My life with Equestrian Sport
I have lived a relatively long life with equestrian sport as a main hobby. It is therefore difficult and with some pain that I follow the present development and publicity that we all can follow and that not only is focusing on a few unfortunate happenings and people in our sport. The whole idea of riding and participating in competition together with a horse as partner is being questioned.
Our sport has, like many other sports, developed its top competitions and top participants from being amateur events to a sport with lots of money involved. Team sports like soccer, handball, ice hockey and basketball are now big businesses and that tendency is also applicable to sports that involves equipment such as sailing boats and cars and this fact is to a certain degree also the case when it comes to horses.
The horse is however basically the same animal that has served us humans through thousands of years. In the army and in the farming have horses been the best companion to people. Not always been given the appreciation the horse deserves, but if the partnership between horse and man was not built on trust and love the horse would not have served its rider or user at wars and on the field as well as it is the case.
In my youth people from the army were the best and most experienced trainers and all training was built on understanding and developing the relation between horse and rider. We did not only come to the riding school and was given a horse to ride. We had to clean the horse and put the relevant equipment on and make it ready for being ridden. This is still the case at many riding schools - but not all. When it came to riding young horses the whole philosophy was to train the horse slowly and with respect and to develop its muscles and balance in order to make the horse ready to become a sports horse that gradually could be taught the more difficult movements that is part of becoming an athlete. The horse was as a young horse up to the age of 7 categorized as remount. Of course the young horses were ridden in a snaffle and without spurs. It was also common sense that all horses were ridden in all disciplines jumping, dressage and cross- country. Those days young horses were often ridden by experts that knew how to train these youngsters in a proper way.
Horses in sport
Gradually the importance of the horse of horses in the army and on the field became less (in the army only in horse guards for the royal families and Presidents and in some countries still for cowboys).
The sport horses became more important and riding was already part of modern Olympic Games. In the beginning the competitions were more to show obedience and good partnership, the horses were asked to show a bit of dressage but also ability to pass fences and cross narrow bridges + jumping a few fences.
Gradually the sport became more sophisticated and horses became specialists in the three disciplines, dressage, show jumping and eventing. Until 1948 Olympic Games in London only officers in the army were allowed to compete. In the fifties women were allowed to participate which resulted in two dressage silver medals to Lis Hartel. Lis Hartel were handicapped from the tough polo epidemic that hit many young people in the fifties and she apart from being one of the first female top riders also became a big icon for handicap sport.
My first idol was the Swiss rider Henry Chammartin, he came to Denmark and showed elegant riding at a high level in the 1960-ies. After Chammartin, Christine Stückelberger from Switzerland and Harry Bolt from Gemany became the big idols.
The next real high level dressage was in the 1980-is the duels between Rainer Klimke on Ahlerich and Anne Grethe on Marzog. Those two rider took dressage to a sublime level.
Equestrian sport developed enormously in the 1980-ies
In my little world (Denmark and Sweden) number of riders and members of local riding clubs grew very fast. Strongly supported by local communities horse sport became possible for people with normal incomes to take part even in competitions. Riders in these clubs took part in all disciplines at a modest level. Horsemanship and partnership between horse and rider were the lesson taught. Equestrian sport was considered healthy for young people and the horse gave us respect for the animal and we had to show consideration and learn to take care.
The para riding grew also and demonstrated the value of the horse and this part of horse sport is teaching us, also today, how far you can get without using strength.
What went wrong
From having been a necessary partner on the battlefield and in the farming the horse became a sports athlete and a specialist. All sport activity has grown fast and the prestige of sport in general has grown a lot. Being a part of the Olympic Games that now is a highly commercial event with lots of money involved is the ultimate goal for sport athletes. The commercialisation is also one of the big challenges in Equestrian Sport. The price of horses have gone up and a lot of wealthy families buy horses for themselves or their son or daughter in order to be part of top events like the Olympic games and major championships. Influencial people meet each other in the VIP areas and that opened up for large companies to be involved in sport events either sponsors and/or horse owners.
Clever sales people and also parts of the breeding organizations saw commercial possibilities in making big business especially in training and showing young horses at special championships and even at the so called World Championship for Young Horses. The criteria for evaluating these horse were far from the philosophy of training young horses that I was used to in my younger days (as described above). The more spectacular the gates were and the more “fake” collection the horse could show – the better. Clever professional riders could convince judges and, must most important, potential buyers to pay big sums for the dream of becoming owner of a Grand Prix horse. (I am now describing dressage only). Dressage gradually changed from being a demonstration of good training of young horses to showing spectacular gates and fantastic performances.
Still lots of good riding
I may exaggerate a little. We still see a lot of wonderful riding and fantastic performances and I am also a little positive when we see dressage today than was the case just 10 – 15 years ago. If that had not been the case I Would have left being part of the sport long ago. The big championships have been won by remarkable riders and fantastic horses.
Many of those riders can serve as good inspiration to all of us. It is still a fantastic feeling to have a good day on horseback whether it is in the indoor school practicing dressage or show jumping or it is outside in the woods or having a good canter in the field. Horses are good teachers of good behavior for young people and the horse has a fantastic life giving value for handicapped people.
Let us remember that the horse has been our friend and partner for thousands of years and I hope it will continue to be so for many years and generations to come. Maybe we need to go a little back to basics and think a little less commercial and formulate stricter rules on how we evaluate good riding and correct trained horses. All this can be achieved by using horsemanship, common sense and a good dialog between all involved partners.