A spotlight on an overlooked yet fascinating and compelling sport
How many athletes can say that their teammate is a 700 kilogram animal?
Equestrians face unique challenges, but they also take part in one of the oldest and most traditional sports out there. According to Discover Magazine, humans have been riding horses since nearly 3000 BC, and since the year 1900 equestrian has been considered an Olympic sport. It’s also one of the few Olympic sports where men and women compete together.
There are three equestrian events in the Olympics: dressage, show jumping and eventing. Dressage involves the showcasing of various movements that can only be attained through intense physical training on the part of both the animal and the rider. Similar to figure skating, the routine is judged. In show jumping, the athletes are timed over a series of obstacles reaching heights of 1.6 metres and widths of two metres. Faults are incurred by knocking down obstacles, refusing an obstacle, or going over the time allowed. Eventing combines dressage, show jumping and cross-country, which involves jumping over fixed, natural obstacles made of stone walls, logs and water and ditches in a three-day event.
As an equestrian, I can say that competitive riders are like any other athlete; they train with a coach, sometimes up to six days a week, and have intense schedules that are both physically and mentally demanding. But the addition of a horse as a teammate adds a different dynamic that other athletes can never experience. The horse is just as much of an athlete as the rider, and it’s the rider’s responsibility to maintain the fitness and health of the horse. Inevitably, riders develop very strong bonds with these animals.
The biggest criticism I’ve faced with the sport is that many people think it isn’t one. It’s been said that the athletes “just sit there” or “the horse does all the work,” to name a few common jabs. Mostly, these comments come from people who have never ridden a horse (riding one on a beach during a family vacation in Cuba that one time doesn’t count). Riding a horse takes enormous physical strength, and that strength has to be precise.
When someone is on their back, horses can feel everything; every tiny muscle movement, every breath the rider takes and every shift of their body weight, meaning that the rider has to have complete control of every muscle in their body. It also becomes the rider’s job to balance the animal properly—an animal weighing 700 kilograms, as you remember.
Riders communicate with their horse through their legs, and balance themselves through their back and core muscles. They have very good endurance, often training on horseback for hours at a time; even when standing still, being on a horse works the rider’s muscles, as they are in constant tension to keep the rider balanced.
While it is a difficult sport, it is also a dangerous one. According to TIME, equestrian eventing is one of the most dangerous Olympic sports in the world, with over 12 deaths reported in just a year and a half between 2007 and 2008.
Regardless of the danger or the difficulty, horses are beautiful animals and incredible teammates. Equestrian sports may not be well known, but the sport is one of the most unique and most rewarding ones out there. Working with an animal in that way is something that teaches patience, discipline, athleticism and sportsmanship in a way that you can’t find anywhere else, in any other sport.