Many Olympians rely on other athletes for their success. In basketball, soccer, volleyball, water polo, crew and relays, you need teammates or partners competing at their mental and physical peak for any hope of winning a medal.
But at least those teammates are human. Having a horse for an Olympic partner is somewhat more involved. As show-jumper Beezie Madden says, "You can't tell the horses, 'The Olympic Games are in early August and you have to be ready.'"
To really appreciate this, consider the story of Authentic and the Stomachache from the 2004 Athens Olympics.
Having ridden almost her entire life, Madden finally reached the Olympics at age 39 in 2004. The week of competition, her horse, Authentic, came down with a stomachache. A stomachache isn't a big deal for a human, but it is very serious for a horse.
"Horses can't throw up," said Beezie's husband, John Madden (no relation to the famed NFL commentator). "He's got a stomachache, so that means it goes to their intestines, and then their intestines can twist up and they get gas in there and they need surgery. Or they die. Or they get better."
There are drugs you can give a horse, such as anti-inflammatories, that might relieve the gas and possibly return the animal to normal. The problem is that a horse cannot receive any medication whatsoever before Olympic competition.
"Nothing. Zero," John said. "If they can find it in the blood or urine, you're a cheater. It would be the same as if you took one Advil today; you can't compete for seven days. They can find it."
The Olympic equestrian veterinary commission can grant an exception for treatment, though. So the Maddens asked whether they could have permission to give Authentic an anti-inflammatory and the commission told them, "Absolutely, you can. You just can't compete in the Olympics if you do."
Beezie had worked decades to reach the Olympics, but there was no way she would risk Authentic's health by leaving him untreated. So she was prepared to have him undergo surgery while she postponed her longtime Olympic dream for at least four more years. But before doing that, there was one last hope. No medicine was allowed, but the Maddens could give Authentic fluids that might ease the issue. So before the final veterinary inspection, John and the groom held Authentic down and gave him fluids with a catheter and hoped for the best.
A vet then gave Authentic a rectal exam and was able to feel that the intestine was out of place. "There's a cord in there and if it flops over, it's like getting a kink in a water hose," John said. "So sometimes if you let them roll over, that would put it back in place."
They let Authentic roll over. He did so twice, like a dog rolling on its back. Then the horse stood up and let loose with well, no need to go into graphic scatological detail. Let's just say there was a bit of a mess, but the horse felt great.
"He was OK," John said. "We clean all the stuff up, walk him up to the vet inspection and he wins the gold medal. But a couple minutes' difference and we're done. We're out."
Do Michael Phelps or Usain Bolt ever go through anything like that? Wait. Better not to hear about it.
'It's not an easy game'
At 48, Beezie would be long retired in most any other sport by now (unless her name was Jamie Moyer). But equestrian is different. The sport requires experience on so many different levels that riders reach and remain in the elite level far later.
"In our sport, you're in peak in 30s and 40s because there is so much involved as far as having horse management and people-management skills," she said. "You have owners behind you. You're basically running a business."
Beezie (she is nicknamed after her grandmother) certainly has a life of experience. Horses have always been such an important part of her life; she received a pony for Christmas at age four and even took a horse with her to college (and you thought your dorm room was cramped).
Her parents raised and trained horses in Wisconsin, and now she and her husband do the same in upstate New York (among the riders they have worked with is Bruce Springsteen's daughter, Jessica). Beezie began horse jumping at age five, broke into the big-time equestrian circuit around age 17 and also rode competitively for Southern Seminary Junior College. She played basketball and softball, but riding was her passion. Her parents, she said, "did a great job of holding me back enough that I really wanted it. I think kids who get everything thrown at them on a silver platter get a little sick of it at the end. It had to be my choice to go someplace for a show."
She started riding on the Grand Prix circuit in the mid-1980s and went on to become the first American to crack the top three in show jumping's world rankings and the first woman to top $1 million in prize money.
"Beezie has been a huge inspiration, not just to me, but for many riders around the world of all ages," Jessica Springsteen was quoted as saying at the 2010 FEI World Equestrian Games. "I've been lucky to be able to draw from her extensive experience. She's a hero whose accomplishments you can both aspire to, and someone who has the generosity and patience to guide you."
Beezie rode Authentic to a gold medal in the team competition in Athens and a bronze medal in individual competition in the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
"He was always a winner at whatever level he did," she said. "We didn't know when we purchased him that he would win for us. He was not a real explosive power jumper like some horses, but he was a winner. We never felt like he was at his limit -- he just kept doing more and more and more. He went to the Olympics as a 9-year-old, which is the youngest allowed to go to the Olympics. He's a very intelligent horse."
Now 17, Authentic has retired to the good life on a farm while the Maddens search for a horse for London. They've narrowed it down to three: Simon, Via Vola and Cortes C.
"Finding his replacement isn't easy, but you always have to have confidence you can do it," Beezie said. "That's what we do as a career, basically. We try to find young talent and bring it along to hopefully look like an Olympic-level horse, and then if we were to own them at the time, we could re-sell them to our sponsors. It's not an easy game and we go through a lot of horses trying to do that, but right now we have three horses that I think have potential to make the Olympic Games."
Olympians must find new teammates and partners in other sports, as well. It's just a much more expensive operation in equestrian. After all, when Misty May-Treanor asked Kerri Walsh to join her to be her beach volleyball partner, she didn't have to pay Walsh's parents $20,000 and then agree to feed and house her for the next five years.
'We're talking serious, serious money'
If an airline charging $25-$50 per checked bag gets your blood boiling, consider how the Maddens feel.
Equestrian athletes, you see, must get their horses to competitions, and horses are not carry-on luggage. You cannot stow them in a handbag under your seat. When air travel is necessary, the horses must fly in special containers in a plane's cargo section. When Beezie ships a horse to Europe for a competition, the container alone can cost $15,000. One way.
"And there can be extra costs at the airport," Beezie said. "When you come back to the United States, there are a lot of extra costs because they have to be in quarantine for two days before they're released, so that's another $1,000 here and there. The equipment is another $1,000 or $2,000."
Of course, that's just the transportation cost. Show jumping also requires stabling, feed, veterinary care, grooms and other workers. The Maddens' farm, John Madden Sales, has 13 horses and 12 employees (including John and Beezie). And of course there is also the cost of the horses, which ranges wildly. It's possible to get an untrained horse for free at an animal shelter, while an Olympic-level horse can cost $5 million -- in the rare event that such an animal is for sale. And there are prices all the way in between. John likens it to NFL quarterbacks. They are usually signed when young and inexperienced, and rarely are available after they become franchise stars, though occasionally a Peyton Manning goes on the market.
Bottom line: We're talking serious, serious money.
Riders thus require well-heeled sponsors (though patrons might be a better term). Beezie's sponsors include a woman whose family owns The Limited and Victoria's Secret.
"Without a team of owners behind us, it wouldn't be possible," Beezie said. " Some of the people who are involved in horses also have boats, and they say the horses are nothing compared to the boats. The boats just eat money up, [and horses] are not as expensive as Formula One or NASCAR."
That's why strictly viewing equestrian as an elitist sport isn't fair. NASCAR expenses are even higher than horse-jumping, as Beezie said, but the fans wearing Roll Tide T-shirts at Talladega don't consider their sport elitist.
"I really hate it that this gets labeled as so elitist," John said. "It is an elite sport, and it's expensive. But owning the New York Yankees is, too. Only rich people own a baseball franchise. Only rich people own NFL teams. Only rich people own Formula One teams. But there is a lot of opportunity in this business for people to work within the business."
The Maddens have both shoveled enough manure from horse stalls to know this very well.
"Our whole sport gets painted with a wide brush that the horses are so expensive, but regular people can enjoy it, too," John added. "Beezie and I work seven days a week. We have a small business just like everyone else. We're busting our butt to make things go, to make things work, like anyone else. We work for wonderful people and we own our own business. But if we don't get our sponsors, we're done, we're cooked."
The road back to the Olympics
The Maddens were in Park City, Utah, a while back and decided to give the bobsled run a try. With a professional driver in the front, they raced down the 2002 Olympic course, hurtling through one turn at 80 mph, just a few miles slower than the Olympians in competition. When they crossed the finish line and finally came to a halt, the Maddens pulled themselves out of the sled, rather unimpressed by the ride.
"That was awful. It was terrible," Beezie told her husband.
"Anything else?" John asked.
"Yeah," Beezie said. "Can you imagine strapping somebody to one of my horses and having them jump just 4 feet?"
If you do imagine it, it's probably better to include an ambulance in the picture.
With riders dressed in elegant coats, riding helmets and leather boots, show jumping appears graceful and effortless on TV, but it requires extreme mental and physical toughness. Competitors must leap a complicated series of fences as high as 5 feet and as wide as 6 (16 feet wide for the water jumps). "It doesn't look like the horse should be able to jump it," John said of the most difficult fences.
Furthermore, the course designers arrange the jumps in as challenging and awkward a pattern as possible, with jumps immediately following turns. The riders must carefully calculate the distance between jumps to determine approach, takeoff and landing points. Sometimes the distance between jumps is long; sometimes it's short. It constantly varies.
The competitors don't get a practice round, either. Athletes in other sports are almost always allowed to warm up in the arena or on the field to get a feel for it, but show-jumpers are only allowed a single walk-through. And that's without the horse. The first time the horse covers the course is during the actual competition.
John puts it this way: Imagine you are running the course with his help.
"You don't know the course and you're running in front of me and I'm running right behind you, and I'm going to tell you, 'OK, we're going to make a left turn and we're going to come this way over this green fence and then we're going to make a right turn and go to that one.' Even with the English language, it takes a lot of information for me to tell you that. Then I'll tell you to make a right turn to that white fence and I have to tell you to turn right and I have to tell you how much right. 'Not too much right.' Then you add a physical test that you have to meet [the jump] at the right pace."
It's like running through a maze that includes fences and water hazards -- with a blindfold. Because, due to the placement of their eyes, horses cannot see up to 8 feet in front of them.
"We have a partnership with the horse," Beezie said. "It's kind of the age-old question: How much of it is the horse and how much is the rider? I think the answer is a great horse with a bad rider won't be successful very often. A great horse with a good rider can be successful a lot. A great rider with a no-so-good horse can sometimes pull it off, but I think without a good horse -- without a great horse -- you're struggling. I'd like to say it's almost 50/50 as far as being a successful winner at the top."
Horse jumping is one of the few Olympic sports where men and women compete against each other. It doesn't make much difference for Beezie because she thrives on all competition. Before the final round in Athens, she was told they had to have a perfect ride, no deductions, to win a medal. Told this, her thought was the simple one a champion must have: "Great, we still have a chance."
As the days count down to London, Beezie will ride and practice until she finds a great horse that will best replace two-time Olympian, Authentic. They will work together, developing a level of trust, confidence and expertise. Should they make the U.S. team (the final cut will come in July), she and her horse will be on top of their game. And cross fingers and toes that the horse doesn't come down with a stomachache or sore hoof that might knock them both out of competition.