The Big Question: Samantha Weinberg puts the case for the sport where animals also compete...

From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine July/August 2012

It starts with a ballet on horseback: rider and horse as one, performing a dressage test of such elegance, beauty and precision as to put ice dancers to shame. It moves on to the cross-country phase in which the team—for horse and rider are a team in themselves, within the national team they may represent—hurtles over sturdy fences, made of timber, brush or stone, into water and over ditches. It requires a special combination of strength, athleticism, bravery and trust—horse in rider, rider in horse—to leap over a solid four-foot wall with a blind drop on the landing side. And it culminates in show-jumping. In a crowd-filled stadium, the pair negotiate a course of coloured jumps; one tiny mistake, a mis-flick of a hoof on a pole four foot high, and the efforts of the previous days are undone.

The whole three-day event is a triathlon requiring mental strength as well as physical, psychology as well as physiology. Last year, the New Zealand rider Mark Todd won his fourth Badminton Horse Trials (said to be the second-largest paid-entry sporting event in the world—after the Indianapolis 500). He was 55: not something the 53-year-old decathlete Daley Thompson could hope to replicate. This is a sport in which experience talks. Over years of training, horse and rider build a bond that sustains and protects them in situations that may well be life-threatening. The relationship celebrates the role that horses have played in human life across the millennia, in transport, agriculture and warfare. Pheidippides would not have collapsed on reaching Athens if he had had the benefit of four strong legs beneath him; Richard III might not have been killed had his cries for a horse been answered.

Equestrianism is not going to win medals for inclusivity: it takes deep pockets and many Barbours to train and maintain a string of eventers, and in not many arenas has the royal family produced a European gold-medallist (Princess Anne on Doublet, 1971) and a world champion (her daughter Zara Phillips on Toytown, 2006). But what other discipline involves such a testing combination of skill and stamina? In which other Olympic sport do the male and female of the species (and that’s the horses as well as their riders) compete on equal terms? Where else in London this summer will any animals, let alone these magnificent, shining, snorting beasts, appear as competitors?

The answer to all these questions is none and nowhere. It surely follows: equestrianism is the greatest sport.

What do you think is our best sport? Have your say by voting on our online poll. Read Patrick Barclay on football, Tanya Aldred on athletics, Dan Rosenheck on baseball and Sambit Bal on cricket

Samantha Weinberg is assistant editor of Intelligent Life

Photo Michael James O'Brien