Among the 50 riders from 23 nations that will compete for gold in London this week are ones from European countries with long-standing rivalries, such as Holland and Germany, where once in a while a horse will attract sell-out crowds.
There have been efforts to make dressage accessible to a broader audience since it became an Olympic sport in 1912 and only military officers could compete. In 1952, the rules changed to include civilian men and women. And in 1996, at the Atlanta Games, a crowd-pleaser was added, the Grand Prix Freestyle in which riders are allowed to choreograph elaborate moves to the music of their choice.
“It made a huge difference at a high level,” Nebesky says. “That is what Olympic dressage has done for the sport.”
Advice to newcomers
Rafalca, the warmblood mare part-owned by Mitt and Ann Romney, is scheduled to make its first appearance in the Olympic arena on Thursday. Does Nebesky have any advice to any newcomers to the sport, drawn in by the famous horse — or the comedy it inspired?
It helps to listen to the commentary, Nebesky says.
She remembers watching the diving at the Atlanta Olympic Games and the utter tedium of seeing competitor after competitor jump from the board and tumble and twist in virtually identical descents to the water until she began to learn from experts what to watch for.
Then she talks about ice dancing: “I don’t ice skate; I don’t know about the edges and blades and what makes this hard versus that. But I know when I watch good ice dancing. I know that some performers are simply more beautiful than others.”
Few people cared about ice dancing, she says, until they saw Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean.
Later, Nebesky points to a YouTube video that shows what she says is “dressage at its best!” It’s Dutch champion Edward Gal riding Totilas in the freestyle at the 2010 World Equestrian Games, where they waltzed away with gold (shortly before the horse was sold to a German stable).
The splendid black stallion sashays into the arena and prances through his gravity-defying paces. Gal doffs his top hat in delight. The stadium erupts, and orange-clad Dutch fans rise in astonished applause: How does he make the horse do that?
It boggles the mind.