BY: BRITTANY FISHER, DVM CANDIDATE AT MISSISSIPPI STATE UNIVERSITY COLLEGE OF VETERINARY MEDICINE
Famed American rider McLain Ward, recovering from a broken kneecap injury from January, rides Antares in the Equestrian Jumping event August 7 in London. (Source: Alex Livesey/Getty Images Europe)
Editor’s Note: I know next to nothing about equestrian events other than they feature horses. That’s why I outsourced my equestrian coverage to Brittany Fisher, a former schoolmate of mine from Ocean Springs who is an avid, long-time horselover and equestrian competitor. She is currently studying for her DVM at Mississippi State University in Starkville, Miss. Consider this a definitive explanation of all things equestrian at the Olympics.
Editor’s Second Note: I am assuming that, when Brittany says “non-horse people,” she is referring to people who don’t consider themselves horse aficionados and is not referring to regular people as opposed to centaurs. 😉
Equestrian disciplines are the only Olympic events that allow men and women to compete equally in the same divisions. There are three equestrian disciplines that compete in the Olympics: eventing, dressage, and show jumping. While to most non-horse people these just look like people sitting atop horses as they jump over obstacles or dance in an arena doing movements that look funny, these equestrian events have their roots in military cavalry.
What is now known as “3-day eventing” was a trial for horses to see which ones were brave enough and had the stamina to stand up in battle going “across country” terrain – jumping ditches, banks, fallen trees, or anything that stood in their path for days on end and being “fearless” to anything they may come across. Until 1952, only active military officers were allowed to compete in the event. The eventing sport has gone through several phases over the last half century, gradually excluding parts of the competition such as the steeplechase and roads and track phases. Today, what you will see in the Olympics is considered the “short” format and is known as a triathlon for horses and the ultimate equestrian sport.
Day 1 – Dressage
On day one of the competition, riders will compete in dressage. This is considered “ballet on horseback,” as riders must memorize a test in which they must execute certain maneuvers at very specific points in a 20- x 60-meter arena. They are judged on each movement by a panel of judges scoring them from zero to 10, with zero being not performed, and 10 being perfect.
These points are collected into an equation and the final score is a collection of penalty points, so the goal in the whole competition is to get the lowest score possible, or the lowest amount of penalty points. The point of dressage in eventing is to show the horse’s obedience and overall classical training.
Day 2 – Cross Country
Day 2 is cross country day, the most exciting and exhilarating of all the phases, even for those that aren’t horsey people. It tests both the horses’ and riders’ stamina and bravery, as riders must navigate a course of immoveable jumps over varying terrain, much like the cavalry horses used to encounter. These horses must jump over ditches, up and down banks, and into and out of water. These jumps at maximum are 4 feet high and 11 feet wide, and the down banks or drops are 6.5 feet that the horse must jump down.
Talk about ultimate bravery! These riders approach these jumps with the horses going up to 30 mph sometimes, and the horse has to clear the jump…that’s a long way in the air for the rider, who must really have ultimate trust in his or her horse. The course will be several miles long and have up to 30-40 jumps on course, and if that isn’t enough, this must be done within a certain time limit. Riders collect penalty points for any refusals towards jumps (20 points per jump) and any time over the optimum time limit given. Any fall by the horse or rider, and the pair is eliminated from the competition.
Day 3 – Stadium Jumping
The third day is stadium jumping. This phase is to show the horses’ willingness to go on after a grueling test of cross country the day before. There is an obstacle course set up of pretty fences with poles that, if touched even in the slightest way by the horse, will fall down. Riders collect penalty points for every rail down (4 points) and any refusals (4 points). There is also a time component here too, as any seconds over the optimum time given will collect as penalty points. The team or individual with the smallest score at the end of competition wins.
2012 London Olympics – Eventing Results
This year, Germany won gold in team eventing, as they tend to dominate the sports of eventing and dressage. Host nation Great Britain came home with silver, and New Zealand won bronze. Team USA finished seventh overall, with the highest individual ranking U.S. team member being Karen O’Connor riding Mr. Medicott in ninth place. Germany’s Michael Jung took individual eventing gold, with Sweden’s Sara Algotsson Ostholt taking silver and Germany’s Sandra Auffarth the bronze.
Dressage is a separate competition also with roots in military. All military horses were trained in dressage, and the most advanced movements -“airs above ground” – were movements performed by the horse in battle the fend off enemies. In the olympics, the airs above ground are not performed. Instead, horses compete at the highest level of ground work: Grand Prix. Horses that compete in only dressage are considered specialists and will perform more complex maneuvers than those seen also in the dressage phase of eventing. These maneuvers include: piaffe, passage, piroeette, half pass, and tempi changes.
- The piaffe is a movement where the horse trots in place.
- Passage is a forward moving trot, but slower and with more suspension in the air phase of the movement. It used to be considered the king’s march.
- A pirouette is a turn the horse does at a canter (a controlled, three-beat gait, a natural gait for horses), turning a circle with the hind legs staying in the same place.
- The half pass can be performed at a trot or canter, and the horse travels both forward and sideways across the arena at the same time.
- Tempi changes are done at a canter. Torse changes leads, or what leg is leading, every other stride or every stride. It looks like a the horse is skipping.
These movements, along with extension and collection of the walk, trot, and canter, are all combined into a test that the rider must memorize and execute at specific areas of the arena. It is judged the same way as dressage in eventing, with judges scoring each movement performed from zero to 10. The difference in scoring, however, is that the points collected are not penalty points. When plugged into a specific equation, they are execution points, or rather can be compared to grading a test in school and how well the test was performed. The rider with the highest score wins.
As far as the Olympics go, each horse and rider compete in the Grand Prix – the specific test given to them they must memorize and perform to perfection. In the Grand Prix Special, the Grand Prix movements are rearranged. There is also a free style portion, or Grand Prix Freestyle. In the freestyle, the riders can create their own test as long as the special movements are performed somewhere in the routine. They choreograph these maneuvers to music the horse performs to. This is where dressage gets the nickname “horse ballet,” as it does look like the horse is just dancing to music while the rider sits atop the horse looking like a passenger.
However, do not be fooled, the riders are working as hard as the horses are. It takes years or decades to achieve the level of riding where it looks like you’re “doing nothing” up there. The same with the horses too. most horses competing in dressage are in their mid to late teens, as it takes years of training and strength building to reach the ultimate level of Grand Prix. So try to watch it and see if you can pick out some of these maneuvers. Maybe after a little understanding of the sport it’s not like watching paint dry, as I’ve been told.
2012 London Olympics – Dressage Results
This year, dressage has gained a little more publicity than usual, as Ann Romney’s mare, Rafalca, ridden by Jan Ebeling, competed. The pair was the first ride for USA and had a magnificent test in the Grand Prix, earning a 70.243 before being eliminated in the Grand Prix Special. Tina Konyot also qualified for the Special but was eliminated, riding Calecto V. Adrienne Lyle, riding Wizard, failed to advance past the Grand Prix.
Great Britain won two individual dressage medals, with Charlotte Dujardin winning gold and Laura Bechtolsheimer winning bronze. Dutch rider Adelinde Cornelissen won silver. The highest-ranked individual American at the finish was Steffen Peters aboard the famous Ravel, finishing in 17th place with a 77.286 in the Freestyle. Steffen and Ravel have gained numerous titles together, including individual fourth place at the Beijing Olympics.
In team Dressage, Team USA sat in fifth place after the Grand Prix and finished sixth overall. Great Britain won gold, Germany won silver and the Netherlands won bronze.
Show jumping is the last of the equestrian disciplines performed at the Olympics. It’s a lot like the stadium jumping in eventing, except the jumps are higher and more technical, as these horses are jump specialists. The jumps are a colorful arrangement of gates, walls and poles decorated to the extreme to distract the horse or rider. Maximum jump size in the olympics is 5’3″ in height and 6’6″ in width…..that’s a big jump! These jumps are set as an obstacle course that involves quick turns, lead changes and precise navigation by the rider.
Types of Jumps:
- Vertical – a jump with a gate or poles in a straight vertical line the horse jumps over
- Oxer- a jump that is spread in width so that the horse must not only jump up, but the emphasis is getting over the spread of the jump
- Combination fences known as a double and triple combinations- a set of two or three jumps set as a combination together and can be any arrangement of verticals or oxers, with 1-2 strides in between them
- Water jump – a giant spread of water up to 13 feet the horse must jump over. If a foot lands in the water, it’s considered the same as knocking a rail down.
Scoring is based on whether or not the rails stay up. Any rail down or any refusal is a 4-point penalty. After three refusals, the horse and rider pair are eliminated. Again, like with eventing, the riders and horses are racing against the clock, and any seconds over the optimum time given are collections of penalties.
There are several rounds in show jumping. The first is the qualifying round, where everyone jumps. After, the best 60 rides go on to Round 2. Here, the best 45 rides using combined scores of round 1 and 2 can proceed to the Round 3. Here, the best 35 rides, using combined scores from all three rounds, can go on to Round 4. Again, same rules apply until the fifth and Final Round, where the best 20 horse and rider pairs compete for the win. If there is a tie, there is a jump off. This is where riders and horses jump only selected fences from the course and still race against the clock.
The difficulty in show jumping is being able to navigate the course and ride your horse to each jump in perfect stride and timing to not knock down any rails, and yet still be quick enough to make the clock. It’s a lot harder than it looks! The horses must be bold, athletic, quick and have a lot of scope.
2012 London Olympics – Jumping Results
Show jumping is usually a strong point for Team USA; however, a few rails down kept us a little lower in the competition. This year, Reed Kessler and her mare, Cylana, joined the USA’s show jumping team as the youngest member of an Olympic equestrian team at the age of 17. Special interest came with American show-jumping superstar, McLain Ward, who shattered his kneecap hitting a jump this past January.
Swiss rider Steve Guerdat won the individual jumping gold medal. Gerco Schroder of the Netherlands won silver, and Ireland’s Cian O’Connor won bronze. Ward, riding Antares, was eliminated after Final Round A, finishing in 29th place. American Rich Fellers, riding Flexible, finished eighth. Kessler finished 37th, and fellow American Beezie Madden finished tied for 72nd on Via Volo.
Great Britain again flexed its equestrian might, winning the Team Jumping gold medal. The Netherlands won silver, and Saudia Arabia won bronze. Team USA tied for sixth place with Sweden.
2012 London Olympics – Total Medals
Great Britain nearly ran the table in medals, winning three golds, a silver and a bronze in five of the six total equestrian events. Germany and the Netherlands each won four medals, with Germany taking two golds. Switzerland, Sweden, Ireland, Saudi Arabia and New Zealand each won a single equestrian medal. The United States was shut out of the medals, but here’s looking ahead to Rio de Janeiro in 2016!