At the Rio Olympics, 200 athletes from 43 countries will compete for individual and team medals in three equestrian events: eventing, dressage and show jumping. While not being able to give verbal instruction to a teammate appears to be a hindrance at first glance, equestrian Olympians spend years developing relationships with the horses they’ll ride in Rio. Each rider and horse pair has its own language forged through jabs of the heels, squeezes of the knees or pats of the hand.
“You get to know their personality, what their likes and dislikes are, what they get nervous about and where they need encouragement,” explains Phillip Dutton, a two-time team eventing gold medalist who has represented Australia and the United States in five Olympic games.
Indeed, each horse vying for a medal in Rio is as unique as its rider. First time Olympian Lauren Kieffer will compete on Veronica, nicknamed “the troll” in eventing for Team USA. “She’s a very feisty mare and she is very competitive,” Kieffer says. “She’s the kind of horse where she’s going to beat you walking out on the field.”
That competitive spirit lends itself well to eventing, the most taxing of the three disciplines. Eventing is the equestrian version of a triathlon with riders competing in dressage, a cross-country race and show jumping. Originally conceived as an entrance exam for cavalry officers in late-nineteenth century European armies, eventing tests the obedience, stamina, bravery and focus of its competitors. The first Olympic eventing competition at the 1912 Stockholm games was open only to male active-duty officers and participation was extended to civilian males in 1952 and women in ’64.
Individual and team dressage start on August 10. The top eight individuals and six teams advance from the Grand Prix round based on scores from 38 compulsory movements and four collective marks. Team medals are awarded after the Grand Prix Special round based on the aggregate two-round scores from the top three riders on each team. The final day of dressage, Grand Prix Freestyle, determines individual medalists and features original routines with musical accompaniment from the top 18 riders.