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The Daily Vet by petMD

The Daily Vet is a blog featuring veterinarians from all walks of life. Every week they will tackle entertaining, interesting, and sometimes difficult topics in the world of animal medicine – all in the hopes that their unique insights and personal experiences will help you to understand your pets.

Horses - The Real Olympic Athletes

I must say that I’m more than a little bit excited for the 2012 Summer Olympics to get underway. The global competition, the pageantry of the opening ceremonies, the almost overwhelming choice of sports to view (trampoline is considered an Olympic sport?), and of course, the REAL athletes of the games — the horses.

The equestrian games at the Olympics are comprised of three different disciplines, each with an individual and team portion, creating a total of six gold medals to take home. With approximately 200 riders and their horses competing across these events, there’s a lot to digest, so here’s an overview of what will be happening from July 27 to August 12.

1. Dressage: Considered by many to be the most elegant form of riding, dressage is sometimes described as ballet on horseback. Now, admittedly, it can be really boring if you don’t know what you’re looking at, since to the untrained eye it appears as a fancy dressed rider and horse skipping along a stuffy-looking ring. But, if you look closer, you may begin to appreciate the finesse of the horse’s movements. Yes, there is skipping, but have YOU ever been able to make a horse skip? And still stay on its back? Didn’t think so. I know I can’t.

They also move in tight circles while pivoting on their back legs, change from a short-strided trot to a long-strided trot without breaking the gait, and seem to move sideways across the arena with legs crisscrossing each other. All these movements have fancy French names like piaffe and pirouette and each horse/rider pair is scored on how well they perform a routine of movements. The pair with the highest overall score takes home the gold.

2. Jumping: This event is much more self-explanatory than dressage. There’s an arena full of really big obstacles (sometimes spreads of three bars, water jumps, and simulated brick walls) and you have to ride over them in a certain order as fast as you can without knocking anything down or riding off course — or falling off. Did I mention these obstacles are high? Show-jumping can be heart pounding to watch when you’re down to the wire. The winner is the pair with the fastest time and fewest penalties. If there is a tie at the end, there’s a jump-off. How exciting is that?

3. Eventing: Here is a sport made up of three different sports, sort of like the triathlon of the horse world. Eventing is made of a dressage phase, jumping phase, and cross-country phase, where horse and rider take to the field and gallop over logs and water jumps. In my opinion, this is the most challenging of all the Olympic equestrian sports, and again, winners are made by having the best times over the cross-country and jumping portions and the highest scores in the dressage ring.

You may have noticed all three Olympic equestrian disciplines are English, meaning there are no Western disciplines like barrel racing or calf roping. This may change in the future, as there has been talk that reining, the Western sport where horse and rider perform an intricate set of maneuvers like spins and sliding stops that are used out on the range when working cattle, may enter the Olympic picture. Reining is already the only Western discipline recognized by the International Equestrian Federation (FEI), so that may be an addition in future summer Olympics to look forward to.

Germany ruled the equestrian Olympic world back in 2008, taking home three of the six "golds." As of this writing, at least the U.S. equestrian team hasn’t been finalized yet; apparently qualifications go up to the very last minute. The U.S. has had some success in past Olympics, but many of the European nations still seem to dominate. So, let’s get our cheering voices ready: USA! USA! USA!

Dr. Anna O’Brien

Image: Tumar / via Shutterstock

Comments  5

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  • Who Is Actually Winning?
    07/27/2012 11:15am

    To the completely uneducated (me), it seems that this Olympic sport is a mixture of training the horse as well as the rider being able to get the horse to perform.

    What is the difference between this and having a different animal perform for the judges such a dog running an obstacle course?

    Again, since I'm completely uneducated about these things, I always worry about the transportation of the horses. Isn't it hard on them to travel such distances?

    As an aside, I hope they never make calf roping an Olympic sport. It just doesn't seem right to chase and tie a terrified calf. Maybe you were joking?

  • 07/30/2012 03:54pm

    One of the many unique aspects of the equestrian Olympic sports is the fact that there is a human component, an equine component, and the component of the two working together. In effect, this sport is judging three things simultaneously: the training and athleticism of the rider, the training and athleticism of the horse, and the ability of the two to work together as a single unit. I think that is just so neat and something not seen in the other sports. This is also a little different than say a dog show where you are judging the dog's training which, yes, is an extension of the owner's role, but that person isn't physically jumping over the agility jumps with the dog, etc. I feel since horse and rider are going through the same course together, this is unique. But as I think about this, what about the Iditarod, with dogs and humans crossing the tundra together? Will we ever see sled dog sports in the winter Olympics? Talk about athletes! Just wondering.

    As to the calf roping, this was purely a speculative comment addressing the fact that there are no Western equestrian events in the Olympics. I would absolutely love to see reining become an Olympic sport but I agree, I don't think other rodeo sports such as calf roping or bronc riding would be appropriate.

  • Olympics !
    07/27/2012 03:59pm

    I remember 1984 !!! Abdulla (I think that was the white stallion's name) was just awesome ! Mary Lou Rettin was awesome that year too (if I remember right)!!!

  • Horses ~ calf roping
    07/30/2012 01:10pm

    The opening ceremony was magnificent! And all the young athletes such a joy to see. So excited to be in the Olympics! And yes, I agree, the horse is the greatest athlete! It is amazing what horses can be trained to do and they are most intelligent! I pray they stay safe, for injuries do happen in these events. I also hope calf roping or any kind of rodeo spectacle is never added to the Olympics. Finding rodeos VIOLENT and cruel to all animals, including the horses, calf roping is the utmost barbaric cruelty. To have this in the Olympics would add a "dark side." There is no regard for the terrified baby calf chased at speeds up to 25 MPH by the cowboy on a large horse with a goal to tie the calf's legs. The Olympics is comprised of individuals or teams competing. Free will. Injuries can and do happen. The calf has no choice. Before entering the arena, tortured by tail twisting to spur them to bolt into the ring to "escape" the pain. They run. No escape. Lassoed at neck or torso, slammed to the ground squealing, screaming. This violence often results in serious injuries: broken necks, backs, legs, paralysis, death. Observers seeing this, get sick. Shake. Many states are now outlawing calf roping. There is a petition to ban calf roping with 20,000 signatures. This cruelty would cast a Dark Shadow over the Olympics. Yes, Dr. O'Brien, with all respect, I too hope you were joking.

  • 07/30/2012 03:57pm

    I agree - calf roping would certainly not be appropriate in the Olympics. Reining, on the other hand (the Western form of dressage), would be wonderful in the Olympic setting, I think.

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