“The road was new to me, as roads always are, going back.” - Sarah Orne Jewett
Friday was the opening ceremony of the 6th World Equestrian Games in Lexington, Kentucky. Held for the first time on non-European soil the 2010 Games will be an exceptional event, I have no doubt. I should know, having been to the WEG several times before as a competitor. The excitement, the cheering crowds, the competition, the parties, friends, fellow coaches and the amazing performances are something I will never forget. For a vaulting coach, the games are like the Olympics; several equestrian disciplines coming together, your country uniting with their horses to fight for the medals, the titles, the fame.
Twenty years ago it was at the first WEG in 1990 in Stockholm that I ever had the opportunity to walk on a real cross country jumping course. The obstacles were massive, impressive and watching the horses clear the same jumps the next day was unforgettable. Later, I snuck off for a few hours to watch my fellow countryman, Kyra Kyrklund ,win the silver medal with her famous stallion Matador. My team placed 10th in their first ever international competition. I was 22 and hooked for life, I thought. I went on to participate in the WEG in 1994 in Den Hague and 1998 in Rome. In 2002 my team didn’t qualify for the games (we came in second in the USA trials) and I was sad not to be part of the experience in Spain. I swore to return in 2006 Aachen.
And I did, but this time as a spectator. Life had taken a few turns and I had retired from coaching vaulting on an international level. Perhaps because I was no longer on the inside, but rather watching everything from a distance, the WEG in Aachen was a different experience, unearthing emotions I had not known existed. Surrounded by people I had known for years, some even decades, people who willingly gave me their extra tickets to the compulsory round or who snuck me into the warm up area to talk to fellow coaches I felt oddly estranged, almost perplexed as if I had been sent to a foreign land to observe something previously concealed.
And then there was the dressage. I had a ticket to the finals and for a good part of the Grand Prix Freestyles I sat in the stands, watching ride after ride, feeling untouched, uninterested. When there were only five riders left to go, the crème de la crème, the top five dressage masters of the world, I walked out of the stadium in search of something else, something more real. I honestly can’t say I was on the Path then, but perhaps the Path was already in me, creeping closer to my consciousness.
I found myself standing by the warm up arena. No longer was I far away from the action, watching a horse performing from fifty yards away, but I was right there, so close I could have touched the animals as they passaged down the long side. And suddenly all the glory of the sport was gone and all that was left was the ugly truth. The foaming mouths, the dripping sweat, the spurs digging into the flesh, the sounds of the struggle; it was all something you don’t see or hear from the stands of the stadium. With a tightening stomach I watched as the world-champion-to-be rode her horse in violent rollkur for a full thirty minutes.
That was four years ago. Four long years that have transformed my humanity. The WEG in Kentucky has started without me. But I’m not going to lie; a part of me misses the excitement of being part of something so amazing as the World Equestrian Games. I will never forget the feeling I had performing in front of all thousands of people, the media, the world. Nothing quite compares to the buzz surrounding the Games. It is about so much more than just the horses.
But that is exactly the point. Equestrian competitions are about so much more than just the horses. Mostly they are about people wanting to test their skill against the rest of the world. Nobody ever asked a horse if he wanted to compete, I certainly didn’t. Horses are not goal-oriented and competitive like we are, what right do we even have to use them as a means to gain something we want?
Last spring I came across a petition on the internet that rattled my cage. It is a petition set up by the Nevzorov Haute Ecole to ban all equestrian sports. That’s right, ALL equestrian sports. No more dressage, jumping, racing, vaulting, roping, driving – any competition with a horse would be illegal. Can you imagine that?
How bold, how daring – how absolutely ingenious.
Our current society is all about measuring competence, about proving personal excellence and the horse world is no different. Competition paves the road for breeding and training, it motivates the average riding school rider, it affects the daily lives of so many people and horses. Wouldn’t so many people just say: What is the point to be with horses if you can’t compete with them? Would these same people label their horses “useless” and send them to slaughter? Because let’s face it, there are people who would no longer be interested in riding, if they didn’t have the option to compete. Surely the racing industry would literally just fall to pieces. Not to mention all the associations and federations set up to support Olympic and other sports. Entire careers would be ruined. All the money, advertizing, training, careers, glory – gone. It would surely be disastrous.
I went to look at the petition and was shaken by my own feelings towards it. I wanted to sign it, but was torn. It was another one of those moments when I realized how far I have come in a relatively short time. How could I, a former international competitor and coach, want to ban all equestrian sports? I do, after all, still know a bunch of people who are competing as we speak.
But this is not about other people, is it? It shouldn’t be. It should be about me and my personal conviction. And we all need to make the decision for ourselves, nobody else. Someone is riding in a bit, another chooses to ride bitless, and then there are those who have given up riding altogether; we are all finding the best way for ourselves to be with the horse. I can’t pass judgment on anyone else but myself; I only have to live with my own decision.
When I stared at the petition, I realized the enormity of the equestrian world. There are so many ways to be with a horse, many of which involve exploiting the animal. To think of stopping all competition is completely insane, a utopia of sorts. But, I have to admit that it does make you wonder what it would change. Would it change the lives of our horses to the better? Would it change us to the better?
After thinking about the petition for several days, I went back to sign it. I was number 798 to sign. This petition may not make much of a difference, but I wanted to put my name on it for myself and myself only. And yes, I will probably feel like a hypocrite next week when the world’s best vaulters compete in Kentucky and I feel inclined to check on the results. People I know and even people I once coached are still participating. These are all people going for the gold, following a dream I once was part of. I wish them luck, I hope for them to catch what they are chasing.
In the meanwhile I wrestle with my own demons; my past, my future. I am evolving, but it seems impossible to predict at what speed.
“There are very few human beings who receive the truth, complete and staggering, by instant illumination. Most of them acquire it fragment by fragment, on a small scale, by successive developments, cellularly, like a laborious mosaic. – Anaïs Nin
If you are interested in the above mentioned petition, go to http://www.gopetition.com/petitions/against-equestrian-sport.html