Olympics will help raise profile of equestrianism, says Norfolk riding school

Three equestrian events will showcase the talents of the world's best horse riders and their trusty steeds at next year's Olympics. KATE SCOTTER finds out more.

Skill, grace, speed and prowess will capture the imagination of audiences from around the world at the capital's oldest royal park as 200 athletes compete in the sport of equestrian during the 2012 Games.

Equestrian sport can be traced back more than 2,000 years when the Greeks introduced dressage training to prepare their horses for war.

For the Olympic Games, the sport is split up into three different disciplines: dressage, eventing and jumping.

Dressage events will test the ability of horse and rider to display both athletic prowess and supreme elegance while jumping, the first of the equestrian disciplines to be introduced to the Olympic Games, will require horse and rider to navigate a short course with precision, speed and perfect technique.

Featuring dressage, cross-country and a dramatic jumping finale, the eventing competition at the London 2012 Games will offer an all-encompassing test of equestrian skill.

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All of the equestrian events will be held in the beautiful surroundings of Greenwich Park, which, dating back to 1433, is the oldest royal park in London and has been designated as a world heritage site.

Lucy Worsley, who together with Stuart Beckett runs Eden Meadows Riding School near Attleborough in Norfolk, said: 'Riders who are going to the Olympics next year have been building up to it since they were four or five years old and they have a partnership with their horse.

'It's an amazing sport to do. Horses are not a machine, they are living animals that do what they like when they like. We sit on them and pray they are going to behave themselves, it's pretty amazing.'

Equestrian is the only Olympic sport in which men and women compete against each other on equal terms. It is also the only one in which humans and animals compete together.

In modern dressage competitions, the horse and rider perform a series of movements known as a dressage test. The tests are performed in a 60 metre by 20 metre arena before a panel of seven judges, who award scores for individual movements and for the overall routine.

Meanwhile, the jumping competition is a tense, exciting test of skill, speed and power. Held in an arena around a short course containing 12 to 14 fences, the event requires huge reserves of boldness, accuracy and nerves of steel – from both the riders and their horses.

And in eventing, there are three distinct parts to the competition, testing every element of horsemanship. Dressage fills the first two days of the eventing competition, day three is given over to the cross-country test and day four is a grandstand finish with the jumping tests

As with all three equestrian disciplines on the Olympic programme, the competition features both individual and team events.

In the Paralympic Games, riders compete in para-equestrian dressage. Team GB is regarded as being one of the best in the world at both eventing and para-equestrian dressage, with the two sports winning 22 medals in Athens and Beijing between them.

In 2009, GB's eventing team gained a European champion and won the team title. Dressage won two medals and para-dressage a massive 10 medals including six individual titles and the team title.

'Dressage is like ballet on horseback,' said Miss Worsley, 34, who has been riding since she was three years old.

'I've been riding for 31 years and I can't do it. The horse is so powerful and the rider has to control all this power with the slightest touch. Meanwhile, the eventing takes a great deal of courage from the horse and an awful amount of experience and knowledge from the rider. It's amazing.'

In Norfolk, all eyes will be on North Elmham's Piggy French at next year's Olympic Games The international event rider is in the UK World Class Squad, was a member of the medal winning British European Championship team this year and a European silver medal winner in 2009.

The 31-year-old, whose real name is Georgina, has said that winning an Olympic gold for her country would be a 'dream come true' and to do that at London 2012 would make it 'even sweeter'.

The county's horse riding schools are also hoping the global sporting event will give the sport a boost.

'There's nothing like staying on home turf,' said Miss Worsley, who has run the Eden Meadows Riding School for five years and runs sessions for people with disabilities as well as those who are able bodied.

'The support of the public will help them and the increased profile will be very good for equestrianism full stop.

'Whenever there's an international championship, we always get an influx of people asking if they can try this and that. We teach anyone from six upwards, we've even had a 91-year-old come for a lesson. Anybody can do it, of any standard. I will teach anyone from beginner to advanced.

'It's really a bit of fun, relieves stress, is good exercise and you can come and have a chat. If you want to get more serious, you can.'

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