All this spectacle and symbolism will be the backdrop in two weeks for Olympic equestrian events, and Benson, 60, has been charged with designing a 3.5-mile obstacle course here for what she says is “the most dangerous sport in the Olympics”: Three-day eventing. Doing so in a 183-acre royal park that is also a World Heritage Site has involved finding ways to protect rare acid grasslands and the root spans of centuries-old trees from hundreds of hooves. It’s meant respecting the rights of dog walkers and cyclists, as well as working near Roman remains where Benson plans to build a particularly testing combination of jumps commonly called a “coffin.”
A big challenge, she said, is to create a course on the park’s precipitous slopes that will test the mettle of strong teams from countries such as the United States, Britain, Germany and New Zealand, without endangering horses and riders considered long shots .
It’s been a process of compromise and negotiation that not only exemplifies the difficulties of staging the Games in the heart of a vibrant capital city, but also reveals the complications of a sport in which the Olympic standard is not simply to be “faster, higher, stronger.”
In fact, Benson said last week, because of the hilly terrain here the Olympic fences won’t be as numerous, and some won’t be as big, as those top event horses face elsewhere.
“We’re way under the maximum,” the former international event rider said. Her course will be designed to find a true champion, but in comparison with the most demanding courses in the world — the Rolex Kentucky or Britain’s Badminton — she said, “We’ve had to back off a bit.”
Building a safer course
Three-day eventing dates from the days of the cavalry, when chargers were expected to perform on the parade ground as well as the battlefield. This exacting test of horse and horsemanship became an Olympic sport a century ago, and today is one of the rare contests in which women and men compete against one another.
During the first of the event’s three phases — dressage — judges score horses on their obedience and finesse in executing of a series of gymnastic movements in an arena.
The cross-country phase follows — a test of speed, endurance, courage and jumping ability over the kinds of fixed, solid fences, banks and ditches riders might encounter in the countryside. Horses earn penalty points for refusing to take a jump, for example, or dodging an obstacle, as well as for failing to finish the course within the allotted time.
A day after the grueling cross-country, show jumping proves the horse’s fitness and accuracy, but it isn’t intended to be the defining factor.