In light of the latest Olympics Competition … and a special one as a pandemic has hit and stayed a lot longer than it used too! Here’s a little history lesson on Equestrian sports in the Olympics.
Equestrian sports featured on the Olympic programme of the Paris Games in 1900, with jumping events, and were then withdrawn until the 1912 Games in Stockholm. Since then, this sport has been on the Olympic programme with remarkable regularity.
Until 1948, only men competed in the events, as the riders had to be officers. This restriction was lifted in 1951, and since the Helsinki Games in 1952, women have competed with men in the mixed events. They competed first in dressage, then gradually in the other equestrian events.
From the three disciplines that make up equestrian, eventing is the most demanding. Indeed, it combines not only jumping and dressage, but also a long cross-country course, on mixed terrain with sometimes imposing natural or artificial obstacles.
The long and colourful traditions of dressage go as far back as Ancient Greece. Dressage, the highest expression of horse training, is considered the art of equestrian sport and is used as the groundwork for all other disciplines.
Trained for Battle
Two thousand years ago, the ancient Greeks recognised that if rider and horse were to survive in battle, complete cooperation was necessary between the pair, and developed dressage as a method to train the horses for war. A horse’s ability to move quickly from side to side, burst into a gallop or change direction immediately were all considered vital skills.
With the disintegration of Ancient Greece, the art of riding slowly fell into oblivion until its revival during the Renaissance period. In the 18th century, classical dressage reached its peak with the creation of the world-famous Spanish Riding School in 1729 in Vienna that laid the basis of the modern discipline. More recently, and with unprecedented success, the freestyle to music test was introduced and has since become an integral part of dressage, making its Olympic debut in Atlanta 1996. Freestyle is the pinnacle of dressage execution, and when it works, the result is magic.
Eventing is the most complete combined competition discipline and demands of the competitor and horse considerable experience in all branches of equitation. It covers every aspect of horsemanship: the harmony between horse and rider that characterise dressage; the contact with nature, stamina and extensive experience essential for the cross-country; the precision, agility and technique involved in jumping.
Developed to test and prepare cavalry horses, eventing has a long and colourful history. Initially, the purpose was to create a competition in which officers and horses could be tested for any challenges that could occur on or off duty. It also provided a basis to compare training standards between the cavalries of different countries.
Although women had been allowed to ride in equestrian events since 1952, it wasn't until Helena du Pont competed for the United States at Tokyo 1964 that eventing saw its first woman representing her country.
Since Atlanta 1996, extensive studies and research have taken place examining the effects of heat and humidity on horses taking part in equestrian events. The wealth of information collected also serves as a great resource for amateur equestrians faced with adverse climatic conditions around the world.
Jumping developed after fences were put up in the English countryside, leading fox hunters to require horses that could jump.
The Enclosures Acts
The discipline, as we know it today, developed as a result of competition among fox hunters, following the introduction of the Enclosures Acts that came into force in England in the 18th century. Previously, hunters would gallop across open fields in their pursuit of foxes. But when fences were erected following the Acts, a new and much desired trait took the fore: the jumping horse.
Many regard Italian Federico Caprilli as the “father of modern riding”, a status he earned by revolutionising the jumping seat. Before him, riders would lean back and pull the reins when jumping a fence. However, this technique was awkward and uncomfortable for the horse. Caprilli’s solution was the more natural “forward seat” position. This technique is now universally used.
The horse made its first appearance at the ancient Olympic Games in 680 BC when chariot racing was introduced—and was by far the most exciting and spectacular event on the programme. Many centuries later, when the modern Games began, a few unsuccessful attempts, namely 1896, 1900, 1904 and 1908, preceded the success of equestrian in the 1912 Olympic programme. Over the next few decades, jumping was dominated by the military, but with the mechanisation of the army over the years, civilians became more and more prevalent. The decline of the military teams also paved the way for women, who made their first Olympic appearance in jumping at the 1956 Games in Stockholm, and are today as often, if not more, on the top spot of the podium.