Nothing takes the edge off a dressage test like three days of jumping competition spanning some 35+ miles — which describes the format of the 1912 Stockholm Olympics.
That was the year eventing (or at least some vaguely related precursor to the modern version of the sport) was first introduced to the Games, joining a now-dusty roster of sports to include lawn tennis, tug-of-war and yachting. It was called “Military” and, as advertised, was open only to servicemen and army horses.
Twenty-seven riders representing seven countries took part in the event: Denmark, Germany, Sweden, France, Belgium, Great Britain and the U.S., with all the countries except Denmark fielding a full team of four riders.
All the components of modern three-day eventing — dressage, cross-country and show jumping — were intact. The order was just a little… different.
Day 1: the Endurance Test, consisting of a 50 km (31 mile) long-distance road ride at a speed of 230 meters per minute immediately followed by a 5 km (3 mile) cross-country course at a speed of 333 meters per minute.
The course was marked by red flags but — not surprisingly, considering the map below — three riders were eliminated for going off course. Only one rider exceeded the time limit (4 hours for endurance and 15 minutes for cross-country) on account of his watch being slow.
The cross-country obstacles were described as not difficult, consisting chiefly of fences, with or without ditches, and streams. Points were subtracted for refusals and falls of horse and/or rider.
The ground was hard and the weather was less than ideal, according to the IOC report: “The heat was oppressive and most of the competitors lost weight during the ride, some as much as 4 1/2 lbs., or more, while the saddles grew considerably heavier, by absorption of sweat from the horses.”
To mimic the weight of military field accouterments, the horses were required to carry a minimum of 80 kg (176 lbs.) during the jumping phases. A double bridle was required in all phases except steeplechase.
Day 2: Rest Day!
Day 3: Speed Test, held over a 3.5 km (2 mile) steeplechase course with 10 plain obstacles at a speed of 600 meters per minute.
There were 22 starters/Endurance Day survivors, most of whom made it around alright. According to the IOC report: “Of these, two rode the wrong way and retired, one of them, Lieutenant Lawrence (Great Britain) falling at a grass-covered ditch outside the course, the accident causing a slight concussion of the brain, from which the rider soon recovered, however.”
Day 4: the Jumping Test (“Prize Jumping”), which included 15 obstacles set to a maximum height of 1.3 meters (4’2″) and width of 3 meters (9’8″) wide.
Only two of the 19 starters had jumping penalties and 12 had time faults.
Day 5: the Dressage Test (“Prize Riding”).
From the IOC report: “With respect to the order in which the various tests should be executed, it was thought best to place the prize riding last, as the clearest obedience-test could thereby be obtained. A well-trained horse that has been severely taxed should, even after taking part in the previous tests, be able to do itself justice in the final one too.”
Riders were required to enter the ring at a gallop, halt/salute, and then use the next 10 minutes to demonstrate figures at the walk, trot and gallop at both “collected” and “fast” speeds. Extra points were awarded for riding with primarily one rein or performing advanced movements such as the Spanish walk, piaffe or passage.
Unlike the straight dressage competition, however, the eventing horses were not required to perform figure-eights, flying changes, or the jumping and obedience tests.
In the end Sweden took Team Gold, led by Individual Gold Medalist Lieutenant Axel Nordlander. Germany followed in Silver position and the U.S. claimed Bronze.
Check out the full 1912 IOC report here, and stay tuned for our next edition of “Weird But True Olympic Eventing History” in which the organizers decide to get rid of dressage completely! If only that one had stuck….