Nowadays, you can’t open a single tab without running into an article about how horses do not belong in the Olympics. Our very own Gawker Media network, for instance, has become polluted with such opinions. But not all Olympic horses deserve such scorn.
I agree with my colleagues and friends that “dressage”—the sport of making horses prance around in a circle, as seen in this video of a horse prancing to “Smooth”—feels out of step with the Olympics as we understand them (inspiring moments of human achievement derived via world-class competition). It just doesn’t feel like much is at stake in dressage, plus the sport is pretty much impossible to parse for the layman and foppish to the point of self-parody. It’s also insanely boring—the worst of all Olympic sins.
Thankfully, none of these qualities are shared by its brother in horse-sport arms: show jumping. Jumping is a simple sport. It asks horses and their riders to leap over a series of obstacles of various heights and lengths. This drags horse athletics back to what we humans expect to see from part of our Olympic games: sculpted masses of flesh hurtling themselves through the air.
Unlike dressage, it’s pretty easy to tell when a horse screws up. Clipping a hurdle on its way up or down results in a deduction. If a horse blows it so badly that he or she just knocks wildly into the obstacle—dislodging a bar or brick or maybe taking the whole thing down like a perilously arranged soda tower at the grocery store—you will know it. This gives the sport a palpable tension that is easy for our little lizard minds to process.
This weekend’s qualifying round packed more drama than many other more highly publicized sports. For instance, Penelope Leprevost, a French rider whose spot on the medal stand seemed like a foregone conclusion, got bucked off her horse after it stumbled upon leaping over the ninth obstacle. Here is a very crude video of that stunning moment:
It was in large thanks to Guilherme Jorge’s twelve fence track that the competition got as unpredictable as it did. The fences were set on a height ranging from 1.50 to 1.60 meters, and as wide as 1.90 – but it was the technical aspect rather than the size that mattered in the end. A vertical-vertical-oxer triple combination set at 4abc would turn out to be a defining factor for many, as would the open water at fence seven counting four meters and a bit more – but in the end it was all about the final line with a massive Calcada de Copacabana-themed plank-upright at fence 10 followed by seven or eight strides on a bend line to an oxer-vertical combination at 11ab and then five strides to the last oxer at 12 that would make the first day of Olympic showjumping a hard one for most.
I’m not sure what many of these words mean but the point is that where the results of many Olympic events—including many high-profile ones—proceed along as if mapped out ahead of time, Rio’s show jumping offers the element of surprise. Leprevost was not the only medal contender to have their Olympics turned upside down. Again from worldofshowjumping.com:
The Dutch were not spared either, and considered medal candidates – if not gold medal favorites – the elimination, later disqualification, of Jur Vrieling and Zirocco Blue (Mr. Blue x Voltaire) came as a big blow. With a stop on the middle element of the triple combination, and then a refusal on 11a it was game over for Vrieling – who later had to deal with disqualification from the ground jury for overuse of the whip.
Not only is show jumping simple to watch and dramatic enough to fulfill your base Olympic desires, it’s also a bastion of morality bobbing alone in a sea of international corruption and deception. As you just read, the Dutch got fucked because their horse Zirocco Blue refused to complete part of the course. When Vrieling, his rider, tried to whip the horse back into the competitive spirit, he was disqualified from competition. Vrieling described his horse thusly:
“I came too close into the triple combination and was too far off the b-element, and then Zirocco became scared and insecure,” explained Vrieling after about the surprise exit.
Scared and insecure. Finally an Olympic athlete we all can understand.