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.

The unsung four-legged heroes of the Olympics

Posted by Tania Kindersley
Tania Kindersley
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on Wednesday, 25 July 2012

I’ve decided that I shall officially get excited about the Olympics. There is, of course, a huge amount to grumble about. The car lanes stuffed with sponsors and bogus VIPs, the ghastly creaking corporate bandwagon, the idiocy of having a great sporting event sponsored by crappy hamburgers and sugary drinks, the security fiasco: all make one’s heart sink into one’s boots. But it would be sad to allow all that to obscure the human side.

This morning, Alice Plunkett, whom I watch all winter as she presents Channel Four Racing, tweeted that the lovely Lionheart had set off for Greenwich. He is the horse of her husband, the great eventer William Fox-Pitt. As all the noise is of the famous sprinters, the swimming hopes and the cycling heroes, the horse side of the British contingent is often overlooked. Eventing is the most minority of sports, after all. I always love the Olympic three day event, but now that I have a horse of my own, I feel it even more keenly.

It is one of the most challenging disciplines of any sport. It is, essentially, a triathlon with horses. First, they must do the delicate, controlled, precise test that is dressage. Then, they must go flat out across country, over terrifying fixed obstacles, with huge drops, shining water features, and any other kinds of novelty that the course builders may dream up. This requires strength, stamina, courage and accuracy. It’s about as far away from dressage as you can imagine. Then, they must go into the show-jumping ring, and tackle a completely different kind of fence, with fragile poles that can fall at the flick of a hoof.

Merely getting a horse to the event in good shape is an Olympic achievement in itself. Horses have the tendency to break your heart; already, one poor Australian has been in tears in front of the world’s press, as he discovered his horse would not recover from a leg injury in time for Greenwich. That is why I think it is time to forget the grumbles and concentrate on the human factor. For four years, Fox-Pitt and his team will have been working and planning and training. The horses will have been schooled and tested and loved and fretted over, all to bring them to their peak for this one great moment.

When the world is thinking of Usain Bolt and Chris Hoy, I shall be crossing my fingers for Miners Frolic, High Kingdom, Imperial Cavalier, Opposition Buzz and Lionheart. These are names unknown to the great British public, faces that have never appeared on the front pages, but who will be giving every last ounce of heart and guts in one of the most demanding quests for Olympic glory.

Also, quietly, and without fanfare, the equestrian team redresses the often wonky imbalance between male and female competitors. My battered old feminist heart is gladdened by the fact that, alongside William Fox-Pitt, there will ride Zara Phillips, Mary King, Nicola Wilson, and Tina Cook. Although eventing is one of the toughest and most dangerous of pursuits, it is that sporting rarity: a discipline where men and women compete on equal terms, and the women often triumph. Age is no barrier. Sport is often the province of the young, yet Mary King is competing at the highest level, at the peak of her powers, representing her country at the age of fifty-one. (The mighty New Zealand champion, Mark Todd, is fifty-six and still at the very top of his game.)

If you look at the Olympic pages in the press, there is hardly a mention of the horses. But they are the ones who are closest to my heart. They and their riders will have been rising at dawn every morning, working for hours each day, out in the weather, focused entirely on this fine moment. These tough, industrious men and women don’t care about the traffic lanes and the internecine politics of the Olympic committee. They care about excellence, in one of the most testing sports of all. They care about representing their country with pride, which is not something you do every day. I’m damn well not going to get cynical about that. I shall be shamelessly shouting my head off. I may even have a little bet. 5-2 for gold on William Hill must be worth a fiver. Go, go, Team GB.

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