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The Colt and the Champion

Greenwich Park, 2012. The horse strides down the side of the arena, hooves sinking deep into the golden sand, ears flickering gently from one side to the other as he takes in the murmur of a crowd thousands strong. One ear remains always tipped backwards towards his rider, who sits so tall and deep that the line between her movements and his is blurred. She guides him carefully, with subtle movements. A touch of her legs stirs him into a trot; he glides, white socks flashing, bay coat burnished in the sun, into the Olympic arena. He doesn’t move like an animal. He moves like music.

They come to a halt; the collection of the movement is in itself a salute to years of training. The rider makes her salute and then puts both hands on the reins, gathering him. The music begins, and the horse comes to life. He floats, perfectly in time with the music, through movements so difficult as to be impossible for most horses; yet he piaffes, pirouettes and passages as though it all comes naturally to him, as though he has been doing it since he was born. His rider appears to sit motionless as she guides him through the movements they both know so well. Extending, his trot seems ready to lift off; collecting, he barely seems to touch the ground.

The music rings with the peals of Big Ben and fanfares with the high wisdom of I Vow to Thee, My Country. The sound fills the hearts of the spectators, twines around the horse until it seems that horse and song become one, until it is uncertain whether the horse dances to the song or the song dances to the horse. Horse, human and music become one glorious spectacle.

One moment, they lengthen the canter to fly across the arena with impossibly long strides. The next, they piaffe, trotting on the spot, all the horse’s energy contained and yet exuberant. The next, they walk, the reins loose, the horse’s head stretched out, yet even that simple movement is regal, controlled, magnificent.

At last, with the whole stadium ringing to the last notes, the great horse comes to a halt and his great rider lowers her head and stretches out her right arm. The routine is finished. The stadium erupts into a mighty applauding.

Later that day it is announced that Charlotte Dujardin, the British dressage rider, and the KWPN gelding known as Valegro have won the individual gold medal for dressage at the London 2012 Olympics, and broken the Olympic record with 88.022%. Before long the pair will hold three world records, too, including the spectacular freestyle score of 93.975%. For now, they stand, revelling in a job well done, and the people of London applaud their majestic display of power, grace, and willingness.

And while they set their records, in a dingy corner of Gloucestershire, hidden and forgotten, a young pony colt is starving slowly.

 

Semi-abandoned stableyard in Gloucestershire, 2014. So weak that he can barely stand, the colt huddles in a corner of the field, his shivers making his long, dull coat ripple over his ribs. His neck looks too thin to support his pathetically bony head; his eyes are sunken deep into their sockets, and have no sparkle. Breathing laboured, neck stretched out, belly low-slung and grotesquely large for his spindly legs, the colt is days from death.

Perhaps less.

 

Stableyard caring for horses from charity, Gloucestershire, 2014. Charlotte Dujardin chats with her friend, walking past the row of stables from which sleek and well-groomed heads look out, the great eyes and wide brows speaking of breeding and quality. The double winner of the FEI World Cup and double Olympic gold medallist, among many other accolades, runs her eye down the row of beautiful horses. She is used to them; huge, shining, well-trained, unbelievably valuable, deeply treasured.

Then, she reaches a stable door with no head looking over it. Curious, she stops and peers inside. Two huge, sad eyes, half hidden in a head that is little more than a skull with skin, look back. They belong to a tiny black colt that was found by the RSPCA. He was starving, riddled with parasites and sick with a lung infection. In the words of an Inspector, the colt was a week from dying.

Now, he is safe, but his ribs still protrude, his belly still dangles, long hair hanging off it like moss dripping from an old tree trunk. His disproportionate body, half hidden underneath a dog blanket stretched across his thin frame, looks much too ugly for the prettiness of his fine-boned little head.

He is a far cry from Valegro, and Dujardin has no illusions that he will ever be Valegro. But she falls for him instantly. Straight away, she contacts her sponsors to custom-make him a proper rug instead of the old dog blanket. And not long after, the little colt, christened Santa, moves into the possession of Charlotte Dujardin OBE.

 

We all have days when we feel like Santa compared to Valegro. We feel like a raggedy little pony, scrawny, weak and on the brink of starvation, a scruffy mongrel in comparison to that man in the church, that girl in the youth group, that preacher at the pulpit – those Valegros. We compare ourselves to those around us, and cast ourselves in a dim light: I’ll never be brave like her. I’ll never be wise like him. I’ll never be virtuous like her. I’ll never be patient like him.

This is not humility. Our God never intended for us to compare ourselves to each other, for in the end, we are all one in Christ Jesus (Gal. 3:28). Jesus alone is the example to strive for, the leader to follow (Phil. 2:5). We are to shine with His light, reflected in us; not to stand in the shadows, ashamed to shine because of the light of others (Eph. 5:8). Jesus loves all His children, and He alone can make us everything we want to be (Matt. 19:24-26).

If Charlotte Dujardin, a human being, can love both a little black rescue pony and the top dressage horse in the world, how much better can our Lord and God love each one of us? But our God will go one better. Our God will take every Santa and turn them into a Valegro. The God who designed horse, man and the entire world so perfectly will make all those who trust in His name into new creations, and we will live forever in the glory of His light.

Glory to the King.

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The Olympic Disciplines: Part III - Eventing

The Olympics: for many sports, the pinnacle of international competition. One of the most popular sporting events in the world, the Olympics are what thousands of sportsmen and –women aspire to.

Of our many disciplines, only three have made it to the Olympics. Unfortunately for Western riders, all these disciplines are English: showjumping, dressage, and eventing.

The series concludes with this article on what many consider the greatest test of a horse’s training and talent: the three-day event, also known as eventing.

Eventing Basics

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Eventing consists of three phases: dressage, cross-country jumping, and showjumping (also known as stadium jumping in the USA). These phases can all be done in one day at small shows (one-day events), but the international format is done over three days, hence the term three-day event.

The first day of the event starts with dressage. While it is not done at as high a level as at pure dressage competitions, it is still a challenging test and designed to test the horse’s obedience, suppleness, balance and schooling, as well as the rider’s position and subtlety.

Cross-country is ridden on the second day and is regarded as the high point of the event. This extremely demanding task is something like showjumping in that a prescribed course of fences have to be cleared in the right order and within a time limit (going over the limit incurs time penalties). However, the course is far longer; while most showjumping courses consist of less than twenty fences and take under two minutes to complete, cross-country can have as many as forty fences and take up to ten or fifteen minutes. As well as jumping, the horses are expected to gallop up and down hills and through difficult terrain. The jumps themselves are rustic and often look solid, and the approach and landing could be on hills or in water. Cross-country is highly dangerous and requires courage from both horse and rider. It tests stamina, heart, speed, and the horse’s adaptability to different situations.

On the final day, a showjumping course is ridden. It is the same as ordinary showjumping, although the jumps are slightly lower than at pure showjumping competitions. This phase is a final test of the horse’s stamina and willingness, as well as its agility and speed.

Penalties are added up from all three phases and compared at the end of the event. The horse and rider with the lowest number of penalties are the winners of the competition.

Eventing Origins

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Eventing originated as a military test of soldiers and their warhorses. The earlier forms of eventing were much more taxing on the horse and rider; while the showjumping and dressage phases may have been a little easier, the cross-country phase was far longer. As well as the cross-country jumping, it also included a roads and tracks phase at which the horse and rider had to proceed at a set pace of four miles an hour along a series of tracks, as well as a steeplechase phase where the horse and rider had to gallop and jump along a simple course as fast as possible.

The roads and tracks and steeplechase phases were omitted in the late twentieth century, and cross-country fences were also made somewhat safer. While most cross-country fences are still relatively solid, and have to be jumped with extreme care to avoid hitting the fence and causing horse and rider to fall, parts of them are now made of loose blocks and can be knocked over if a horse touches them.

Eventing was a perfect test of the warhorse. The dressage tested its manoeuvrability and obedience, necessary in tight battle situations; the cross country tested its courage and stamina, for long marches or urgent rides to deliver messages or flee from an enemy; and the showjumping tested its willingness to work and try its best even when tired.

Eventing Horses

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As with showjumping, the original eventer was a Thoroughbred; in his book Horses are Made to be Horses, Franz Mairinger even insisted that a top eventer could only be a Thoroughbred. And although Warmblood, Arabian, and Irish Sport Horse blood has been introduced, the majority of top event horses have plenty of Thoroughbred blood.

While the Thoroughbred’s natural athleticism and courage make him a wonderful cross-country horse, some lack the trainability, suppleness and graceful movement for dressage and showjumping. And while many top eventers are Thoroughbreds – such has Exponential, Neville Bardos, Biko, and Priceless – most eventers now are Thoroughbreds crossed with breeds such as the Warmblood, Irish Sport Horse, and Arabian. The famous Tamarillo, ridden by William Fox-Pitt, was an Anglo Arabian, and double Olympic gold medallist, World Champion and European Champion Michael Jung’s horse Sam FBW is a Warmblood of German lines crossed with a Thoroughbred.

Eventing and Royalty

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Eventing has the curious feature of being the sport of choice of English royalty for generations. England’s The Princess Royal (known as Princess Anne), her husband Mark Phillips, and her daughter, Zara Phillips, have evented at Olympic level. While Mark Phillips and Princess Anne’s eventing days are behind them, Zara Phillips is still active at international competitions and a huge favourite with British crowds. It was to mighty applause that she contributed to England’s team silver medal at the London 2012 Olympics on her horse High Kingdom. Princess Anne, however, took a fall at the 1986 Olympic Games (which was the first Olympics in which a member of British royalty took part), but went on to finish the event on the Queen’s horse, Goodwill. She was more successful in the European Eventing Championship, where she won individual gold on Doublet in 1971. Thirty-four years later in 2005 her daughter Zara would go on to win the same medal on Toytown.

Eventing for Everyone

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Eventing is not so freely available as showjumping or dressage. Cross-country courses are few and far between and most people find themselves having to trailer their horses out to clinics or practice days in order to get any training over the cross-country fences. However, the one-day event provides a more convenient option for the low-level competitor and is available in most countries.

This discipline requires more time, training and effort than showjumping or dressage, and can be much more expensive at the higher levels, as different equipment is needed for the different phases. It remains a fantastic test of horse and rider and one that brings a great sense of achievement to competitors. Ideal for the hardworking rider who likes a challenge, while eventing is perhaps not so technically difficult as showjumping or dressage, it is the pinnacle of all-round excellence and versatility in the equine world.

Eventing as a Celebration of Creation

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Like any other sport, eventing celebrates the careful design of the body and mind. God constructed the horse in such a way that it is strong enough to carry a rider over high obstacles, fast enough to sprint between the jumps, agile enough to turn tight corners from one fence to the next, intelligent enough to learn the graceful movements of dressage, and enduring enough to do all of these in three days. He gave the horse long legs and a deep chest with massive nostrils, enabling him to drink in great gulps of air to drive him over long distances at great speeds. He designed the circulatory system of the horse so perfectly that each of its feet acts as an extra heart, helping to pump blood up the legs and keep them moving fast and far. He gave the horse an excellent memory to remember all the different aids of dressage and a graceful bearing to execute them with ease. And then He gave the horse to us, His beloved, created human beings.

And when that big, brave horse thunders through the water, flinging spray in all directions as he gathers himself for the leap, with his rider trusting this huge beast to obey and urging him on in the full confidence of their combined prowess, one cannot help but glorify the God Who made it all possible. He alone allows us to achieve the feats that these Olympic disciplines demand of us. Even the greatest of riders and the most wonderful of horses would be nothing without Him. All glory goes to God.

 

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