Karen O'Connor

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 fifth and 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

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.

Dressage: From the Big Top to the Big Time

In the formal world of dressage, which is often described as "horse ballet," seasoned U.S. dressage team rider Tina Konyot has unlikely but relevant riding roots. She is descended from a family of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus horse trainers and performers who helped bring dressage to the United States as a training system from Europe. She and the elegant Calecto V, the big, black stallion that she owns, will be wowing crowds as they piaffe (a sort of trot in place) and pirouette around the dressage arena in hopes of bringing home an Olympic medal for the U.S.

Jan Ebeling riding Rafalca

While Olympic equestrian athletes don’t usually get as much media attention as unbelievably fast human sprinters or dolphin-like swimmers with abs of steel, that trend has been bucked recently by Konyot’s teammate Jan Ebeling and his ride, Rafalca. That’s because the talented Rafalca is part owned by Ann Romney, wife of presumptive GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney. This pretty bay mare has been a media darling in the weeks leading up to the Olympics. Political satirist Stephen Colbert has made Rafalca’s Olympic quest a frequent and amusing feature on his nightly Colbert Report. As a result, we just might see a dressage horse get as much on-air ogling as Michael Phelps when Rafalca struts her stuff in Olympic Stadium.

Olympic team and individual dressage starts August 2.

Pampered Athletes

The foremost concern for all the horses on the U.S. team, however, is that they arrive safely at the Olympic venue and stay happy, healthy and sound during the competition. Ensuring that that’s the case is the job of a large team of veterinarians and support staff who have traveled to London with the horses.

Dr. Brendan Furlong, whose practice is based in Oldwick, N.J., is team veterinarian for the eventing squad. Throughout the spring, he has been keeping tabs on the horses that he knew he would likely be in charge of in London. As a result, “I’ve gotten to know all the horses very well,” Dr. Furlong says. “I’ve learned their likes and dislikes.” That knowledge will be critical in helping the riders keep their horses in tiptop shape during the competition. “Once we are in the venue, we have a full medical, surgical and diagnostic facility at our disposal,” Dr. Furlong says. It’s reassuring to know that if something should go wrong, “We can take care of pretty much anything. We will have the best technology and the best veterinarians on hand,” he adds. While the team vets are responsible for the horses on their team, the Olympic medical facility will be staffed with some of the world’s leading equine veterinarians. They will be standing by to help any animal that needs it, regardless of country. And thanks to generous donations from U.S. veterinary companies, Dr. Furlong says, the teams are well equipped to meet any health need. “We can pamper these horses for the duration of their stay here.”

One of the things Dr. Furlong is particularly glad about is the climate and the footing, which has been getting good reports. A veteran of several Olympics, he says unlike past games in Atlanta and Beijing, “The climate is very favorable. There’s no heat. These conditions are thankfully very horse friendly.”

For more information on the horses and riders competing on the U.S. teams, including streaming video once the Olympics get under way, go to the U.S. Equestrian Federation website. 

Cool Facts About Horses at the Olympics

  • Horses who are international travelers have their own equine version of a passport, which is issued by the International Equestrian Federation, or Federation Equestre Internationale, based in Switzerland.
  • Surprisingly, traveling by air is easier for many horses than land travel because they don’t have to deal with things like traffic and stoplights. Event team veterinarian Dr. Brendan Furlong says, “They munch their hay while airborne and typically have a good time!”
  • The Olympic motto is the Latin phrase "Citius, Altius, Fortius," which means "Faster, Higher, Stronger." It might just as well have been penned with horse athletes in mind!

Check out more Vetstreet-exclusive coverage of the 2012 Summer Olympics in London.