Helen Martin: Equestrians deserve true sporting chance

Nick Skeltons achievement at this years Olympics deserve the widest recognition. Picture: Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images
Nick Skeltons achievement at this years Olympics deserve the widest recognition. Picture: Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images
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THE sporting awards season is looming, and one thing I’m sure of is that apart from racing jockeys, equestrians will, as usual, be under-recognised.

As a horsey person I’m enraged when dressage is referred to as “horse dancing”, even by general “sports” commentators who might be well-informed about football, running, cycling, golf and shot-putting among other human-only sports, but are ignorant about equestrianism.

It seems they think of a horse as a vehicle . . . buy a good jumper and you’ll win the puissance; hop on a well-trained dressage mount and the only talent you’ll need is looking good in a top hat.

Well, let’s take running, cycling and swimming for example . . . all things that everyone, unless disabled, can do. Admittedly stars of these sports far exceed normal, human abilities and train tirelessly to build the necessary physique and musculature, plus having the ambition and drive for personal glory.

Football (something that almost every boy in the world and many girls have played) also produces star players who take it to super-human levels. They have the additional task of working as a team with ten other players and having only split seconds and instinct to make crucial decisions.

Fair play to them all. But they only have to concentrate on their own performance and sometimes that of other humans.

Show jumping and dressage does not only happen in the ring. Horses and riders train and work together, often for years, developing trust, communication and understanding in an extraordinary inter-species partnership. One is entirely dependent on the other. In show jumping that means having faith in your partner to fly over a jump that’s seven feet tall or wide and doing everything you can to help them do so, despite incredibly tight turns and rapid successions.

In dressage particularly, both horse and human are using almost every muscle in the body. The slightest shift in weight, flex of the shoulder, tightening of the fingers, turn of the neck, direction of sight, or pressure of the leg is part of the “conversation”. Horses are not bikes or F1 cars. They have individual personalities, quirks, moods, good days and bad days, just like their rider. But they are also athletes in their own right.

It’s many years since I did dressage, only at beginner level. Even then it was exhausting, and required massage and long baths to ease the aches. And I realised telepathy, body language and communicated positivity all played a part.

It’s certainly not about merely sitting astride a good horse and collecting medals, or having responsibility only for yourself and your own achievements. Count the skills required.

One person who should definitely feature in the various sports awards this year is 58-year-old showjumper Nick Skelton, who won gold in this year’s Olympics on 13-year-old Big Star. Nick had recovered from a near fatal accident in 2000 and went through a hip replacement in 2011! He’s Britain’s oldest gold medallist since 1908 and the second oldest of all time. He holds the British puissance (high jump) record of seven feet and seven inches and over his four decade career he has won over £6 million.

No sports star deserves an award more than Skelton.

As litter louts, we’re going down the pan

HOW age puts things in perspective. Bum-cleaning wet wipes, which claim to be flushable, are among several things being blamed for blocking drains and polluting our waters because they don’t disintegrate like toilet paper.

Not only do I remember as a child the days of Izal (scratchy, hard paper before soft bog rolls were invented) but I remember my great aunts whose indoor toilet facilities included cut up squares of The Scotsman and Evening News, diligently pierced with a huge darning needle and string to be hung on the lavvie door. How on earth did the drains cope then?

Now we have a whole range of personal and sanitary items that people are guilty of flushing away rather than binning or, as happened in the old days, throwing on the family fire . . . squeamish, careless, lazy, litter louts that we are.

Zero Tolerance must apply equally

MORAY Women’s Aid has backed out of the Scottish Women’s Aid Network because of SWA’s women-only membership policy. Moray has appointed a man (who served for eight years on its committee) to its board and is standing by his right to serve.

It reminds me of an early brain-storming meeting for Edinburgh’s Zero Tolerance campaign on domestic violence set up in 1992 by the late – and very inspiring – Evelyn Gillan. I was there, representing the Evening News. But when I asked why no men were present, why the campaign wasn’t inclusive of violence against men, and why it wasn’t geared at getting men onside rather than shutting them out, no-one had a satisfactory answer and I never went back.

Today almost one in five victims of domestic violence is a man. Perhaps it’s now time to ramp it up to a 100 per cent Zero Tolerance campaign rather than one based on the welfare of only half the population.

Drink? Think inside the box

THE skint NHS wants staff and carers to spy on and quiz patients and clients to find out how much they drink. Cheaper option – ask the bin men who collect the blue boxes. They know everything.