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Australia's first Olympic equestrians, by Wyatt Thompson, with Petronella McGovern; Rosenburg Publishing. Softcover, 203pp, RRP $A29.95. ISBN: 9781877058639.

November 23, 2008

They don't make eventing horses or courses the way they used to - which is probably just as well.

Back 50-odd years ago eventing was virtually unknown in Australasia, but with the Olympic Games coming to Melbourne in 1956, it was decided the home side should be entered in as many sports as possible.

So a team of riders and horses were chosen and off they went to Britain to train up for the event - which because of quarantine issues was to be held in Sweden. Sound familiar?

The riders were all-rounders and new to the "Olympic disciplines" - experienced in polo, hunting, working horse events, and jumping - but dressage? In the late 40s and early 1950s the discipline had been "fairly quickly dismissed as irrelevant to our way of life," the author writes. But learning dressage was essential if the riders wanted to take part in the three-day-event at Stockholm.

This book tells the amazing true story of this first Aussie eventing team to take part in an Olympic Games. In 1955 the lads and their horses were shipped to the UK and were trained by master coach Franz Mairinger.

The result is of course now history - but they were indeed trailblazers. With only one dummy run on a real three-day event before the Olympics - the Badminton Horse Trials no less - the boys from the backblocks were not really seriously thought of as medal prospects. But they came tantalisingly close. Wyatt "Bunty" Thompson, Brian Crago, and Ernie Baker finished fourth as a team, and Crago was the best placed individual, in 11th.

Unlike the shortened cross-country course of the 2008 Olympics, the course in 1956 was no picnic. At one jump alone - the dreaded fence 22 - 12 horses fell, 28 refused and three were eliminated. Look closely at the book's cover - showing Bunty Thompson and Brown Sugar - and you will see a horse stuck in the ditch at the fence's takeoff. At one time, says Thompson, three horses and two riders were in that ditch. Miraculously, all but one - the horse on the cover - escaped unscathed. Swedish horse Iller was fatally injured when being pulled out of the ditch. In all, only 21 of the 55 riders managed the course without a fall, and 13 riders and 11 teams from the original 19 were eliminated.

Trailblazers also follows the introduction of eventing and FEI sports to Australia, as well as the next team and its path to victory in Rome in 1960. Australia gave the world a lesson in eventing that year, winning team gold, and individual gold and silver. Interestingly, team bronzes in 1968 and 1976 were the best placings by the team until the 1990s, when in 1992 and 1996 the team won gold.



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