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Equestrian Events Charm Horse Lovers At Olympics


Equestrian sports are getting more attention than usual at this year's Olympic Games. The queen's granddaughter, Zara Phillips, brought royalty to the stands for her Olympic debut. Prince Harry, Prince William and Kate Middleton watched Phillips help Britain's equestrian team win a silver medal in the jumping competition. Ann Romney, the wife of the Republican presidential candidate, is also at the games to watch her horse, Rafalca, compete in dressage, an event also known as horse ballet.

We want to hear from the horse people in our audience. What are you watching at this year's Olympics? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. Julie Rovner is NPR's health policy correspondent. She's also a horse owner, rider and competitor, and she joins us here in Studio 3A. And, Julie, good to talk horses with you. Good to talk sports for once or again, anyway.


JULIE ROVNER, BYLINE: Yes. Sorry not to be at the Olympics but at least glad to be here to talk about it.

CONAN: And I was lucky enough to live in London during an Olympics Games, so I've seen an awful lot of television coverage of equestrian events. They take it pretty seriously over there.

ROVNER: They take it very seriously over there. It is - when I was first starting eventing and actually Zara Phillips won her - helped the British win the silver medal in eventing, they have not started the...

CONAN: In the jumping event.

ROVNER: ...in the jumping. The jumping is the last of the three. There are three equestrian - separate equestrian sports that happen in the Olympics, and the first to go is always the three-day event, which combined jumping and dressage, and then there'll be an actual dressage event - dressage-only event and then there will be show jumping only. So now the three-day event has just ended, and the Brits indeed won the silver medal.

CONAN: Oh, well, congratulations to them. There will be some excitement there. But the three-day event - so dressage, jumping and there's a cross-country race as well.

ROVNER: That's right. The three days are: the first day is dressage, the second day is cross-country and then the third day is the stadium jumping. Basically, a test to see if after the rigors of the cross-country, the horse basically still has enough gas in the tank to jump - show-jumping course.

CONAN: And it is important to emphasize - well, men and women compete in this event against each other. But the athletes - the riders are athletes too, but the horses are the athletes.

ROVNER: Oh, the riders are the athletes also. I was listening to talk radio actually Saturday on my way to my dressage lesson, and some guy was talking on sports radio and said, you know, there's this sport in the Olympics where the horses memorize this pattern and the rider just sits there. And I thought, oh boy, the rider does not just sit there.


ROVNER: It's a lot of work.

CONAN: In dressage, though, you're not allowed to speak, correct?

ROVNER: That's correct. You're penalized if you speak to the horse during a dressage test. You use every other muscle of your body, however. And literally every other muscle of your body.

CONAN: So how do you communicate? These are very intricate moves, how do you communicate?

ROVNER: They're extremely intricate moves. You use literally - you use an enormous amount of core strength. I also take Pilates. A lot of riders take Pilates. You have a lot of muscles of your core. You use - you need to be able to relax certain muscles and use other muscles. You need to be able to use your arms and your legs and your midsection independently. You need to be able - as you know, my dressage instructor likes - always can know when I have my jaw clenched, that will actually communicate tension to the horse. I mean, you know, little things. You know, if you move your head the wrong way or your neck the wrong way, I mean, the horse feels everything.

Horses are incredibly intuitive, and everything is communicated through you to the horse. So it's an amazing - if you're having a bad day, your horse knows it. If you're having a good day, your horse knows it.

CONAN: What is the origin of the sport of dressage?

Well, it's actually - it goes all the way back to the Greeks, and, I mean, it is originally - it's one of the classics. It's called classical dressage. But the origin of the modern sport of dressage is really a military sport. In fact, until 1948, only men were allowed to compete in dressage in the three-day event because it was considered - dressage was to make sure the horse was obedient enough to be a good war mount, literally. That was what it was for.

A good cavalry horse.

ROVNER: A cavalry horse. And to be able to do - to be able to move - remember, you've got, you know, you got soldiers with guns or swords or, you know, various other implements of weaponry. And so you need to be able to have a horse who is malleable, and you can make it go anywhere you want with sometimes just one hand, sometimes no hands. So that's basically the origin of modern dressage.

But basically, what dressage is about these days is making the horse move properly with the rider on its back the way the horse would move without a rider on its back. That's what it's all about in the end, is getting the horse to move to round its back and move with the rider on its back properly as a rear-wheel drive animal, as one of my dressage instructors once said.


ROVNER: And it's a really good image. And if you watch dressage, you can see that's what you're looking for, and that's what it's really all about.

CONAN: And we look at some of the motions in dressage, and it literally looks like - if it's done well - the horse is dancing.

ROVNER: It does, although dressage riders can't stand when it's called horse ballet. It's really not about ballet. It's - it can look like dancing. And only the freestyle is done to music. And the freestyles are relatively recent phenomena. And if you actually watch the dressage competition that will begin on Thursday, the first - there's three tests, actually, and the first two tests are not done to music. Everyone - every horse and rider does the same test, and it is a prescribed series of movements. And no, the horse does not memorize it.


CONAN: So this is like the old required events in figure skating?

ROVNER: That's - that's much more what it looks like. It looks like the old-school figures from figure skating. And there are judges, and every figure, every movement gets scored from one to 10, and then there's collective marks. They call them at the end. The rider actually gets one mark for how effective the rider is. The horse gets one mark for, you know, how good the quality of the horse's gait, its walk, trot and canter. But every movement - and some movements gets double, because they're considered to be more important.

Actually, the walk usually gets double. It's considered one of the harder movements to - if you've got a horse with a really good walk, that's a really good thing if you're a dressage horse. And that's very difficult in the eventing dressage test, because these are event horses who are about to go gallop three and a half miles cross-country, and they have a tendency to not want to walk.


ROVNER: It can be very, very difficult to do this well.

CONAN: We want to hear from the horse people in our audience today. What are you looking forward to in this year's Olympic coverage? Here's an email we have from Karen: I'm disappointed NBC did not air equestrian events on the main channel. Instead, we have synchronized diving, she complained. 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. Laura's on the line with us from Charlottesville.

LAURA: Hey. Thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

LAURA: I was driving along here, just listening, so curious. I don't know anything about horses. I'm not a horse person. But when you said that Ann Romney's horse is over in London, it made me wonder: Did they put the horse on an airplane? How did they transfer it over across the ocean?

ROVNER: By FedEx. Actually, we did a story on this, I think, back in March. The horses go over on a large cargo plane, and it is, in fact, FedEx. And, of course, horses go to and from Europe all the time. I mean, people are, you know, buying horses, not just for the Olympics. There are major competitions. European horses come to the U.S. for major competitions. U.S. horses go to Europe all the time for major competitions. Yes, there are, in fact, people whose business it is to transport horses across the Atlantic - obviously, to other places, too. But going to and from the - between the U.S. and Europe is not that uncommon a thing. And, yeah, they fly. And, yes, they have big stalls on a big airplane.

CONAN: Do they get...

LAURA: All right. Thanks.

CONAN: Do they get - thank you, Laura. Do they get jetlag?

ROVNER: Yes, some of them do, actually. And there's a lot of - there's people who decide, you know, some horses, they want to take them just shortly before they're going to compete, and some horses they want to take them several weeks before they compete. There's people who, you know, who do this a lot, who seem to know their horses and, you know, whether their horses do better or worse. And I don't know whether it gets worse going east or west. I know for some people it gets worse going east or west. I have never flown a horse. That gets really pricey. I have never taken a horse more than overnight in a horse trailer.

CONAN: They, obviously, fly race horses back and forth, too, and...

ROVNER: Clearly, yeah.

CONAN: ...there's big disputes over whether you should bring them in early and get them accustomed, or...

ROVNER: Yeah, exactly. It's exactly the same thing. Horses are very much creatures of habit. I do - I can vouch for that, that they, you know, they know what time breakfast is. They know what time dinner is. And, boy, if, you know, if you leave them out in the pasture for an extra hour, they know it. They'll be standing at that gate saying, I want my dinner now.

CONAN: Yeah. I know a little bit more about horseracing. If you were looking for the center of the industry where a horse should really be bred, that's where you go. That's, of course, Kentucky. Is there a Kentucky for Olympic horses, or dressage and event horses?

ROVNER: Yes, and it's Wellington, Florida...


ROVNER: ...in the winter. I mean, it varies. Obviously, there's also in North Carolina. A lot of people go to North Carolina for the winter. A lot of other people go to Florida for the winter. Those are sort of the two main places. In dressage, it's mostly Wellington, Florida.

CONAN: And that's where the great horses are bred?

ROVNER: No. That's where the great horses show in the winter.


CONAN: Oh, I see, show in the winter. No, I meant go to Kentucky to - for the breeding. And so where are the great dressage horses bred?

ROVNER: Germany...



ROVNER: ...basically. And it's funny. You know, Germany has dominated dressage for so many years. And this year, it actually looks like it's the Dutch who - and the Brits who are going to battle it out for the gold medal. And yet they all - everyone is still sort of - now, everyone is sort of exporting German riders, German trainers and German horses. So it's - there are still a lot of Germans. They're just not all riding for Germany anymore.

CONAN: OK. Let's see if we get another caller in. This is Jennifer, Jennifer with us from Ann Arbor.

JENNIFER: Hi. I am watching - or should be watching, because I haven't actually watched it yet - Mary King, who is probably older than most of the other riders and maybe even older than most other Olympic athletes out there, and she is one of the top eventers, and her skills are just incredible. She has incredible horses. And I'm really looking forward to going home and calling up some online video. And I'll take my comments off the air.

CONAN: OK. Thanks very much for the call, Jennifer.

ROVNER: You know, Mary King is one of the British event riders. I actually think she's younger than Karen O'Connor, who's the oldest U.S. Olympian this year, at 54. I think Mary - I think I've actually did look this up. I think Mary King is 51. But, indeed, this is a year for older eventers. Mark Todd, who rode for New Zealand, I think, is 56 or 57. So Andrew Hoy on the Australian team is also - a lot of really very experienced event riders. And, boy, on that really tough cross-country course yesterday, you saw a lot of that experience. It was a very, very difficult course, and a lot of these riders in their 50s were making it look, if not easy, at least very doable.

And a lot of the younger, less experienced riders had an awful lot of trouble with it. So it's one of those sports - I mean, my hat is off to these guys who, you know, basically my age and a little bit older are still going around doing these maximum-sized courses. I'm jumping really small stuff these days. I don't bounce the way I used to.

CONAN: Our guest is NPR health policy correspondent and horse enthusiast Julie Rovner. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

Email from Margaret in Little Rock: You just compared the dressage routine to the school figures that used to be required in figure skating. Another parallel would be katas, the basic moves in Oriental martial arts. Non-horse people just don't realize that dressage is a martial art.

ROVNER: I've never heard dressage called a martial art, but I would not dispute that.

CONAN: Padma(ph) is on the line with us from Jacksonville.

PADMA: Hi. This is Padma. So exciting to talk to you, Neal.

CONAN: Oh, thank you.

PADMA: And so exciting to talk to Julie Rovner, as well. Quick question. My thing is, isn't this a painful thing for the horse? It's not a natural thing for the horses to be doing. So I just wanted to hear from Julie about that.

CONAN: Is it painful for the horse?

ROVNER: Not really.

PADMA: It's not fun.

ROVNER: It's a - you'd be surprised, but it's a relatively natural thing. Horses do something called free school, and particularly high-level dressage horses, if you turn them out in the field, they'll do some of these movements on their own. I mean, you actually can see them do - I had my own horse, who used to free school. I would turn them out when they would be closed in in the winter. We'd have a snowstorm or something and, you know, they couldn't go out in the field, so we would turn them out in the arena, and he would go around and do some of these movements himself because that's what he's basically been trained to do.

CONAN: A related question from email and Crispin in DeKalb, Illinois: We've heard many reports in the U.S. about how racing horses are mistreated. How are Olympic horses treated?

ROVNER: Well, part of the problem with racing horses, obviously, there's a lot more money in racing horses, and they are trained and run very young. I'm actually - I actually printed out the tests that the dressage horses will use, and it says minimum age is eight years. So you cannot even be in - you cannot do the Olympic test until a horse is eight years old as opposed to race horses, who are...

CONAN: Three - two or three.

ROVNER: Two. Two. Yeah, they start at two. So, I mean, that's one of the differences. There are certainly, you know, there have been cases. There's some controversy about some of the training method for dressage. There is definitely - there have been cases of mistreatment in jumping. There was some controversy about cross country some years ago, although some of that has been changed. They changed some of the rules now. Some of the big, solid jumps will come apart if the horse hits them there.

There were some really dreadful accidents involving, obviously, people like Christopher Reeve, but also some horses. So some of that's been changed. And now, if you fall off, you must retire. It used to be you could fall off and get back on. Now - and indeed if the horse slips and falls, that you must retire. So there have been some safety changes made. I won't say there's, you know, no mistreatment. Obviously, you know, there's animal cruelty in every, you know, everywhere and every sport. But it's not the kind of systemic problem that there is in horse racing.

CONAN: Stephen Colbert has been some fun with dressage as the Joe Six-Pack sport of the 2012 Olympics.

ROVNER: Oh, yes, he has.

CONAN: So there is a reputation of this as a very elite sport only for wealthy people. Obviously, the - Mrs. Romney owns a share of one of the great horses. They are a very wealthy family. I don't think very wealthy would describe a national health policy correspondent.

ROVNER: No. And that's, you know, the thing about the horse sports in the Olympics, in particular, you know, all of horses - sort of all of the horse sports in the Olympics are what they describe as a pyramid. And, you know, the very top horses, the horses that end up in the Olympics, are the very, very, very top of that pyramid. And it's supported by the people at the bottom who do the sport, you know, like me, who are not members of the one percent and who do it.

You don't have to be fabulously wealthy to ride dressage, and I think most of the people who ride dressage are not fabulously wealthy. But, yeah, at the very top of the sport, and probably to get to the Olympics, you probably do have to be fabulously wealthy and the people...

CONAN: Because that horse is going to cost seven figures.

ROVNER: Yeah, that horse is definitely worth seven figures. And all the Olympic horses are worth seven figures. And all the people who, you know, who end up at the Olympics pretty much have sponsors who helped them get there. That's how it happens. And, in fact, you know, one of the big sort of tragedies in the horse world right now, of this dressage competition, is that we are not going to see the best dressage horse in the world because he was sold out from under his rider on the Dutch team to ride around the German team, then the rider on the German team got sick. So we're not going to see the best horse in the world because he was separated from his rider, because that's what happens when you have a sponsor.

CONAN: Well, since we're not going to see that, what one thing are you going to DVR so you can make sure to see?

ROVNER: I want to see if Anky van Grunsven, who's the reigning Olympic champion and is going for her third consecutive gold medal in dressage, is going to do it. I obviously want to see Rafalca, the Romney's horse. But I also want to see the British dressage team, who I think is going to be really impressive this year.

CONAN: We'll end with this email for Darcy: I participated in the young rider's program in dressage. I miss it so much. I'm so excited to watch the dressage because my trainer's trainer, Tina Konyot, is on the team. I can't wait. I love how you can be in your 50s and still make an Olympic team. Julie, thanks very much. We'll be talking about very serious things when you're on the program next.



CONAN: NPR health policy correspondent Julie Rovner with us here in Studio 3A. Of course, she's a horse rider, owner and competitor. Tomorrow, historian John Dower on the events we choose to remember and what we forget. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.