A great injustice has been committed at the Olympics, at nearly every Games since 1900. Despite de Coubertin’s visions of diversity and equity, the Olympics have neglected to include great champions time and time again and is likely to continue to do so. Since you’ve already noted that today’s topic is the equestrian events, you surely see I mean that the horses do not win medals.
Before you scoff, let me ask if you can name any horse that has won the Triple Crown? American Pharoah…Justify… what about the speedster with the giant heart, Secretariat? Now, can you name their jockeys? In the racing circuit, these noble engines of speed are given their due. Not so in the Olympics.
Nevertheless, let’s take a look at the equestrian events: their history and evolution as well as notable riders, including an American To Watch. I’ll try to include the name of steed as well as the medalist, where I can, because even historians don’t always list the horse’s name. A travesty!
Stagecoach Is A Comin’
Horse-based competitions were first featured in the II Olympiad in Paris, although most of the events were discontinued afterward. Polo was contested as a team sport for five separate Games, with teams from mixed countries, representing their clubs, kind of like corporate sponsorship today. Just as there are high jumps and long jumps for humans, horses also competed for medals in both disciplines, with High Jump medalists going six feet up and Long Jumpers twenty feet across. For comparison, today’s human world records are about eight feet up and nearly thirty feet across. But men don’t weigh 1000 lbs.
Another odd event was Figure Riding by individuals and teams–jumping on, off, and over a horse as well as standing on it–all of which could also have been called Circus Tricks.
What might seem strangest is the competition called Mail Coach, apparently exact as it sounds. Odd today, although it would probably be like having an Olympic NASCAR event, which reminds me of Rule #14 for the Olympics:
Olympic Rule #14: It’s only strange if it’s a sport you don’t follow.Kajmeister Olympic Rules
You Want Me to Jump What? Neighhhhhhh….
Equestrian events were discontinued for a few years, but returned in 1912 and have remained ever since. The current grouping includes Jumping, Dressage, and a Cross-Country Race. As with Gymnastics, riders compete not only in each of these as individuals, but also as teams, and not only in these as individual events, but as a Three-Day Team Event. In order to excel at all three, horse-rider pairs must show extraordinary speed, balance, finesse, and athleticism, sometimes without using their hands.
The courses for the cross country face the same issues as in the skiing downhill and the cycling road race–designers are criticized if they’re too easy and roasted if they’re too difficult. It’s common in the record to show horses that died as a reflection of the difficulty.
In the 1936 Berlin Games, the 22-miles took two hours to traverse. Naturally, the German team had been able to practice for months, likely an unfair advantage. The course included the first water jump, three feet deep in a bog. Of the 46 horses that attempted to the pond, only 28 made it without falling. Eventing Nation has a series of videos showing horses offing their riders with great umbrage, including one who stopped to take a drink.
The best story was of Kurfurst, ridden by Lt. von Wangenheim of Germany. In the pond, Kurfurst threw off his rider, breaking Von Wangenheim’s collarbone. They managed to complete the course anyway, a requirement in order for the leading German team not to be disqualified. Still, the jumping event remained, with Von Wangenheim in a sling, which made handling the reins problematic. At any early obstacle, Kurfurst pitched him off, then fell on him. Von Wangenheim crawled out, but the horse appeared immobile, until Kurfurst suddenly jumped up, allowed his rider to remount, finish the course, and deliver the German gold medal.
Eight Olympics and Counting
Longevity is also a hallmark for riders. New Zealander Mark Todd won a bronze medal in Sydney, retired, then returned to compete in Beijing, London, and Rio at age 60. The amazing Todd has competed in seven Games with the longest gap of 28 years between winning an individual gold in 1984 and a team bronze in 2012.
Ian Miller of Canada appeared in ten Olympic Games, holding the record for most Games appearances in any sport. That’s forty years of riding, and it would have been eleven if not for the Moscow boycott in 1980.
Germany is the pre-eminent leader in equestrian medals, although Sweden, France, and the United States also claim top spots. West and East Germany combined account for nearly 20% of all the medals and 25% of the golds. Germany’s Reiner Klimke had the top spot with eight medals when he retired in 1988, but he’s been passed by the true alpha dog among the equestrians today: Isabell Werth. Werth has ten Olympic medals to her credit, six gold, all of them Dressage.
Let the Li’l Ladies Compete… Wait They’ve Won How Many Medals?
Werth’s ten medals is an amazing feat, but so is Anky van Grunsven three-peat in back-to-back-to-back Dressage golds. These are particularly notable since women weren’t allowed in the equestrian events from 1912-1952. Up until the 1952 Games, all riders were required to be either officers in the military or recognized “gentlemen,” which was intended to restrict entry to amateurs. In reality, this excluded all women and all men who were not officers in the military or deemed aristocrats. Finally, women were allowed to compete in Antwerp, only in Dressage, although by 1964, they were allowed in all events.
Equestrian may now be the only category where women and men still compete together against each other. There are now other Olympic mixed doubles or pairs events where men and women compete together, but on a fixed quota, equal numbers of men and women on each team. Shooting used to be mixed gender, but moved to split Men and Women’s events twice after women won their categories (Rifle in 1968 and Skeet in 1992), in order to “give the women their own group.”
Of the last 24 Individual Dressage medalists, 22 were women. I wonder if there have been discussions about “giving the women their own competition group.”
We Are Not To Be Tested
While people of any gender and any social class can be adept riders, having access to horses certainly skews to the aristocratic and affluent. It’s why competition sometimes even includes royalty, across Europe, but most notably from England in 1976. Princess Anne, known as the Princess Royal since she’s the eldest daughter of The Queen, competed on the British team in Canada.
Princess Anne’s entry also marked a unique circumstance. It was the one and only time that gender testing was suspended.
Her Royal Highness has always been an avid rider and sportswoman, often representing the royal family at the Games. She said she developed a love of riding early because the horses were the one group that didn’t treat her differently. Anne passed this on to her daughter, Zara Phillips, who also became an expert horsewoman and also competed in the Olympics, this time at home in London, helping team Great Britain to a silver medal. #ProudRoyalMom. Or would that be #ProudMomRoyal?
The Nerdiest Olympic Discipline
The cross-country race is easy to understand, and show jumping also fairly straightforward. Jump across a series of obstacles quickly, but without knocking anything over. But then there’s Dressage.
Everyone likes to make fun of Dressage, then change the channel to watch gymnasts perform tumbling dance routines. Scored. To Music. Figure Skating is the premier winter sport viewed by Americans, and Dancing with the Stars has a huge audience. Scored. To Music. No one would argue that these rhythm and dance competitions don’t require strength, speed, and athleticism. Why not Dressage? Why would shooting at a target fifty times or watching someone try to poke a ball into a little hole twenty feet away be inherently more interesting? Or what about watching gas-guzzlers spend three hours making left turns? Isn’t car racing expensive, too? Why is everyone so annoyed at Dressage?
Dressage requires incredible partnership and training between horse and rider. Horses must display responsiveness, speed, agility, and flexibility, performing a series of required exercises that range from simple walks to elaborate sideways trots. All are done with the voice and legs, as the rider must appear to sit nearly motionless. One reason we don’t follow Dressage is because we don’t understand it, don’t know how tell a piaffe from a flying change. Rule 15: You could follow it, if you understood it.
Just as with figure skating, there are multiple judges who score individual movements, assigning both a technical and an artistic value. Scores are complex and measured against an expectation, based on a rider’s dozen previous performances. Like skating or mixed event competitions such as the decathlon, dressage requires a computer and analytics to understand it. It would be fascinating to see the Dressage Data Warehouse.
Along with statistics, other types of modernization are in progress. In Rio, for the first time, music was allowed. True, some of the choices were either military or old-fashioned (“Hello, Dolly”) but at least one American went more modern, with “Ice Ice Baby.” Stories are emerging that younger riders are using Beyonce rather than Tchaikovsky. Traditionalists may not like it, but Dressage might attract viewers if it added a bit flair, OK Boomer? Also, the event would be more popular if it included American riders who were as good as the Europeans. As it turns out, the US now has one of those.
From Cosmetology School to the Piaffe
Laura Grave originally went to cosmetology school. She grew up on a farm in Vermont, and her parents traded a washer and dryer for two ponies for Laura and her sister. As a teenager, Graves and her mom bought a Dutch horse called Verdades, who came from good stock but was high-spirited. She thought to tame him, but he was hard to work with. When Verdades threw her, breaking a vertabrae, she decided to call it quits and turned to cutting hair as a career. But then, unable to sell the willful horse, she went home and tried again.
Beginning in 2012, Graves and her opinionated horse began to win one competition after another. It took hours of training, but as sometimes happens with people, the horse became fiercely loyal and obedient, though only to one person. In the 2016 Games, Graves and Verdades upended the established order by coming in fourth individually and raising Team USA to a rare bronze medal in Dressage. In doing so, Graves also became the first American rider to break the 80 mark, something of a glass ceiling in the sport. Since then, she’s even scored as high as 89 (out of 100)–the world record is only 94.
Graves was 29 in Rio and, given that riders compete well into their fifties, we should be able to see her for years to come. Apparently, recent world battles between her and Isabell Werth have been knock-down drag-out Dressage. In Gothenburg last year, Werth riding Weihegold scored 88.871% while Graves and Verdades scored 87.179%.
Tokyo 2021 Dressage should be an epic throwdown between these titans of the flying change, don’t you think?