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.
Show jumping competition starts on August 14 with the individual qualifying round. With the starting order for the team competition at stake, riders and horses must clear 12 obstacles of varying heights. Athletes who accumulate the fewest faults receive the highest scores and latest starting positions.
Among the 200 athletes competing, Canadian Ian Millar will not be one. The 10-time Olympian, who first competed in the 1972 Games in Munich, holds the record for most appearances at the Games (Canada boycotted the 1980 Moscow Olympics). However, his top horse underwent sinus surgery a few months ago, rendering the pair unable to compete in Rio.
Athletes to watch
Michael Jung, Germany
When Michael Jung won individual and team eventing gold medals representing Germany in 2012, he became the first eventing athlete to concurrently hold the World, European and Olympic titles. Jung is currently the International Equestrian Foundation’s top-ranked eventer. Since his double gold performance in London, he has accumulated four more team and individual European Championships, including an individual title in 2015 just one week after chipping his tibia in a fall. Although eventing is notoriously unpredictable, Jung and the German eventing team enter Rio as gold medal favorites.
Beezie Madden, USA
After winning two Olympic team jumping gold medals (2004 and ’08), one Olympic individual jumping bronze medal (2008) and two World Championship bronze medals, Beezie Madden’s faithful partner, Authentic, was ready to retire. But the American jumping star was not. Now 52 and heading to her fourth consecutive Olympics, Madden will look to add a fourth Olympic medal to her collection with the help of jumping teammates McLain Ward and Kent Farrington, ranked third and fifth by the International Equestrian Federation, respectively.
If there was a GOAT for English dressage, it would be Charlotte Dujardin. With horse Valegro, the Brit has won team and individual gold in front of a home crowd at the London Olympics, five European Championship titles, two individual World Equestrian Games championships and two consecutive Dressage World Cup golds. Dujardin is already the most decorated dressage rider in British history and the Rio games will be her last atop Valegro.
Aug. 9—Individual and Team Eventing
Aug. 12—Team Dressage
Aug. 15—Individual Dressage
Aug. 17—Team Jumping
Aug. 19—Individual Jumping