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A History of Olympic Equestrian Sports
With the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games recently drawn to a close, we take a look into the history of equestrian sport in the Games, which dates back over 100 years.
Horse sport made its debut in the Olympic Games of Ancient Greece in 680 BC, when chariot racing was one of the main events.
With regards to the modern Games, whilst there had been equestrian events in the Olympic Games of 1900, held in Paris, they were different to those seen today, and included polo, Grand Prix jumping, and the high jump.
Following the 1900 Paris Games, equestrian events fell out of the Olympic programme for a number of years, largely due to decisions made by the International Horse Show Committee, which was newly formed at the time. However, equestrians returned to Olympic arenas in 1912, when the events of jumping, eventing and dressage were introduced at the Stockholm Olympic Games in Sweden. These events, along with the equestrian component of the Modern Pentathlon, are the only Olympic events that involve animals.
A Sport for Equality
When originally introduced, only commissioned military officers and gentlemen were allowed to compete, excluding all women from the sport, as well as any men serving in the military who did not hold an officers’ commission.
These rules were eventually loosened in 1952, when it was announced that all men, regardless of military status or social standing, would be permitted to compete in any equestrian discipline, whilst allowances were made for women at the time to compete in the dressage. Permission to enter the jumping competition was extended to women later in 1956, and women came to eventing even later in 1964.
Now, equestrian sport is among the few Olympic events where men and women compete as equals. Awarding both individual and team medals for each event, there are no restrictions around the ratio of men to women competitors permitted in each team, and countries are not required to select a minimum number of either gender to compete. Rather, they’re free to compile a team according to their nation’s best riders, irrespective of their gender.
Equestrian Olympic Records
Over the years, there have been a number of memorable performances from equestrians competing in the Olympic Games. Amongst them is Lis Hartel’s performance in 1952, when she won the silver medal as one of the first women to compete in Olympic dressage.
Hans Gunter Winkler’s performance at the Stockholm Olympic Games of 1956 is also widely revered in equestrian sporting history, and to date, Winkler is the only jumper to have won five Olympic gold medals and a total of seven Olympic medals, having competed and won medals in six different Olympic Games.
Equestrian Olympic records were broken at the London 2012 Olympic Games when Canadian showjumper Ian Millar, nicknamed ‘Captain Canada’, competed in his 10th Olympic Games at the age of 65, acquiring the record for the most number of Olympic Games entered by any athlete in any sport. His most famous partner was Big Ben (1979-1999), a 17.3-hand Belgian Warmblood Chestnut, but Millar continued to compete after Big Ben’s retirement and rode In Style to claim the showjumping team silver at the 2008 Olympics, held in Beijing.
To date, the highest ranked Olympic equestrian is German dressage rider Isabell Werth, who accumulated six gold medals and four silver medals competing in Olympic Games between 1992 and 2016, whilst the best performing male equestrian athlete is Reiner Klimke, who won six Olympic gold medals and two bronze medals between 1964-1988.
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