What the Olympics do to us

They make us care about odd things like gymnastics, or Belgians. Suddenly I’m all about horses

Suddenly I’m all about horses

Shutterstock; Getty Images; Photo Illustration by Taylor Shute

It’s early—like, 5:30-in-the-morning early. I’m sitting in front of TV coverage of the Summer Games, watching horses jump over fences and rails. Why am I watching horses jump over fences and rails? I’m not sure. To this point in my life, I’ve had no enthusiasm for horses and only a passing interest in poles. Yet I can’t pull myself away. Worse, when one horse knocked down a rail just now, I’m pretty sure I made an actual noise of shock.

Show jumping is apparently the third and final element of a multi-day equestrian competition known as “team eventing.” (FYI, equestrian is the only Olympic discipline to include non-humans because the IOC is too stodgy to embrace my vision for otter hurling.) I found the horses way up the dial on something called OLN, a network whose motto should be, “We do too exist.” The commentators were promising plenty of pulse-pounding excitement. “These rails come down if you just breathe on them!” Nancy said to Kara. “You’ve got it, Nancy,” Kara agreed.

I’d first been drawn to equestrian a day earlier when the main Olympic anchors on CTV announced that a horse along the cross-country course had thrown its rider and bolted off into the distance. There was a horse on the loose, people! The CTV people acted like this was no big deal, but I could only imagine the possibilities. Think of it: the horse could escape the park! It could gallop into central London and begin a fulfilling career giving carriage rides! Or it could get caught! (It got caught.)

Back at show jumping, a U.S. rider is approaching a series of jumps designed to resemble Stonehenge. “Look at the expression on this horse—just wonderful!” Nancy says. For the record, the expression on the face of this horse is one that I would describe as: horse face. “I think he enjoys show jumping,” Kara says. How can she tell? Kara doesn’t say. She also doesn’t explain why this particular horse is wearing a tiny hat. Confusing sport.

Ninety minutes go by. I’m watching different horses jump over the same fences. Why am I watching this? I can’t stop watching this. Also, I now want a pony.

The Olympics do this. They draw us in. We find ourselves caring about things we never thought we’d care about, like gymnastics or Belgians. We sit down for 15 minutes and get up after four hours, knowing more about cycling than we ever thought we’d know, or wanted to know, or would like to retain. The moment means so much to the competitors that it scarcely matters that their sport means nothing to us.

The British rider Zara Phillips begins the course on her mount, High Kingdom. Phillips is a granddaughter of the Queen, which means she’s under a glare of scrutiny and also that she’s allowed to use her bare hands to kill up to three rivals (horse or rider) without legal consequence. As Phillips concludes the circuit—her horse having knocked down a single rail—we are treated to a cutaway shot of royals. Camilla is clapping. William and Kate and Harry are clapping. Princess Anne, Zara’s mom, is staring ahead sternly, her hands clasped. Frankly, it’s a shame to see this kind of severe Olympic parenting being wasted on a daughter who is not 15 and a gymnast.

Meanwhile, the commentators are being pretty hard on some of the four-legged Olympians. “This horse does not really respect these poles,” Nancy says at one point. “He’s not making a very big effort.” Another horse earns a scolding: “He really did just leave that right front leg behind.” A day earlier, these same commentators had emphasized that although horses were important to the sport of show jumping, they weren’t getting over these jumps alone—the human role was crucial. A counterpoint is expected as soon as evolution confers on horses the power of eye rolling.

Still, the equestrian experience made me regret having missed the first element of the competition—dressage. I have no idea what dressage is. I could look it up online but I’d rather imagine it as a cross between a dog show and an episode of Big Brother. If it’s not that, then it should be that because that would totally be worth watching.

In the end, the group of German riders is awarded the gold in team eventing. Nancy and Kara tell us not to go away. The individual show jumping competition is coming up next. The same horses and same riders jumping over different fences? I’ll be watching.

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