Dressage tests are comprised of a series of movements, with the horse and rider receiving a score out of 10 for each element. The sport has been compared to ballet, but from a scoring standpoint, it’s a lot like gymnastics or figure skating: the more difficult the routine, the higher the possible starting point value.
As in figure skating, competitions are determined by multiple routines, or “tests” (three for dressage). The test with the highest point potential is the freestyle, where competitors choreograph their own routines to music they choose.
Dressage scores in the 70s are respectable enough; crack an 80, though, and you’re in it for a medal. The highest Grand Prix score on record is a 92.30, hit in a freestyle routine back in 2010 by Dutch Olympic team member Edward Gal and his former mount, Tortilas.
On Thursday, the highest mark came from Great Britain’s Carl Hester, who scored a 77.72 on Utopia.The British team has a good shot at winning either a gold or a silver in the team competition this year, but they’ll have to overcome the United States and the dressage world’s two powerhouse countries, Germany and the Netherlands.
Ebeling and Rafalca’s best chances for a medal are probably in the team competition, where the US is a perennial third-place finisher. The US has won bronze in four of the past five Olympics, and third is their likely landing spot again in London.
The battle for the gold, however, may be more interesting than it’s been in decades. If Michael Phelps’s eight-medal run in Beijing seems impressive, or if US skeet shooter Kimberly Rhode’s five consecutive gold medals looks like the height of dominance, consider this: The German dressage team hasn’t lost a gold medal since 1980, back when it was still West Germany. The last country that beat them was the Soviet Union.