Dispatches From The North

Tania Kindersley lives in the North East of Scotland with two amiable lab collie crosses and one very grumpy Gloucester Old Spot pig. She co-wrote Backwards In High Heels: The Impossible Art of Being Female, with Sarah Vine.

All the Olympic horses

Posted by Tania Kindersley
Tania Kindersley
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on Tuesday, 07 August 2012

Now it seems I have turned into the most monomaniac of one-trick ponies. But the British and their equines really have done something remarkable. On Monday, a fifty-something gentleman with a replacement shoulder, an artificial hip, a broken neck, and goodness knows what else, jumped clear round after clear round over enormous oxers and terrifying uprights. It was not just Nick Skelton who excelled, although I do love seeing the old fellas have their day in the sun; it was not just his three bold team-mates. It was the horses as well.

It’s easy to forget the pressure on the horses, who are, after all, flight animals. They come into a strange arena, filled with ecstatic cheering crowds, waving flags, taking pictures. All the while, announcers are calling through microphones and helicopters suddenly circle overhead. It’s almost a perfect storm of everything the horse is bred not to like. It does not necessarily think: all those lovely Britons are cheering for me. (Although some horses are born performers and rise to a crowd.) It is more likely to think: damn, mountain lions at three o’clock.

My mare doing her own little dressage test, in honour of her compadresMy mare doing her own little dressage test, in honour of her compadres

The riders have walked the course and know its twists and turns, its quirks and gimmicks. The horse will never have seen those fences before in its life. Bright blue expanses of water and London telephone boxes delight the human eye; to a horse, they are raw peril.

But on they went, the good trusting equine stars, jumping out of their skins, trying their hearts out, and for the first time since Foxhunter exhilarated the crowds sixty years ago, Britain won a show-jumping gold.

As if that were not enough, the dressage riders then decided it was time to put on a show of their own. The spooky aspect of a huge arena and a vast, humming crowd is even more acute in dressage, where stern judges will mark down the merest flinch from a straight line, and will find mistakes in what looks like perfection, to the untrained eye. Charlotte Dujardin, the young star of the British team, is only twenty-seven, so she must have been feeling a bit of pressure too, as she rode last into Greenwich to give her country a shot at gold.

She and her horse were so foot-perfect that the judges eventually revised their marks upward, in honour of greatness. I felt oddly tearful. Horses always make me cry really; they are such triers and they do so many odd things that humans ask of them, with little complaint. All they ask is a bit of grass and a scratch of the neck and some work to do and a kind word occasionally. Dressage and show-jumping are entirely unnatural disciplines, which take place in entirely artificial surroundings. Any horse worth its salt would be entitled to snort in derision and plant its feet when asked to do a flying change or jump over a five foot spread. And yet they give everything they have.

The riders know what they have achieved. It’s harder for the equines to understand. Peter Charles, the show-jumper who rode the last, lovely clear round for Britain, held up his gold medal to his horse’s nose, so he could sniff it. I’m not sure the horse quite got the point. They don’t know they have won gold. They will get a lot of love and carrots (I think the British Olympic committee should send them a lifetime supply) but I really do wish, as I often do, that equines could speak English, so someone could explain to them all what they have achieved.

Two golds and three silvers in the equestrian events; it’s an almost vulgar haul. Quite soon, I shall start thinking, oh, let the other countries have a go.

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