Champions Are Horse Lovers, Too

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At the Olympic level, riders usually have access to many horses and may have their names linked to a number of equine partners during their competitive careers. It’s perhaps easy to get the impression that, to a top rider, a horse is a mere tool, used to achieve a goal and discarded if he doesn’t deliver.

Thirteen top riders–the members of the 2008 US Olympic eventing, dressage, and jumping teams–dispelled that notion at a series of press conferences held today in Hong Kong. Asked an innocuous question (“tell us about the horses you’ll be riding during these Games”), the riders responded with surprisingly heartfelt praise and appreciation for their mounts. The Hong Kong Olympics will be bittersweet swan songs for eventer Amy Tryon and dressage rider Debbie McDonald.

Tryon, who won team bronze in Athens 2004 aboard the Thoroughbred gelding Poggio II, said that the sixteen-year-old Poggio will be retiring from advanced-level competition after these Games. So will Brentina, the seventeen-year-old Hanoverian mare who’s been McDonald’s partner for fourteen years.

“It will be an emotional moment,” McDonald said, referring to Tuesday, August 19, when (assuming she qualifies by finishing fifteenth or better in the Grand Prix Special) she and Brentina will ride their signature Motown-themed freestyle in competition for the last time. But the most emotional rider of the day was eventer Karen O’Connor. She’s a three-time Olympian (1988, 1996, and 2000) with a team silver and a team bronze medal under her belt. Yet she became visibly emotional as she described the horsehair bracelet she’ll be wearing when she goes cross-country on Monday aboard Mandiba, a nine-year-old Irish Sport Horse gelding owned by Joan Goswell. The horsehair is “Teddy’s”–Theodore O’Connor, the “little eventer that could” pony who captured the hearts of both O’Connor and eventing enthusiasts everywhere, and who was humanely destroyed on May 28 after a freak accident at O’Connor’s barn in The Plains, VA

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