Equestrian sport gallops into the Rio limelight
By Louise Parkes
Equestrian sport arrives in Rio with its head held high, the bit between its teeth and on the crest of a wave of expansion across the globe.
The Rio 2016 sport entries (FEI Definite Entries) are all in, and a total of 200 athlete and horse combinations from 43 countries will chase their dreams of glory in three separate disciplines, soaring over massive obstacles in Jumping displaying athleticism and grace in Dressage, and powering around a cross-country track in Eventing. What sets them apart from the rest is that they will do it in partnership with another living being – the horse.
The #TwoHearts campaign in the lead-up to Rio 2016 has helped explain this extraordinary coming together of human and animal as a single athletic unit. This is a sport with a rapidly growing fan-base, and some of the most captivating stories in town!
The skill and excitement of nurturing the natural instincts and courage of this noble creature and competing in harmony with it continues to hold huge appeal. The number of people engaging in equestrianism around the globe continues to grow dramatically.
“Since 2007 there has been an 83 percent increase in the number of international competitions, and young people are being drawn into equestrian sport in greater numbers than ever before” says Sabrina Ibáñez, Secretary General of the international governing body, the FEI. “Our sport really appeals to the youth culture. The Brazilian Dressage team is a good example, with all four members below the age of 25, and one of them holding the distinction of being the youngest equestrian athlete at these Games.”
At the age of just 18, Giovana Prada Pass will be competing against 62-year-old Julie Brougham from New Zealand, highlighting another of the exceptional qualities of equestrian sport in which athletes of all ages – and both genders – compete together on a level playing field.
Experience counts for a lot at Olympic level, and New Zealand’s Sir Mark Todd (60) is the man with the most as he heads into his eighth edition of the Games. His two individual gold medals don’t go even part of the way towards telling the amazing story of this legend who was crowned the “Greatest rider of the 20th century” by the FEI, having competed in both Jumping and Eventing at the Olympic Games in Seoul (KOR) in 1988 and Barcelona (ESP) in 1992, before deciding to call it a day after taking individual bronze at the Sydney 2000 Games. Retirement didn’t suit him however, and only someone of his calibre could succeed in setting himself a new target of returning to the sport just a few months before the qualification deadline for the Beijing Games in 2008. The rest is history.
Another comeback king is Australian eventer Shane Rose (43) whose 20-year Olympic journey includes team silver in Beijing along with a whole lot of heartache. The true grit of this rider who has battled cancer, experienced more disappointments and broken more bones than it seems possible, is just one of the things that has earned his place in his country’s squad.
And the selection of William Fox-Pitt for the British Eventing team is another incredible tale. Many others might have decided to hang up their boots after a major head injury like the one Fox-Pitt suffered last year, but the former world number one and double Olympic silver medallist has made a remarkable recovery and will be chasing down that elusive gold at his fifth Games in just a few weeks’ time.
Family connections abound, with husbands and wives, life-partners and cousins listed amongst the 75 Jumping, 65 Eventing and 60 Dressage horse and rider combinations (FEI definite entries) Brothers Michael (56) and John Whitaker (60), who between them have competed at nine Olympic Games, are in the British Jumping squad, while at the other end of both the age and experience spectrum, that young Brazilian Dressage team includes brother and sister Luiza (24) and Pedro (22) Tavares Almeida, with Pedro’s twin Manuel (22) as the team reserve.