Thursday, 9 August 2012

In which I have huge respect for equestrians

Whether it’s misogynist idiots at the nation’s leading newspapers; entirely useless estate agents; or being verbally abused in the course of my day job (Daily Telegraph covering itself in glory there yet again. Sigh), there’s an awful lot that’s had me riled recently.

Today my rant is pony-shaped.

If you’re even a casual consumer of media, you’ll have seen the almighty cock-ups by both The Mirror and The Daily Express yesterday, incorrectly labelling the Dutch dressage team as the gold medal-winning Brits. I appreciate that not everyone was following the team dressage final as obsessively as I was, and not everyone would be able to pick Laura Bechtolsheimer out of a line-up. But I don’t think it’s too much to expect of my national journalists to be able to tell the difference between a home team dressed in smart navy blue, and one COVERED in orange; one with whacking gold medals round their necks, and one sporting bronze.

There’s a plethora of sports at the Olympics that no one’s heard of before, all of which seem at first glance to be a little baffling, if not downright bizarre. Who but the most enthusiastic cyclist had before heard of keirin – the closest a human being comes to the experience of being a greyhound?

And yet it’s equestrianism which seems to be the comedy sport of choice at the 2012 Games, that’s borne the brunt of the jokes, the snide comments, the constant sniping that undermines a sport that, in actuality, is brutally challenging.

In an early round of the men’s gymnastics, I was furious to hear the commentators marvel at what the men were doing, and then go on to say that it wasn’t “just sitting on horses.” I bet that commentator has never been near a horse. Because anyone who has knows full well that – unless you’re four years old and have been plonked for the first time in your life onto a docile, aged, riding school pony – there is no such thing as  “just sitting” on horses, and when it comes to the very highest levels of equestrian competition, the notion is laughable. The flurry of tweets saying that “horse dancing” isn’t a sport imply much the same.

In dressage, you’re sitting astride a half-ton beast with a mind of its own, asking it to perform movements that it wouldn’t naturally have cause to do, with nothing more than the way you’re sitting, and the signals you give it with your arms and legs. Sometimes, you have to ask your horse to perform these movements to music, in front of a crowd of tens of thousands of people. There’s no “just sitting” involved. And that’s before we get to showjumping and eventing, where there are long courses of huge jumps to get over inside a testing time limit.


A rider taking the bank during the cross country phase of the Olympic eventing. Anyone think this is the same as lounging on the sofa? (Pic beautifully taken by, and shamelessly stolen from, Best Mate)

And that’s just one of the ridiculously ill-informed snipes made at the sport. Others have included that it’s just for the rich and elite, which isn’t true. Of course having access to financial resources makes getting into the sport easier – but I’d argue that’s the same for rowing, sailing, cycling: anything where you need expensive pieces of kit to be able to get involved.

Then there’s the lack of respect shown to the riders who, contrary to apparently popular belief, are committed athletes. Two of the British team have previously broken their necks, and are still riding at the highest levels. And yet the press is far more interested in their relations. At a recent press conference, photographers desperate to get a picture of Zara Phillips, asked “the bloke” to stand in the middle: that “bloke” was William Fox-Pitt – the three-times world eventing number 1 (a position he currently holds), nine-times British number 1, and four-time Olympian with two Olympic silvers and a bronze. I can’t begin to imagine that Sir Chris Hoy would be referred to as “that bloke” in a similar situation somehow.

And it’s the same for the fans: Marina Hyde wrote a particularly chippy piece in the Guardian after the eventing on the attendance of the ‘country crowd’, with the ‘booming voices’ of an audience that was ‘more-than-usually expert’. I was unaware that fans particularly dedicated to their sport should be belittled for their attendance and support. Personally I think it would be a better use of time to celebrate the fact. When I went to Greenwich at the weekend to see the showjumping qualifiers, I was sat in front of a girl who can’t have been more than about eight or nine. As a Jordanian rider had three fences down, the little girl turned to her mother and gave a very grave critique, focusing on the dangers of taking an incorrect line. Surely, when we hear so much about the dangers of obesity and sedentary lifestyles, such enthusiasm for a sport is something to be cherished.

Our equestrian teams have now won medals in each Olympic discipline: we’ve had two three golds and a silver so far, with the individual dressage final still to come. Charlotte Dujardin holds gold medals for both team and individual events, having been riding at Grand Prix level for just 18 months. I’m not asking the media and non-fans to love the sport, or follow it obsessively: just afford it the same respect as you do all the others. 

12 comments:

Sarah Wolf said...

What a fantastic post and I wholeheartedly agree! Thank you. I was at Greenwich last week to see the showjumping round of the 3 day eventing and you could have heard a pin drop as everyone marvelled at the accuracy, dedication and hard work all the riders put in.

Ellen said...

You're quite right. I had a similar moment of pain as an Australian in America when the NBC website apparently confused us with Austria. http://www.gizmodo.com.au/2012/07/nbc-just-confused-australia-with-austria-on-its-olympics-site/

Jane Badger said...

I completely agree. The attitude of some of the BBC can be summed up by Gary Lineker's sign off after the British had won silver at the eventing. "Tally ho!" he said. Smirk.

Renee said...

Although I share the frustration of misrepresentation in the media I don't quite agree with your line "..astride a half-ton beast with a mind of its own, asking it to perform movements that it wouldn’t naturally have cause to do..". I'd rather not see riding reflected in the media like that. Its not about taming beasts, its about training athletes, Equine Athletes. And the training is to extent and enhance natural movements and developing understanding between rider and horse. I was in awe of the jumping horses this week. Their physical and mental strength had to be right up there with any 100 meter hurdler or long jumper. But the media simply do not see horses as athletes, but as a tool for the rider. That is what we, horse riders and lovers, need to change.

Ella Ivey said...

What a great post!!!

OwlsandFlowers said...

Great post, but I agree with Renee. These are movements that you do see horses perform naturally, but you are asking them to do them in an enhanced way on command. We have to get that across because otherwise we are open to claims of cruelty. Simon Barnes in The Times was particularly eloquent on how it was a Gold won with kindness.

To me, the problem is that we, as equestrian fans, don't evangelise for the sport. This is a problem in racing too, we take on the persona of victims rather than getting out there and selling what we do. We perceive our own sports as dying and under attack, which is a self-fulfilling thing. Urban audiences won't understand it, that it is not for them - well the inner city kids at the test events loved it. If we want people to embrace it, we need to invite them in.

And actually the attitude to equestrian competitors has been much less snidey at this games than at Beijing, Athens & Sydney.

However, Lineker has been a disgrace all Olympics, it is not just Equestrianism that he has belittled. He seems to think he can turn up having done the minimum of prep and get away with it. It may work on MoTD, but not here, sonny.

Celine said...

I don't pretend to know what I'm talking about when it comes to Equestrian Eventing, however, having watched the cross country at Burghley Horse Trials with my heart in my mouth, I simply cannot understand some of the commentary.

The height of the jumps are simply terrifying and subsequent steep drops would be tricky even on a mountain bike. The competitor is not just relying on their own, controlled body to clear them, but also that of a horse.

I defy anyone who has watched these events 'up close' to judge with such ignorance.

Redbookish said...

Top post, as usual, Blonde. Although I'd have to say that the expertise of the spectators at the cross-country wasn't necessarily evident. Nor at the first day of the Dressage ... I really think the Canadian rider who had to retire his horse from the competition had grounds for complaint about crowd noise.

But we were seeing the best combinations in the world, so that made up for having to ask people please not to wave their flags as a horse approached a jump. And I'm just a grumpy old woman.

BTW, if any Australians (who did uncharacteristically badly in the equestrian events mock the British facility at "sitting down" sports, one only has to remind them of the Australian [former] dominance at the "lying down" sports, such as swimming. But what's going on down there? When I lived in Australia, one heard of nothing but their sporting prowess.

Jem said...

Hear, Hear! (times infinity!)

Came across you via a tweet about Dressage and being a horse loving sort of person myself I had to pop along and take a peek at your blog. So glad I did. Frankly I am so disappointed at the way riders have been treated by the press this Olympic games. You'd have thought they'd be thrilled to see British sportsmen and women performing brilliantly and flying the flag in such style but instead there have been barely veiled jibes and out and out snideness. All from people who clearly have sod all idea about what goes into keeping a horse - let alone riding at top levels. To say it makes my blood boil would be a fairly accurate description!!

On another related point: the Equestrian events at Greenwich have all been sell-outs or near sell-outs so clearly many people DO feel it has value and are happy to pay to watch. The dismissive idiots can do one!

Jem xXx

Judi said...

I think the issue is that people believe that it i the horses who do most of the work. It's their strength, stamina, accuracy that is being tested, not the riders. I wouldn't know.

Mud said...

Totally agree with you Blonde. If any of these commentators even tried to ride a horse, never mind train it to dressage, show jump or event they might have my attention and I could take their criticism seriously. As it is - they are just a bunch of ignorant loud mouths.

The end.

Oh - and I bet the riders use pony shampoo as well.

James said...

"Faster. Stronger. Higher" is the Olympic motto.Show Jumping and Cross Country may fit into this but nothing said in either the piece or the comments comes close to suggesting that dressage is a sport rather than a skill.

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