The Olympic torch has ignited the equestrian community, with a little help from Stephen Colbert and the upcoming presidential election. Some of you may have seen Colbert’s tongue-in-cheek enthusiastic support of dressage, complete with red foam fingers. His sarcasm has brought attention to a sport not many would recognize otherwise and the dressage community has good-naturedly soaked up the attention like a ShamWow.
Politics aside, the equestrian sports are not as mainstream as other sports. In order to facilitate their emergence into the general public, what follows is some information on the three equestrian events, dressage, show jumping and three-day eventing.
Dressage consists of riders and horses performing exact and predetermined patterns in a flat arena, for which they are judged and awarded points from 0-10. The movements are long derived from maneuvers used in cavalry training for the battlefield.
The deceiving aspect of dressage is that, when performed correctly, the rider appears to be doing nothing at all. Meanwhile, tremendous body control, flexibility, strength and intricacy are at work. And it is work. It may look like the rider is “just sitting there,” but one ride on a dressage horse will have a nonrider discovering muscles that were previously undiscovered. It takes years and years of training for both horse and rider and the two must be able to work as one unit.
Show jumping is a timed event where horses and riders gallop a course of jumps up to six feet high in a sand or grass arena. The jumps are composed of wooden rails that fall at the slightest touch, so horses have to honestly clear them. Penalty points are assigned for refusing a jump, knocking rails down or going over the time limit. There may be a water jump which has to be jumped across rather than over, at a width of up to 13 feet, and there will be combinations where the horse jumps the first jump, takes one stride to a second and another stride to a third.
Imagine a track-and-field hurdler having to jump hurdles that are one step apart and taller than the athlete, and you can understand the difficulty.
Three-day eventing combines dressage with show jumping and adds cross-country jumping. In cross-country, riders and horses gallop a course over 10-12 miles of natural terrain (meaning hills, water, grass, ditches, gravel, banks) and over 30-40 solid obstacles up to four feet high and six feet wide. This sport is again an evolution of cavalry practices and is the most physically demanding and dangerous of the three Olympic equestrian events. Riders must wear protective body vests as well as helmets and wear arm bands detailing their medical information should they not be conscious after a fall. The sport is truly an assessment of accuracy, stamina and athletic ability.
On the first day, dressage, riders and horses perform a slightly less physically demanding test than the dressage-only horses, but it is also a mental test. This is like asking a NASCAR driver to take an SAT test right before a race. Cross country is on the second day, and should a horse and rider conquer that, show jumping is the third day. On that third day, both horse and rider are beginning to tire and now must take the mental aspect of the dressage and the physical aspect of the cross country and apply both to get around the jump course.
Event horses have to have concentration and relaxation to perform a dressage test, bravery to barrel around a cross-country course and precision to go around the show jumping ring. The equestrian events are the only sports where men and women compete equally. They are some of the oldest Olympic events, with a debut in the 1900 Games.
At this time, there are no Western riding events in the Olympics due to the international base of the other English riding sports. A horse is the only mammal, other than a human being, that sweats over its entire body.
Equestrian athletes are competitive in their sports well into their 60s and, amazingly, even into
their 70s. I hope that, like Stephen Colbert, everyone will begin to understand the equestrian events more and start to recognize the effort that goes into the sports. There really is no way to completely appreciate what these riders endure, as even other riders will never make it to that level. Most of us are destined and content to ride our horses around without judges or six-foot drop jumps into a pond or being timed.
However, we’ll still wave our red foam fingers for those that do.