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Viviane Pendleton

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How the 2016 Rio Olympic Games Got Eventing Right

Editor’s note: The finalists in the 6th annual EN Blogger Contest were asked to write a post-Olympic piece as their final entry in the contest, and now we are publishing each of their articles on the homepage before opening up voting for the winner. Thanks as always for reading, and please leave feedback in the comments section.

Photo by Shannon Brinkman. Photo by Shannon Brinkman.

Rio de Janeiro. 2016. The place where dreams were etched into reality, where hopes were crushed and where equestrian sporting history was written.

In recent times, there’s been a lot of discussion about the evolution of the sport. About how the loss of the old “endurance” phases, the A,B and C elements that comprised the roads and tracks and steeplechase, has placed more emphasis on a horse’s ability to perform well in the dressage and show jumping.

The results from Rio, though, don’t really corroborate this story. As horse after horse came under starter’s orders and set out across the country, one thing became very clear. The very best in the world were battling it out under the Brazilian sun to earn the coveted title of Olympic gold medalist, and their chances of success hinged not on the number of penalty points awarded them by a dressage ‎judge, nor by the coloured poles that they would knock to the ground, but by the challenges that lay between those coloured flags.

William Fox-Pitt and Chilli Morning, for example. A combination who have excelled over the biggest, most challenging tracks in the world, who have won at CCI4* level, an elite horse piloted by a rider contesting his fifth Olympic Games. A combination who should, in all likelihood, have triumphed there in Rio. As they fell foul of the Pierre Michelet-designed course, it was there for all to see; this would be no dressage competition.

And, in a way, I’m glad. I’m glad that the 2016 Olympic Games were a ‎test of what lies at the very heart of eventing, of the ability of both horse and rider to make split-second decisions out there on the cross country course, to dig deep and defy the odds, to give everything that they have to clear those rustic fences the first time round.

Rio, however, was no Barcelona. No opportunity for a rise like that of Blyth Tait, back in 1992, from 69th place after the dressage, to eventual bronze medal position. ‎No, Rio was an all-round test of horsemanship, across the three phases.

Just ask Mark Todd. Mark Todd! Let’s not forget that, among all of the legendary Kiwi’s incredible eventing successes, he has also quietly ridden for his country on two Olympic show jumping teams. This alone is a feat that would be lauded by anyone’s standards, but Toddy’s accomplishments in the show jumping ring shy away from the limelight, hiding in the shadow of his phenomenal eventing achievements. And yet. And yet. And yet this master of perfection still can’t take for granted his success in the final phase of eventing.

Nobody was more devastated than Sir Mark Todd when those four poles fell from under the hooves of the mighty Leonidas II on Tuesday. And there lay the magic of Rio. Disappointment? For the Kiwis, for the Brits, yes, certainly. But a cross country course that can catch the very very best in the world, a show jumping course where one of the brightest stars of eventing slipped, with his team, inexorably further and further from the medal that was so surely within his grasp … that’s sport. That’s eventing.

Viviane Pendelton believes that the number of horses that one owns should be equal to, or greater than, the number of horses that one owns. On that basis, shortly after Child 2 was born, Horse 2 also appeared on the scene. She has been lucky enough to compete Horse 1 at BE Intermediate and Horse 2 at BE Advanced level. Horses 1 and 2 live in trendy East London, whilst she and her husband (to date, still only one) live in more central Islington with Children 1 and 2. It’s a stone’s throw from the city of London, where they both work as lawyers for U.S. law firms.

[Viviane’s Round 2 Submission]

[Viviane’s Round 1 Submission]

Brexits and Drexits, Eventing and Equality

Editor’s note: We announced the 6 Finalists in the 6th annual EN Blogger Contest on Friday, and now it's time for round 2! For this phase, we asked the ambitious crew to answer the following question: "As eventing faces the very real possibility of making further changes to the sport's format to align with the Olympic 2020 Agenda, many have questioned whether the sport should remain in the Olympics at all. In your opinion, what is the value of the Olympic stage in eventing?" Thanks as always for reading, and please leave feedback in the comments section.

I’m British.  I come from a country that has extremely recent previous convictions for voting for the complete, wholesale removal of an entire country from an organisation that is deemed obsolete and dysfunctional.

“But we’re steeped in historical greatness”, the Eurosceptics will say, “We’re traditional.  We’re Great Britain, and we’re better off OUT.”

“You’re anachronistic,” the Euro-fans sigh.  “You’re out of date, and you don’t have an empire any more.”

Could the same be said of Eventing and the Olympic Games?  Is it it out of place in the modern world, this sport of ours that rose from the finest military traditions, that harks back to the days of cavalry and chargers, this sport of kings, that is so very much the preserve of the rich, and the well-heeled?  Well, yes, and, of course, no.  Very much no.  To start with, it’s not a black and white question.  I don’t propose, for one minute, that Eventing ought to be removed from the Olympics.  But there are, perhaps, certain areas that could be improved.  I am fairly sure that I would not, for example, be alone in voting for a “Drexit”; for a new, two-phase form of eventing in which Dressage was cut loose from Show Jumping and Cross Country, and left to fend for itself and negotiate its own trade treaties with China.

One of the most common criticisms levelled at Eventing is that it’s inaccessible.  It’s expensive, it’s time-consuming, it requires immense amounts of capital outlay.  It’s not possible for less-developed nations, or, indeed, the less wealthy residents of a developed nation, ever to get a look in.  And this much, I concede, is true.  It’s true up to a point, because of course, in a country where poverty is rife, where people struggle to afford basic health care and where economic development is next to non-existent, there isn’t the infrastructure or the knowledge to mean that eventing is a viable option.

But let me tell you something.  Sport is not a level playing field.  Ever.  Every single athlete at every single Games brings with them something that is unique.  If I were to say “Kenya”, for example, what would you think?  Long-distance running.  Success.  Medals.  Kenya boasts some of the world’s very finest runners, but that’s not to say that the 10,000 metres ought to be modified so that other nations have a greater chance of success.

Their circumstances, their genetics, the hand they were dealt at birth; all of these are wildly different, but one common thread unites everyone who will stand up and be counted within the bounds of those five Olympic rings, and that is the desire to be the best.  The courage and the sheer tenacity to stop at nothing to prove their skill, and to push themselves beyond all reasonable limits to perform above their wildest dreams on the day.  And eventers show these attributes in spades.  Isn’t that, then, what the Olympic Games are all about?  Aren’t they about celebrating and revelling in the multitude of talents that humankind possesses?  Why, then, why, should anyone seek to impose a false sense of homogeneity on these amazing individuals?  Why strive to make everyone the same and to say that we should somehow seek to moderate the impact that an athlete’s background, circumstances and nationality has on whether their sport should included.

Athletes represent their countries at the Games.  The good, the bad, the flaws, the faults, the amazing support that your country may provide, or the complete lack of opportunity that you resent every day as you slog against the odds to compete in a sport that barely exists in the land you come from.  It’s all there.  And it all comes together in a wonderful melting pot as the very finest in the world go head to head in their quest for the coveted gold medal.  How dull, then, to see a Games where sports would be included only if every participating country were able to provide equal opportunities in said sport to its nationals.

I don’t dispute that eventing is not, in many ways, an equal-opportunities sport.  But look closer: you’ll see a sport where women set out over exactly the same course as the men, where both genders compete on completely even terms, where one’s sex is irrelevant to the outcome of the competition.  You’ll see sport where the athletes have long, successful competitive careers; a sport where, at Greenwich in 2012, Belgium’s 58 year-old Carl Bouckaert trotted down the very same centre line as 21 year old Thai national Nina Ligon.  It may take with one hand, our “Equestrian Triathlon”, but it certainly gives with the other.

Equestrian Triathlon.  That’s the other side of this, isn’t it?  Whether Eventing, its name, its format, its whole being, makes for sufficiently exciting spectator viewing to merit its being an Olympic sport.  And I’m only semi-joking about the idea of a Drexit.  Because eventing isn’t really about the dressage.  It’s not really about the showjumping, either.  Eventing?  It’s about the cross-country.  It’s about the partnership, the trust, the hours and years of training.  It’s about the physical harmony between man (or woman) and horse.  It’s about the adrenalin that comes from thundering hooves on turf, it’s about sheer, raw guts and split-second reactions.  That’s exciting spectator viewing.  And that’s the role of eventing in the Olympics.


Viviane’s Biography:

I believe that the number of horses that one owns should be equal to, or greater than, the number of children that one owns. On that basis, shortly after Child 2 was born, Horse 2 also appeared on the scene.

I’ve been lucky enough to compete Horse 1 at BE Intermediate and Horse 2 at BE Advanced level. Horses 1 and 2 live in trendy East London, whilst husband (to date, still only one) and I live in more central Islington with Children 1 and 2. It’s a stone’s throw from the City of London, where we both work as lawyers for US law firms.

[Viviane’s Round 1 Submission]

The Horse I Bought

Editor’s note: We announced the 13 finalists in the 6th annual EN Blogger Contest last week, and now we’re bringing you their first round entries here on Bloggers Row. Each entry will be presented unedited for fairness’ sake. Thanks as always for reading, and please leave feedback in the comments section.

Wolf

It happens to even the very top riders. It happened to Mary King, after all. I think it may have happened to Aoife Clarke. Quite possibly Oliver Townend, though I am not sure about that. And those are just the ones we know about – the ones who are sufficiently high profile to command media attention.  Being given cards at FEI events.  Being “spoken to”. Having concerns expressed. Concerns about safety, about lack of control.  There is a long list of riders who are far better than I will ever be and who have received a ticking off in this regard.

What I am less certain of, though, is whether it has ever happened to anyone IN THE BLOODY DRESSAGE PHASE. I wasn’t riding too fast to a fence, I didn’t jump anything from a standstill, I quite simply trotted in at A and proceeded to vigorously ride my horse round FEI CIC** Test A. 

Is he always like this, the judge had asked, and I’d nodded in assent. Would I be safe to jump, she’d queried, and I’d smiled and said I certainly hoped so. She was concerned, she’d said, she thought I didn’t have enough control. 

I didn’t contradict her, for what could I say? How could I begin to explain to her that I don’t exist in this world, not really. That CIC two-stars and polished dressage tests are not my norm, that to me the dressage score is meaningless; it’s a number that must be ascribed to me before I am allowed to jump. How could I tell her that last year, I’d gone out, and I’d bought a horse.

And I bought not a horse with whom I harboured aspirations of greatness, not a horse on whom I’d hoped for placings and rosettes, but a horse who gives pony rides to my 18-month old son. A horse who makes my three year old daughter squeal in delight as he gently snuffles carrots from eager outstretched little hands. A horse who I will ride down to the very biggest of fences; a horse who will move heaven and earth to bring me home safely through the finish flags. That’s the horse I bought. And I’d buy him again in a heartbeat. 

So although my supporters will do their best to console me by telling me that I “can’t possibly be as bad as all that” or that “I should have more confidence in myself”, this time, their words would fall on deaf ears.  Because here I was, standing in the middle of a field in Somerset, being told just exactly how bad I was, by none other than the first woman to have represented GB on an Olympic eventing team, multiple four-star winner and former president of British Eventing, Jane Holderness-Roddam.

Understandably, I was looking forward to leaving the event for the night, to getting some sleep, and to coming back to do a bit better the following day. Which was inconvenient, in light of the fact that my Chelsea Tractor, alerted in all likelihood by Jane Holderness-Roddam to my ineptitude and inability to control or steer when moving at speed, took its survival into its own hands and refused to start.

Undeterred, I flagged down an unsuspecting 4×4, proffered my jump leads expectantly and politely invited them to help me to jump start my car.  And, as I gaily brandished live jump leads surging with power from the Chelsea Tractor’s 12-volt battery, I couldn’t help but think that, should Jane Holderness Roddam have taken it upon herself to appear at that very moment and worriedly voice her concerns for my safety, then frankly, I’d have been forced to agree with her. 

We walk the same path, we event riders. Some paths are narrower, some are wider, but underneath all of our paths, lies the same thing. The Chasm of Doom. The demons. And here’s the annoying thing about the Chasm of Doom; it’s real. Nobody falls into the Chasm of Doom when they win. Nobody falls in as a result of a clear round. We fall into the Chasm of Doom because our path crumbles, because we meet insurmountable obstacles and because something has gone wrong.  

As I drove back to Nunney the following day, I saw my path crumbling. I quietly told my husband that I wanted to go home, I didn’t want to jump. I didn’t want the pressure of being watched by the ground jury and found wanting.  If the showjumping did all go wrong, for example, what then? Would I be publicly hung from the trakehner with my own jump leads by Jane Holderness-Roddam?