In Good Conscience

Women's unique rapport with equine ballet partners

One of the things that women often do better than men is ride horses in the competitive arena.

I can appreciate that this might seem underwhelming to many Singaporeans. But bear with me because at the height of the Rio Olympics, and now at the year's end, two female equestrians have shown us how to treat the twin impostors of victory and defeat with grace and compassion as they put the horses before themselves.

Just moments after entering the Olympic dressage ring, the Dutch rider Adelinde Cornelissen felt that her horse Parzival, with whom she had shared half her lifetime, was weakened by a virus.

"I felt he was giving his utmost and being the fighter he is, he never gives up," Cornelissen said. "But to protect him, I gave up. He's my buddy, my friend, the horse that has given everything for me his whole life, and he did not deserve this.

"I saluted, and left the arena."

Britain’s Charlotte Dujardin celebrates with her horse Valegro in 2014. While the gelding is to retire, Dujardin has said she will be photographed in her wedding dress on the horse before she walks down the aisle next year. PHOTO: REUTERS

On the morning before the event, she had gone to the stables at 6am and found her 19-year-old horse in distress. The side of his face was swollen. He had been kicking against the stall. His body temperature was dangerously high.

The vets found that his system was full of toxins, and surmised that the horse must have been bitten by a mosquito, a spider, or a rodent.

The animal was given fluids for nine hours. He seemed strong, he was willing, and the Netherlands team had no reserve horse or rider. Cornelissen talked to every specialist she could find. She slept in the stable with Parzival overnight, and, finding him well the following morning, agreed to give it a go.

Seconds into their routine, she felt the strength wasn't in him. She saluted, and left.

I wonder (and I seriously doubt) whether most competitive male riders I have known would have been that sensitive, that caring to the horse, under pressure not to "let the side down".

Empathy between a horse and a rider is evident as the two strive for perfect harmony. Over the jumps, and particularly in the cavalry-inspired, cross-country discipline of eventing, only fools would presume that women are less brave or not as bold in the saddle than men.

Men and women are equal in the saddle in equine sports. Dressage, often described as horse dancing and occasionally as equine ballet, is the hardest discipline for many of us to comprehend.

Empathy between a horse and a rider is evident as the two strive for perfect harmony. Over the jumps, and particularly in the cavalry-inspired, cross-country discipline of eventing, only fools would presume that women are less brave or not as bold in the saddle than men.

Somehow in dressage, coaxing or guiding the horse through the lightest touch on the reins to trot, to change his leading foot, to cross his fore and his hind legs to the beat of the music, is beyond the ability of most of us to see, never mind to judge.

Cornelissen and Parzival were the second-best combination in dressage at the London 2012 Games. They were beaten by British rider Charlotte Dujardin mounted on Valegro.

Now there, even to the untrained eye, was near perfection. No partnership has bettered the 94.3 per cent score that Dujardin and Valegro achieved together at Olympia in London on Dec 16, 2014.

And no pairing had beaten them in competition at 10 events, including two Olympic Games, since 2011. The remarkable rapport between woman and horse became almost immediately apparent when Dujardin (not, incidentally, from wealthy stock) was first taken on by leading British rider Carl Hester as a groom.

Her job was to help bring on Valegro, a 16.2 hands high (1.68m) dark bay gelding that Hester had found in the Netherlands. Dujardin was literally hired to groom the horse for Hester to ride in competition eventually.

Instead, her boss saw the connection between his horse and the groom. He is now 49, and still competitive enough to have won this week's big dressage event at Olympia in London. Hester speaks without a trace of envy about his horse and his one-time pupil.

"Not once have I wished it was me," he says. "Like everyone else, I love watching him. I picked him and watched him grow like a child (in the care of Dujardin). He's been a top horse every day of his life since he was four years old.

"He has a presence you can't really explain." But you can appreciate it on the BBC or YouTube.

The plan now is to retire Valegro at the top. Not to offload him, because Hester says he will stay at the stables, and will do what he, apparently like every other horse really loves most, which is to chew the grass.

"He's been judged enough in his life," concludes Hester. "I talked with Charlotte, and it was her decision in the end. He's fit and healthy, we feel enough is enough and this way we'll both get to enjoy riding him - if Charlotte lets me."

Other than that, Hester and Dujardin, now 31, will compete on other horses.

"There'll never be another to replace Valegro," says Dujardin, who is to marry fiance Dean Golding next year. "He's my best friend, my horse of a lifetime, and I love him more than words can say."

Love, and trust. Those words, we see thousands of times at pony club level in the United Kingdom and Ireland where girls, particularly, do shine where it comes to caring for, and showing the balance of discipline and empathy with their four-legged friends.

Dujardin, who has ridden since she was two years old - and whose mother bought and sold ponies to pay for her two daughters' obsessive love of competitive horse riding - is on a new challenge now.

Her mentor, and competitive opponent, Hester says: "She actually hasn't experienced the highs and lows like the rest of us have."

There are four other horses she might take forward to the Tokyo Olympics in 2020. Perhaps the best of them is an eight-year-old Hanoverian (German) mare, Freestyle.

Meantime, the Dutch rider Cornelissen ponders the right time and event to retire Parzival.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 17, 2016, with the headline 'Women's unique rapport with equine ballet partners'. Print Edition | Subscribe