This summer's competition in London marks 100 years of Olympic equestrian events.
Photography: Shaun Botterill/Allsport
The 2012 Olympics kick off July 27 in London, marking 100 years since equestrian competition became part of the modern games. In a country rich with horse-related history, it will be the ultimate showcase for a crowd that is knowledgeable about equestrian sport. Even the location of the events makes a statement about their importance to the host nation: For the London games, temporary facilities have been constructed not in a remote location but within the city limits, in historic Greenwich Park — on which the queen has bestowed the status of Royal Borough for the occasion. And riders will be able to stay in the Athlete’s Village, truly making them a part of the Olympic experience.
Here’s what you need to know and who you need to watch when the games get underway.
The modern Olympic Games were founded by Pierre de Coubertin in 1896, but it wasn’t until 1912 that equestrian events were routinely included. Led by Capt. Guy Vernor Henry Jr. (the son of Brig. Gen. Henry, who fought in the Civil War and Indian Wars and later served as the military governor of Puerto Rico), the first U.S. team was fielded from the U.S. Cavalry. In fact, until the cavalry was disbanded in 1948, every single U.S. equestrian Olympic team was made up of members of the cavalry or U.S. Army equestrian team; civilians were not invited to take part until the Helsinki games in 1952, the same year women were first allowed to compete in Olympic equestrian events.
Capt. Henry’s team had precious little time to prepare — just six months in rough winter conditions in Fort Riley, Kansas, with three of the recruits fitting in Olympic training for an hour and a half per day in between normal cavalry duties. Nonetheless, the newly minted U.S. equestrian team brought home the bronze from Stockholm. Capt. Henry himself rode his Army mount Chiswell in all three equestrian competitions, placing 11th in dressage and fourth in jumping in addition to serving on the bronze-medal eventing team.
Despite the early success, World War I intervened and the program languished for nearly two decades before the Army decided to refocus its efforts. The Remount Service, which was founded to ensure an adequate supply of horses for wartime, instituted a new breeding program to develop superior mounts, and an elite one-year course in advanced equitation was added to the curriculum at the Cavalry School to groom officers and Olympic team members.
In 1930, Capt. Henry was promoted to major general and named chief of cavalry. Under his experienced tutelage, the newly committed team prepared for the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics. Although the event took place in the midst of the Great Depression and turned out to be the least-attended Olympics in history, the team brought home five medals, including the first team gold in eventing, led by Lt. Earl Thomson on Jenny Camp. The team’s success would be unmatched for more than 50 years, until the U.S. Equestrian Team (USET) earned five medals in 1984.
Col. John W. Wofford, a member of the 1932 team, went on to serve as the first president of USET and to coach the first team with civilian riders in 1952 (his 19-year-old son Jeb won bronze that year). From 1955 to 1980 Bertalan de Nemethy coached the team, with Jack LeGoff hired as eventing coach in 1970. At the USET facilities in Gladstone, New Jersey, these men trained many of the medal-winning horses and riders that helped U.S. equestrian sport become what it is today.
There are three Olympic disciplines in equestrian sport, with medals awarded in team and individual competition. In each discipline, men and women compete on equal terms, the only Olympic sport in which this is the case.
Dressage, which means training in French, is a test of the horse’s obedience, education, and harmony with its rider. The horse should be attentive, supple, and calm as he performs a prescribed series of movements. In the freestyle, a customized pattern is choreographed and ridden to music.
Show jumping tests the horse’s skill, speed, and agility, as well as the rider’s ability and horsemanship, as the two negotiate a course of obstacles.
Eventing, the ultimate test of horse and rider, includes dressage, cross-country, and show jumping over three days. The “triathlon of equestrian sport” challenges the horse’s bravery, endurance, and athleticism. Eventing formerly included a speed and endurance component consisting of roads and tracks, and a steeplechase on cross-country day. The current “short format,” in which cross-country was left to stand alone, came about primarily to keep eventing in the Olympics — a change that has affected the sport permanently. The last long-format Olympics were held in Sydney in 2000.
Though not an equestrian discipline per se, modern pentathlon includes show jumping among its five sports (riding, running, shooting, swimming, and fencing). The riding portion of the modern pentathlon will take place at the equestrian venue in Greenwich Park.
The Para Equestrian competition for disabled riders will also take place at Greenwich Park from August 30 to September 4 during the Paralympic Games. The United States will send one of 23 world teams to battle it out for team and individual medals.
As of 2012 all equestrian events in the Olympics are English riding, but some enthusiasts hope that one day cowboys and cowgirls will have their chance at Olympic gold in the sport of reining. In 2006 in Aachen, Germany, the Western discipline was added to the events at the World Equestrian Games (WEG), and reining was well-attended at the 2010 WEG in Lexington, Kentucky.