The Olympic Games are the pinnacle for most sports – and equestrianism is no exception. This is one of the rare occasions when this niche sport is seen by a wider audience. Yet, this discipline was included in the Ancient Greek Olympics, providing all the drama and thrills that makes high level sport so exciting.
Back then, it was chariot and horse races. They took place on a race track in a hippodrome, with the spectators watching from the surrounding hills.
Equestrian events made their debut at the modern Olympic Games in 1900, in Paris. They reappeared at the Stockholm Games of 1912, with the King of Sweden officiating, and have always featured since then.
Stockholm 1912 had three disciplines on its programme for the first time, which are still used now: Dressage, Jumping and Eventing. In the Amsterdam 1928 Games, team dressage was added to the programme, making up the six team and individual disciplines still in use.
The Federation Equestre Internationale (FEI) was introduced at the 1924 Paris Olympics to bring better organisation and professionalism.
Only military officers were allowed to compete in the early Olympics, a rule only changed in time for the 1952 Helsinki Olympic Games. The military had a heavy influence over the sport’s early rules and format. Riders competed in their uniforms mostly.
The 1952 rule change also allowed women to compete for the first time in the equestrian events. Women competed initially in dressage only before moving to the other events. It remains the only Olympic sport where men and women compete alongside each other, in the mixed events.
Equestrian is also the only sport at the modern Games involving animals. This proved a problem at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics. The country’s quarantine laws forced the equestrian programme to relocate to Sweden, separate from the other events.
Twenty years later, Princess Anne competed at the Montreal Games as part of the GB team. The connection between Royalty and equestrian sport extended further at the London 2012 Olympics. She memorably presented her daughter, Zara Phillips, with a silver medal as part of the GB Eventing team.
Politics has affected the sport, with several nations boycotting the 1980 Moscow and 1984 Los Angeles Games due to the tensions that existed between the Soviet Union and the USA.
Equestrian has mainly thrived at the Olympics though, with GB often enjoying more success in this sport than others. GB was the most successful nation in London 2012, winning three gold medals, five in total, in the unforgettable setting of Greenwich Park.
Over more than a century of competition, nations from every continent have competed in the equestrian events. Germany and Sweden are among the leading nations for medals. Famous names include GB’s own Charlotte Dujardin riding Valero. Nick Skelton’s emotional gold medal win, riding Big Star in the individual show jumping, came at his seventh Olympics!
As the countdown to Tokyo 2020 begins, the Games should be yet further demonstration of the sheer beauty, elegance, athleticism and skill of top level horsemanship.
Northcote Stud offers everything you need to enjoy equestrian sports, whether you’re a novice or experienced rider and horse. We regularly host events, including British Showjumping shows. We also have training shows, where you jump over BS standard fences, without the pressure of competition.
If you’re new to equestrian sports, or need to build confidence, you can book private lessons with our trainer, Emily Whiteside. Get in touch for further details.
Sources with external links (we’re not responsible for content on external websites):
Donna de Haan & Lucy Claire Dumbell (2016) Equestrian Sport at the Olympic Games from 1900 to 1948, The International Journal of the History of Sport, 33:6-7, 648-665, DOI: 10.1080/09523367.2016.1195373