struggled with finding when the events would be aired and catching the latest team and individual standings. Now, I’m able to see it all. And, I’m thrilled! I’m aware that there are some who don’t enjoy the equestrian portions as much as I do, and that’s okay, because there are other events in the Olympic line up that I’m not partial to either. And I’ve heard complaints from others who who say that the equestrian events appear to be more about the horse’s fitness rather than the riders’. In the midst of all the conversations, I have a tendency to become very passionate about my views on the horse and rider combination in the Olympics, and here are some reasons why:
1. The Rich History
While the gathering and celebration of athletes began in ancient Greece, the Olympic Games as we now know it were first held in 1896. Equestrian events became part of the line up in 1900 and (other than in 1904) have been in the summer Olympics ever since then. Of course, there were also horse and chariot races in the ancient Greek Olympic trials as well, so horses have been a tradition from an early start.
While some of the types of equestrian events have changed and evolved over the years, Eventing, Dressage, and Show Jumping have been constants. As these disciplines have a foundation in military movements and cavalry training, at one point in time, commissioned officers in the military were the only ones who could compete in these events. It was a way to show off the hard work, skills, and accomplishments of both horse and rider.
2. The Incredible Partnership
To those who believe that it isn’t really fair that horses are allowed in the Olympics, because it appears to be about the horse’s fitness and ability and less about the riders, I offer you the opportunity to get on a 1200 pound animal who thinks and moves completely independently of you and convince it to perform precise and difficult movements, jump high and wide objects, and stay focused on the task at hand. You might just find it challenging enough to steer the horse where you want it to go, let alone have it compete against the tests set before you.
As far as the rider’s fitness, galloping a horse for close to 4 miles while jumping obstacles in eventing, leaping over 5 foot fences that can be around 6 feet wide in show jumping, and guiding a heavy bodied horse through the dancing movements of Dressage is no easy feat. It takes conditioning, training, and stamina, and requires clarity of mind, courage, and endurance.
The best combination of riders and horses are ones with a tight partnership and a deep connection. A foundation of trust and understanding make it possible to leap over and conquer the seemingly impossible.
3. The Equality
Did you know that currently, the equestrian events are the only portions where men and women compete as equals at the Olympics? So crazy to think that is true in today’s day and age, but it’s one of the very few sports where “countries are free to choose the best riders and horses, regardless of gender.”
How beautiful to see that the tests of courses, jumps and patterns put men and women on equal footing, allow them to compete in the same fields and arenas, and end up having them stand on podiums together.
I also love the equality of age. There are more experienced riders in their 40s, 50s, and even 60s who bring their presence and collected calm to challenging tests, and there are young riders in their 20s and 30s who bring their enthusiasm and energy to the sport. To see the span of generations and learn from the greats and inexperienced alike, is a rare treasure.
4. The Stories
But aren’t these events for the elite? That is true in some sense, because horses are expensive hobbies and pricey vocations, but just about any sport can cost a lot of money these days. And there are stories of horses and riders that defy the idea that it’s all only for the elite. We hear about the opportunities for a girl who didn’t grow up in a horsey home, start with backyard riding lessons, and didn’t have a lot of money to find a way to the top and represent the USA at the highest level of competition. We also see a horse of unknown pedigree (and owned by the Chilean army) take a confident and steady ride around the cross country course. And, we see a man in his late 40’s come from being in a coma less than 10 months prior and little hope of walking again to competing for his country with courage.
The horse world rewards hard work and effort. We cheer on those who hold their horse’s health and well-being above their own. We love to see a horse and rider combination rise from obscurity to center stage. And we love it when the desire to ride and compete motivates you to do what many others say is completely crazy.
5. The Inspiration
My daughter Brynley has found a hero in swimmer Katie Ledecky and says she wants to compete in the Olympics like her one day. And, when I ask if she wants to swim in those future Olympics, she casually says, “No, I’m much better at riding, I think. I want to go with Princess the pony to the Olympics one day, and you can take us there in the truck and trailer.” She sees the other riders racing over cross country, dancing in Dressage, and leaping in show jumping, and she is completely motivated to take her pony and do the same.
And being a girl won’t matter. And having a family with little cash won’t matter. And starting with inexpensive horses and ponies won’t matter. She’s seen what it possible and is inspired that the same can be true for her.
And that is why I love the Equestrian portions of the Olympics.