The Equestrian Stars to Watch at the 2012 Summer Olympics in London

Karen O'Connor
Equestrian Karen O'Connor and her mount, Mr. Medicott, hope to win gold for the U.S. eventing team at the London Olympics.

For most Olympic athletes, the proverbial "carrot" at the end of the stick for all their years of training has been an Olympic medal. But for a group of about a dozen glossy-skinned, doe-eyed members of our elite U.S. team, win or lose, an actual crunchy carrot will do just fine, thank you.

Joining the 530 U.S. human athletes at this summer’s London Olympics will be the 13 mares, stallions and geldings that make up the equine segment of our crack U.S. team.

Horses compete in one of three disciplines at the games: dressage, which is like a combination of ballet and floor gymnastics; show jumping, in which the horses jump a set course of high fences at speed; and three-day eventing, in which the horses need to be able to “do it all” over the course of several days — a day of dressage competition, a day of show jumping and a day spent galloping cross-country while jumping over elaborate fixed obstacles, sometimes in and out of water.

As we prepare to settle in and watch some exciting Olympic competition over the next few weeks, here’s a preview of some interesting U.S. horse and rider pairings to root for in London in each of the three medal disciplines.

Age and Beauty

At 54, photogenic event rider Karen O’Connor is the oldest (or "most senior," as she prefers to put it) athlete on the U.S. Olympic team. The London Games will be the fifthand final Olympic outing for the Virginia native. She and her mount, the equally photogenic tall, dark and handsome Irish-bred gelding, Mr. Medicott, or “Mr. M,” as she affectionately calls him, will be tackling the daunting cross-country course at the 75-acre Greenwich Park along with the rest of the five-member U.S. eventing squad.

Eventer Boyd Martin of Pennsylvania and his mount, Otis Barbotiere, may also be an interesting pair to watch, simply because horse and rider share a common destiny. It’s no surprise that the French-bred Otis is competing at the Olympic Games, since his father is considered to be one of the leading sires of jumping horses in the world. Martin, in turn, has his own lineage to boast of. He may owe not only his Olympic destiny but perhaps his very existence to the games: His parents met at the 1968 Winter Olympics. That was where his father, an Australian cross-country skier, first romanced his mother, a U.S. speed skater.

In addition to the horses on course, Olympic officials say spectator interest will be piqued by the imaginatively designed cross-country obstacles that the competitors will be required to jump. Each jump on the course has been designed to tell something of the history of England. For example, since the cross-country course is located smack in the middle of where Greenwich Mean Time originates, and the 3.5-mile galloping track weaves back and forth across the prime meridian, one jump will feature 22 clocks, each set to the time of a major city in one of the 22 competing nations.

Competition for international event teams starts July 28.

Jumping Into the History Books

Reed Kessler and her mare Cylana
Reed Kessler and her mare, Cylana.

On the show jumping squad, New York-based rookie phenoms Reed Kessler and her mare, Cylana, are pushing boundaries of their own. Kessler, who turns 18 this month, is the youngest person to ever represent the United States in equestrian sports at the Olympics. Her partner, a 10-year-old Belgian Warmblood, is learning the ropes of top-flight international competition along with her owner. Despite their relative youth and inexperience, this extremely talented pairing seems to be taking everything in stride with an aplomb that rivals that of the most experienced competitors. They should be fun to watch as the show jumping competition gets under way on August 4.

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