Horses for courses but equestrian should not be dropped from Olympics

I do not care how many sports you add to the Olympics. Breakdancing sounds like fun. Sport climbing will also be great, as soon as I work out what that is. But there is a recurring theme whenever the Games roster is changed that we have to address.

That is the suggestion – joking or otherwise – that equestrian should be dropped.

This is not entirely academic. Earlier this year there was a risk Australia would not be able to field an equestrian team in Tokyo 2021. Equestrian Australia went into voluntary administration after Sport Australia pulled funding, citing governance concerns. It has since overhauled its constitution, installed new directors and new management, and got the Olympic program back on track.

Australian sport fans should be relieved. Not just because equestrian has helped Australia out on the medal tally, although it undoubtedly has, but because the Olympics is not really about sport. It is about narratives. It is about using the actions of some gifted individuals to weave (frequently apocryphal) myths about national character.

Those myths usually hinge around the courage of the athletes. And nowhere in the summer Olympics is courage more required than the in the three-day event. Outside of the Paralympics, where we have a number of successful riders, Australia has only really been competitive in the three-day event. That’s the one where horse and rider do dressage on day one, endurance and a cross country course on day two and showjumping on day three.

It began with Australia’s first gold medal for equestrian at Rome in 1960, when Bill Roycroft completed the showjumping round with a broken shoulder and a dislocated collarbone after coming off in the cross country.

The best bit of Olympic myth-making came in Atlanta in 1996. On the team was the youngest-ever rider to represent Australia, 21-year-old Wendy Schaeffer on her pony club horse. She had broken her leg in a fall in training two months earlier.

Riders walk through the cross country course before they have to ride it, to work out their strategy. Because of her leg, Schaeffer was being driven about by a golf buggy until the US team complained, saying if she was not fit to walk she was not fit to ride. She got out and walked, bleeding through her socks.

Schaeffer finishedf at the top of the table. If the rules had not changed after Barcelona, she would be a dual gold medallist just like Matt Ryan was in 1992.

But hers is not the ride people remember.

Gillian Rolton and Peppermint Grove, known as Fred, had been part of the gold medal-winning team in 1992 and were a late inclusion in 1996 because Ryan’s horse pulled up lame. About halfway in Fred slipped on a patch of muddy ground. Rolton broke her collarbone and several ribs in the fall but if she had withdrawn, the team’s medal chances would have been lost. So she kept riding.

Gillian Rolton lies on the ground after falling from Peppermint Grove (Fred) in Atlanta. Photograph: PPP

She fell at the next fence and got back on, finishing the course one-handed. Andrew Hoy and Darien Powers made up the points. By the showjumping round the next day Rolton, who had refused painkillers in hospital in case she had to ride, was done in. It didn’t matter: Australia was so far ahead that the final rider on the team, Philip Dutton, could have dropped every rail in the showjumping and they still would have won. The team finished 57 points ahead of the Americans and Rolton wore a sling on the winner’s podium.

That is enough sporty mythos for a Lifetime movie. That is what you want from the Olympics. A saga. A show of courage. A very real sense of danger – so real that the rules were later changed so that riders could not ride on after a fall.

I watched it standing in front of the television, too excited to sit on the couch. Rolton, who sadly lost her battle with cancer in 2017, was my hero.

Granted, I was a horsey kid. Dressage, mainly, but I will not go in to bat for dressage as a universally watchable spectator sport. Eventing, however, is fun and comes with the joy of hearing the excellent and extremely posh commentator, Lucinda Green, say things like “he was going to take it straight and bold”.

It does not matter that almost no one has direct experience with equestrian sports. If anything, it enhances viewer experience because it prompts the commentators to explain the rules so there is not the same barrier of assumed knowledge that can be off-putting when watching more popular but equally esoteric sports, such as cricket.

There are genuine criticisms of equestrian, mostly concerning horse and rider safety and inhumane training methods still used by some riders. No riders have died competing in the games but the sport is facing a reckoning in Australian and elsewhere over rider deaths and safety issues at lower levels.

Equestrian is also very expensive and overwhelmingly white.

These are all problems that can and should be addressed. The Olympic spotlight could help push some of those changes along.

While it is doing so, we will be able to watch the best horses in the world jump over enormous fake hedges and down steep banks into shallow ponds, while Lucinda Green tells us that we are doing magnificently. That is what the Olympics is all about.