Equestrian Sports in the Olympic Games

Nick Skelton and Big Star jumping at the Olympics

With the eagerly anticipated Paris Olympic Games 2024 only weeks away, we delve into the rich history of equestrian sports at the Olympics.

From the early 20th century to today, equestrian sports have captured the hearts of audiences worldwide, celebrating the unique partnership between horse and rider.

The Games are not just about competition but also about ensuring the safety and welfare of the horses. The Cross Country course, positioned alongside the grand canal at the Palace of Versailles, is designed with the utmost care to provide a challenging yet safe environment for the horses. The Para equestrian events, including Dressage – team, individual, and freestyle, are also conducted with the highest standards of horse welfare in mind. No matter what the discipline, horse and human welfare are paramount.

Ancient History of Equestrian Events in the Olympic Games

The Greeks believed that a perfect partnership was needed for horse and rider to succeed in battle, and this led to the formation of dressage, which was a way of training horses to be ready for war.

Chariot racing was the first equestrian event in the early Olympic Games, commencing circa 680 BC with four-horse chariots – a daring, dangerous, and exhilarating display held in the Hippodrome in Olympia.

Later, the sport developed two-horse chariot racing and then horse-and-rider events. However, the four-horse chariot remained the most prestigious event, with the two middle horses being harnessed beneath the yoke and the two outer horses attached with a rope. The tracks were usually 12 laps, with the turns always being to the left, so the horse on the far right needed to be the fastest.

When it came to the individual horse and rider, the riders never owned the horses – they could not afford to. It was the wealthy aristocracy who had the ability to maintain and transport horses, and when their horses won, the prize and glory would go to the owner, not the rider, who might expect to receive only a small prize such as a wool band which they would tie to the rider’s hat.

Interestingly, the chariot races saw the first woman win an Olympic event since the commencement of the Games and before equestrianism became an included sport. Also, Roman Emperor Nero competed in a chariot race but did not finish because he was thrown from the chariot. Nonetheless, Nero was considered the winner as he “would have won had he finished”!

The last ancient Olympic Games were recorded in AD 393. It is believed that the games’ ending was possibly linked to an edict by Theodosius I banning pagan festivals, including the Games.

Modern-Day Equestrian Sport at the Olympic Games

On 6th April 1896, the modern Olympic Games were born. During the opening of these games, held in Athens, Greece, competitors from 13 nations were welcomed by King Georgios I of Greece; however, there were no equestrian events at these inaugural Games.

Harry Charles (GBR) and Romeo 88 - travelling reserve - Jumping – 1st Horse Inspection - Image Copyright Jon Stroud Media
Harry Charles (GBR) and Romeo 88 – travelling reserve – Jumping – 1st Horse Inspection – Image Copyright Jon Stroud Media

Equestrian sports were eventually featured in the Summer Olympics in Paris in 1900. The format for the equestrian events, however, did not feature the disciplines enjoyed today; instead, it consisted of four categories: jumping, high jump, long jump, and mail coach.

During these Summer Games, the high jump, or Puissance, was jointly won by French and Italian riders, with both horses clearing 1.85m. The long jump competition gold was clinched by a Belgian pair clearing a distance of 6.10m, ahead of the Italian silver medal winner who jumped 5.70m, with the bronze going to a French pair who jumped 5.30m.

In 1904, equestrian events were dropped from the Games, reportedly due to problems with the newly conceived International Horse Show Committee. Count Clarence von Rosen, master of the horse to the King of Sweden, appealed to the International Olympic Committee congress with proposals for eventing, jumping, and dressage to feature at the upcoming 1908 Games. Despite this, they were not included until the 1912 Games held in Stockholm. These three disciplines have remained the format of equestrian events and have been included in every Summer Olympics since then.

Recent Great Britain Olympic Equestrian Successes

Since the commencement of the modern Games, Great Britain has had numerous stunning successes, including both team and individual medals.

Dressage

The most celebrated Great Britain equestrian medalist in dressage is champion Charlotte Dujardin, who, together with her renowned steed, Valegro, famously won individual gold at both the 2012 London Olympics and the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro. Dujardin also captured the individual bronze at the 2020 Tokyo Games, which, together with other world-level successes, has led to her being known as the dominant dressage rider of her era.

Another GB individual dressage medal winner is Laura Tomlinson on Mistral Hojris at the 2012 London Games, where she took home the bronze.

Team gold was deservedly earned in the dressage discipline at the 2012 London Games with Carl Hester on Uthopia, Laura Bechtolsheimer on Mistral Hojris, and Charlotte Dujardin on Valegro. The silver medal was realized at the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro with Carl Hester on Nip Tuck, Charlotte Dujardin on Valegro, Fiona Bigwood on Orthilia, and Spencer Wilton on Super Nova II. A bronze medal was won by the GB team at the 2020 Tokyo Games with Charlotte Fry on Everdale, Charlotte Dujardin on Gio, and Carl Hester on En Vogue.

Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games - Dressage Day 1 Grand Prix Charlotte Fry (GBR) with ride Everdale at Baji Koen Equestrian Park, Tokyo (JPN) FEI/Christophe Taniere 24 July 2021
Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games – Dressage Day 1 Grand Prix Charlotte Fry (GBR) with ride Everdale at Baji Koen Equestrian Park, Tokyo (JPN) FEI/Christophe Taniere 24 July 2021

Eventing

Individual gold was awarded to Lesley Law on Shear L’eau at the 2004 Athens Games, when Pippa Funnell on Primmore’s Pride clinched the bronze. At the 2008 Beijing Games, Kristina Cook on Miners Frolic took bronze. At the 2020 Tokyo Games, Tom McEwen on Toledo de Kerser carried off the silver medal.

Team GB took the silver medal at the 2000 Sydney Games with Ian Stark on Jaybee, Jeanette Brakewell on Over to You, Pippa Funnell on Supreme Rock, and Lesley Law on Shear H2O. The team took home the silver medal at the Athens 2004 Games with Jeanette Brakewell on Over to You, William Fox-Pitt on Tamarillo, Leslie Law on Shear L’eau, Pippa Funnell on Primmore’s Pride, and Mary King on King Solomon III.

Oliver Townend riding Ballaghmor Class at Sea Forest Park (JPN), Tokyo 2020 (FEI/Christophe Taniere)
Oliver Townend riding Ballaghmor Class at Sea Forest Park (JPN), Tokyo 2020 (FEI/Christophe Taniere)

The team took bronze at the 2012 London Games with Nicola Wilson on Opposition Buzz, Mary King on Imperial Cavalier, Zara Phillips on High Kingdom, Kristina Cook on Miner’s Frolic, and William Fox-Pitt on Lionheart.

The 2020 Tokyo Games saw Team GB proudly bring home the gold with Laura Collett on London 52, Tom McEwen on Toledo de Kerser, and Oliver Townend on Ballaghmor Class.

Jumping

British jumpers in the individual classes had limited success in the early part of the millennium; however, they stormed to victory at the 2016 Rio Games, where Nick Skelton on Big Star took the gold, and at the 2020 Tokyo Games, where Ben Maher on Explosion W also took home the gold.

Nick Skelton with Gold Medal
Nick Skelton (GBR), individual Jumping Gold Medalist – Rio 2016 Olympic Games – Deodoro, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil – 19 August 2016. Image credit Jon Stroud Media

Team GB jumping had great success at the London 2012 games, with Scott Brash on Hello Sanctos, Peter Charles on Vindicat W, Ben Maher on Tripple X III, and Nick Skelton on Big Star taking home the gold medal.

Selection of This Year’s UK Squad

Currently, the team who will represent Great Britain at the 2024 Paris Olympic Games has not been confirmed. The number of athlete-horse pairs will be the same as at the Tokyo 2020 Games. Strict policies for each discipline are in place for the selection process, which has a two-year qualification period. The announcements of successful athletes and horses are due to be made in June 2024 unless unforeseeable circumstances preclude this.

Safety and Welfare of the Horses during the Olympics

Unfortunately, the Tokyo Games of 2020 saw several incidents, including the euthanasia of one horse, which led to strong reactions from spectators and media outlets, with some even calling for a ban on all Olympic equestrian sports due to concerns about horse welfare.

To address these issues, it has been suggested that the International Olympic Committee establish a Welfare Committee consisting of independent experts who will move freely among the Olympic site of the equestrian events to establish an “Equine Welfare at the Olympic Games” mission.

A French National Assembly study group has compiled a 72-page report outlining 46 recommendations on how to ensure the welfare of horses at the Paris Olympic Games is of paramount importance. It has closely examined the responses to issues at the Tokyo Games to establish effective ways of preventing similar problems at this year’s Games.

The FEI has published a detailed table of equestrian competitions commencing with the opening ceremony on 26th July and concluding with the closing ceremony on 11th August.


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