Since the beginning of my long journey with horses, I’ve looked forward to the equestrian events in the summer Olympics. The beauty and athleticism of the horses and the skills of the riders has always inspired me to work harder on my own riding and to ask a bit more of my horses. I swear sometimes my horses know I’ve been glued to the TV watching the various events because I show up at the barn with lots of new things to work on, and I’m not sure they’re that enthusiastic about what’s coming.
This summer’s Olympics were unique and challenging in so many respects, especially due to Covid and the precautions that had to be taken to keep all the athletes as safe as possible. Despite the surging number of cases in Japan, extreme heat and humidity, and strong public opinion in the host country against even holding the games under these circumstances, they somehow managed to pull things off.
These are a few of the things that stood out for me.
While the humans involved were wearing masks, getting tested, washing their hands, etc. to try to avoid exposure to Covid, the horses were fighting a serious health issue as well. Back in early spring there was an outbreak of Equine Herpes Virus (EHV) in Spain and Portugal that spread rapidly to other parts of Europe. Most of the horses competing in the Olympics are stalled for training and development in Europe, and most travel to these major events from the same location on the same planes. EHV is a highly contagious disease that can cause anything from mild to moderate respiratory illness to life-threatening neurological disease.
Just like in the early days of Covid, there is no specific treatment for EHV, and the protocols for minimizing the risk of infection are very much the same – nasal swabs, isolation for infected horses, equine social distancing, minimizing stress, maintaining diet, rest and supportive care when necessary. So, as if it wasn’t hard enough to get horses to the other side of the world for this competition, they too had to deal with constant monitoring and testing to make sure this disease was not spread to other horses.
I was impressed with the continuing efforts to make the equestrian events safer for horses and humans. All the riders in every event wore helmets, really the first time I can remember seeing that. The riders in the cross-country competition wore the latest in inflatable safety vests, and more than one was happy they did when an unexpected fall did not turn into a career ending event. Jumps and obstacles have been redesigned in ways that leave them as appropriate challenges but also ones that can literally collapse from contact to reduce the risk of major injury. Every horse was vet checked after every run, and many were pulled when small injuries that could get worse were detected.
I love these competitions because they’re the only ones where men and women compete against each other, and because age isn’t really a factor the way it is in most sports. In fact, you generally don’t see horses and riders of these ages competing at these levels in any of the other equestrian sports. The oldest competitor in any sport at the Olympics was a 66-year-old rider, and many of the horses were in their mid to late teens. The silver medalist in dressage was a 52-year-old woman, Isabelle Werth, now the most decorated rider in Olympic history, riding a 17-year-old mare! That just doesn’t happen in any other sport. The individual winner in the 3-day eventing competition was a woman for the first time in Olympic history.
I was reminded just how dangerous this sport is. The Irish eventing team was given permission to wear a ribbon in memory of the top young rider coming up in their country that had been killed in a training accident. A woman competing in eventing was coming back from a fall where she had died five times in the ambulance on the way to the hospital and that left her blind in one eye. Many riders were competing while still recovering from serious injuries. As one person put it, no matter your level of experience or the quality of your horse, when you put your foot in the stirrup, you’re immediately competing in an extreme sport, even if it’s just a trail ride on your old reliable partner.
As we saw with many athletes in the Olympics, some horses proved they’re not machines and can break without warning. A 14-year-old gelding competing in eventing had to be euthanized after a severe tendon injury just 5 jumps short of the finish line. This is the fourth horse that has died on a cross country course in 2021. Always sad.
I always hope I will see some situations where the horses prove they’re still just horses, and there were many of them in these Olympics. Not that I like seeing years of work and partnership end in failure, but I want more people to see that horses are not computers and they just don’t always perform because we want them to. Many horses refused at jumps or spooked at things only they could see. Some horses just flat out refused to compete, caring not at all for how much they were worth, how far they’d come, how much they’d been trained or the fact they were at the Olympics. Thankfully, most riders at this level accept that about horses. I wish more riders did.
If you love equestrian sport at this level, we only have to wait three years for the next one as these were really the 2020 Olympics being held in 2021. So, it’s on to 2024 in Paris, one of the birthplaces of classical riding. Should be a great one for any lover of horses!
Scott Thomson lives in Silver City and teaches natural horsemanship and foundation training. You can contact him at email@example.com or 575-388-1830.