Courage, said Ernest Hemingway, is grace under pressure. I’ve never been entirely sure how that one works, but it sums up sport for all time: why we do it, why we watch it, why we are fascinated by it. The notion of courage is expressed in a million forms, for sport’s infinite variety is its greatest charm.
You can find it in the diver preparing to rip four-and-a-half somersaults off the 10m board. You can find it in a batsman needing four to win off the last ball. You can find it in the striker delicately lobbing the advancing keeper, in the winger handing off the tackler.
You can find it in the snooker player’s long pot, at championship point at Wimbledon, on the balance beam in gymnastics and in the final 385 yards of the marathon. Sport is an opportunity to savour your own courage and that of others. And the greatest opportunity of all comes in the sport of eventing.
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That’s because perhaps the greatest courage of all is to be found in trust: I can do this terrifying thing because I trust my partner. There are trust exercises that people perform in controlled circumstances: you let yourself fall backwards, eyes closed, trusting your partner to catch you. That’s not an easy thing to do.
All the harder, then, when your partner doesn’t even belong to the same species. In eventing you must put your trust in a horse. Not only that, the horse must put its trust in a human. Rider trusts horse to jump with full commitment, horse trusts rider not to ask an impossible question.
I know this because I’ve done it. I’ve done the sport at the lowest possible level – both literally and figuratively – and that has given me a pretty hefty clue about what is required from the horses and riders who take part in the elite division, when courage becomes a major issue. I know what it’s like when your horse is going so well that the difficult has become easy. I also know, with immense precision, what it’s like to get it wrong and hit the floor.
The event rider must perform the intricacies of dressage, which began as cavalry exercises to avoid the lances and sabres of the enemy, then ride across country over a series of fiendishly difficult jumps against the clock. Finally, on the last day of four, they must be stride-perfect in the art of showjumping with a weary horse that has given its all the previous day.
It’s a sport that tests absolutely everything. Colonel Frank Weldon, who used to run the Badminton Horse Trials, said that a Badminton horse – and rider – had to be jack of all trades and master of one: that being the central discipline of cross-country.
The sport demands extreme sporting courage. Women and men compete for the same prize. Favourites for this year’s event include Andrew Nicholson on Nereo, Michael Jung on La Biosthetique-Sam and Ros Canter with Allstar B. No one in the horsey world thinks that one sex has the monopoly in courage: the most successful Badminton rider is Lucinda Green, who won the damn thing a record six times.
If you seek the finest example of grace under pressure in sport, you could do a lot worse than starting with the great Lucinda.
The Badminton Horse Trials are on Sunday at 12:30pm, 5:30pm, on BBC2