I’ve been watching a lot of Olympic coverage this past week: not just the mainstream events that are shown during primetime but also more obscure events you can live-stream online. I love watching equestrian competitions, so I’ve set an alert on my tablet that lets me know when those events are live, and I watch them with the sound muted while I work on other things.
I could spend hours watching Olympic jumping: it’s soothing to watch large, powerful creatures fly over fences. When I was a horse-crazy kid living in a central Ohio neighborhood far from any farms, I loved the classic movie National Velvet, in which a young Elizabeth Taylor dresses as a boy to compete in the Grand National steeplechase, and International Velvet, a modern sequel in which Tatum O’Neal plays a girl who competes in the Olympics.
Although I don’t remember much of the plot of either movie, the fact that they both centered around horses and horse-crazy girls was enough to grab my attention. In addition to a huge collection of model horses, as a child I had a Barbie-sized International Velvet doll that came dressed in a riding outfit complete with riding boots and helmet, and I would play with that doll for hours, imagining what it was like to soar over fences. As a city girl without a horse of my own, I relied upon books, movies, and toys to quench my horse-hungry appetite, and watching Olympic equestrian events as a grown-up also serves to scratch that long-dormant itch.
In addition to show jumping, I’ve been watching a lot of Olympic dressage competitions. Folks with an untrained eye often dismiss dressage as “horse dancing” as riders guide their horses through a set routine of carefully orchestrated gaits. When I was a kid, however, I read Marguerite Henry’s White Stallion of Lipizza, in which a boy spends months as an apprentice at the famous Spanish Riding School with their world-renowned royal Lipizzan stallions, and that book taught me how much training both horse and rider undergo to master the moves of classical dressage.
The royal Lipizzan stallions perform jumps and kicks known as “airs above ground,” but Olympic dressage doesn’t involve that kind of acrobatics. Instead, Olympic dressage horses move through a routine of artificial gaits such as the piaffe, which is a prancing trot where the horse pauses in each step, and the flying change, where the horse alternates his lead hoof while cantering. Whenever I watch riders guide their horses through these or other meticulous moves, I have a single question in mind: How do you get a horse to do that? A good dressage horse looks simultaneously energetic and collected, like a wound spring, and a good dressage rider stays calm and focused, sitting upright and still in the saddle as she guides her mount through his paces without any visible cues.
Sometimes when I’m meditating, I imagine myself astride the powerful dressage horse of my own mind, my cushion like a saddle. A seasoned equestrian knows you mustn’t crush your horse’s spirit: a well-trained horse is alert and engaged, marshaling its energy in calm abeyance. When you watch an Olympic jumper or dressage horse, you’re watching a powerful creature that is contained by concentration, his rider literally reining in any exuberance while spurring on an alert and active demeanor. When you watch your mind in meditation, you hold its wandering exuberance in check with the rein of your own breath: easy now, boy. Stay with me, calm and collected.
I shot all of today’s photos from the livestream of Olympic coverage I’ve been watching on my tablet: a blatant violation of broadcast copyright.