From the far side of the world I have been watching those bits of the Games that get shown on NZ television. Fortunately, by dint of early rising, I did get to see much of the wonderful opening ceremony. To my intense frustration, the BBC mobile site wasn’t working so keeping up with events was hard in the first week. Most of my stopping places have not had Sky, so seeing live or complete competitions has been restricted.
This week we are spending a few days with horse-mad relatives in Christchurch, who do have Sky. So the first full event I’ve seen has been the dressage, particularly the gripping individual dressage last night. (That’s Thursday for those actually in the Olympic time zone.). Our hostess is a dressage competitor herself, so we had the benefit of an informed commentary, more than can be said for the Greenwich spectators, the Sky audience or, as far as I can tell, the BBC watchers. It was a joy to see Charlotte Dujardin win gold on Valegro (picture from The Independent), and Laura Bechtolsheimer with Mistral Hojris take a well-deserved bronze for TeamGB.
Here is a complex sport with roots in the precise control of large animals in war. Having started with the Greek military about 500 BCE, “dressage continued to be developed by the military who studied horsemanship as part of their military training and during the Renaissance European aristocrats displayed highly trained horses in equestrian pageants.” (from http://www.equine-world.co.uk). It has become a complex Olympic discipline relying an intense partnership between horse and rider and designed to show the strength, grace and control of both. There are numerous well established manoeuvres for competition dressage from an elegant walk to a fast canter, with detailed evaluation for issues like the elevation of the feet during certain paces. (These moves do not include the more elaborate airs above the ground perfected by the Spanish Riding School, although those moves cannot be done without the groundwork of the stamina and control required in dressage.)
The individual dressage has two parts or tests. One is a series of prescribed movements in the ring, to be done in a set order. The second is a routine designed by the competitor and performed to a sound track of their choice. The rules require that certain movements are included without saying how often or in what order. Judgement is partly based on technical appraisal, partly on elegance of presentation. It’s set out here, in a long overdue explanation by the BBC.
I wish they’d bothered rather sooner. Instead two great gold medals in a sport where GB has not done well in recent years have been derided by the twitterati and denizens of the Guardian’s Comment is Free columns. Silly remarks such as the horse does all the work. Riding a high nettled horse in harmony throughout a complicated test requires strong muscles in the core, thighs and arms. It’s not the heptathlon. Neither is archery. Blatant chip-on-shoulder failed research about the antecedents of the winners. Dujardin left school at 16 and went to work as a stable hand. Or the suggestion that kit should be standardised and issued by the Games organisers – for bicycles, canoes and horses. (I cannot find the original reference for this remark, which occurred in one of the many debates about equestrian sports and/or the differential values of various sports.) Really? A horse is not a machine, a bit of kit however high-tech. This is so obvious and important it can have a paragraph of its own.
A horse is not a machine.
All equestrian events are about the extraordinary partnership between the animal and the rider, and none more so than dressage. The dressage is not dangerous like the cross-country, or spectacularly fast in the ring like the show jumping. But the desired harmony, the sustained focus, the intense judgemental scrutiny are unique. I have competed in dressage, as part of eventing. At a very junior level and 35 years ago. But, hey! I competed at swimming too. Neither make me anything less than gobsmacked at the skill and power of Olympians. On the other side of the ledger, I know nothing about taekwando. I had to check its spelling to write the last sentence. But big cheers for Jade Jones and what I realise is great achievement in this new Olympic sport.
Instead of the reverse snobbery and wilful ignorance displayed in some quarters I hope that we can enjoy the beauty of the athletic spectacle (in its glorious setting) and the joy of golds won by so much hard work and talent from both riders and horses.