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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Russia in the Ribbons




Once the Soviet Union combined the proud traditions of the cavalry with the rigors of its state sports system to produce world-class equestrians. Now, Russia cannot even manage to send an equestrian team to the Olympics.


This is a sad state of affairs for a country that loves its horses and one that the new head of the Russian Equestrian Federation is determined to change.


Putting Russia back into the top ranks of such money-devouring sports as dressage, jumping and three-day eventing would seem to be wishful thinking for a country in such an economic mess, except that the new equestrian federation president is Yelena Baturina, the wife of Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov.


The mayor, who appears to be fully behind his wife's endeavor, has a way of making things happen. Under his command, an immense cathedral has risen from the dead and the once dour capital has been transformed.


But Baturina, by all accounts, may not need his help. A businesswoman and budding politician in her own right, she is tough as nails. Those who work with her in the horse world praise her energy, her determination to bring order to the sport - and her ability to bring in money.


She was the driving force behind a splashy international competition held this September on the grounds of Luzhniki Stadium. More than a dozen of Europe's top jumper riders and their horses were flown in, all expenses paid, to compete for nearly $200,000 in prize money.


Willi Melliger of Switzerland, ranked No. 1 in the world, took the World Cup qualifier and Trevor Coyle of Ireland, ranked 10th, won the feature event - called appropriately enough the Mayor's Cup - but the competition gave Russia's riders a rare chance to compete against the best, and a few rose to the occasion and ended up in the ribbons.


Thanks perhaps to the glossy posters put up around town and the broad coverage in the press, thousands of Muscovites came to watch, including lots of little girls with horse dreams of their own.


Baturina, 36, herself a rider, watched most of the three days of competitions from special stands at one end of the arena, where waiters hovered around tables spread with white linen tablecloths. As she looked out on the impressive course of towering jumps all brightly painted in Russian themes, Baturina said her goal as president of the equestrian federation was "to see the Russian flag raised once again at the Olympics."


First the riders have to get there. Russia last sent an equestrian team to the Olympics in 1992, and then only in dressage.


In order to qualify for the Olympics, riders have to do well at certain international competitions, but the Russians have had few opportunities to compete internationally since the beginning of perestroika in the late 1980s and the decline of the state sports system. They have had neither the means to travel nor the horses up to the task.


When state subsidies began drying up, riding schools had to figure out how to support themselves in the new system. At the same time, the opportunity to sell horses abroad opened up for the first time and the temptation was too great.


In the early 1990s, many - some say almost all - horses that were good enough to compete internationally were sold to the West for hard cash.


The organizers of the recent Mayor's Cup said the unprecedented prize money is part of a new strategy for raising the level of equestrian sports in Russia by giving owners of horses a way of earning money. "They will have to think about whether to sell their best horses abroad," said Alexander Dmitrienko, the director of the competition and of the Moscow Sports Club, where Baturina rides.


The trend already has reversed. The horses being bought and sold in Russia today by and large are being bought and sold by Russians. Among the growing number of new horse owners are, predictably, the business elite. But professional men and women in a lower income bracket are also taking interest in the sport and finding ways to keep a horse within their more modest means. One horse at the Sokoros stable in Moscow, for example, is owned jointly by four sets of parents for their four children.


The cost of buying a horse in Russia is on par with prices in the United States and Britain, running anywhere from several hundred to tens of thousands of dollars. But the cost of monthly board and training in Moscow is far more affordable - at least half what it would be in major cities like New York and London. Moscow stables charge $150 to $350, and those unable to ride every day or who needprofessional help training a young horse can hire a trainer for $200 or less.


Yelena Petushkova, the nation's best known horsewoman, says the transition from the Soviet riding system to one in which the bulk of the horses are in private hands is changing the face of the sport in Russia.


"Of course, this is still not so much equestrian sports as it is simply horseback riding, although the majority of those who buy horses, even those who never were involved in equestrian sports before, are beginning to ride and are finding it interesting not only to ride but to take part in little competitions - earlier we never had such a system," said Petushkova, who won a silver medal in dressage in the 1972 Olympics and was the world champion the following year.


Unlike in the United States, where almost anyone with a horse can hitch a trailer up to their pick-up truck on a Saturday morning and drive off to a horse show, amateur competitions in this country are just starting to appear.


Already, though, low-level competitions are seeing an unprecedented number of entrees. The hope is that eventually some of these riders will rise to the top, and that the growing popularity of riding, especially among people of means, will bring money into the sport.


Equestrian sports looked much different here when Petushkova first signed up for riding lessons in 1956 when she was 16. Two years later, she was chosen to begin serious training as a dressage rider.


"I had never in my life seen this thing called dressage. I had never heard of it, so I asked what it was and they showed me," Petushkova said in a recent interview at the same stable in Sokolniki Park where she began her riding career and where she now trains other riders.


Dressage is a French word that in its most general sense means training. It is a bit mysterious to the uninitiated, and is often described as ballet for horses, an analogy reinforced by movements such as the pirouette and half pass, in which the horse moves diagonally by crossing its legs underneath itself.


The classical traditions of dressage are preserved by the Spanish Riding School of Vienna and the French Cadre Noir.


In competitive dressage, the horse and rider perform a prescribed test in a rectangular arena marked by various letters. Movements are to be performed exactly where specified.


The rider wears formal attire and a top hat, and many Russians still recall the elegant appearance of Petushkova on her horse, Pepel, an extraordinary black Trakehner stallion who was her partner for 14 years.


Petushkova began riding during a time that she describes as the blossoming of equestrian sports in the Soviet Union, when skilled cavalry officers, no longer needed in the military, had switched over to civilian riding schools.


Throughout the world, equestrian sports were largely reserved for the military until after World War II. But the 1952 Summer Games in Helsinki marked both the appearance of civilian riders and the return of Soviet equestrian teams to the Olympics for the first time since before the 1917 Revolution.


The Soviet team's initial Olympic showing may not have been memorable, but by 1960 the U.S.S.R. claimed its first Olympic gold medal in equestrian sports, when Sergei Filatov won in dressage at the Rome Olympics. His success was repeated by Ivan Kyzimov in Mexico in 1968.


But while Soviet equestrians gained respect around the world, the number of serious riders in the country was kept small. As throughout the Soviet sports system, the goal was not to provide for widespread enjoyment but to produce a few world-class competitors.


This exclusive system left little hope for the teenager who lived to ride but showed less than great promise in the sport.


Boris Larchinkov, another old-timer who has been involved in equestrian sports for more than four decades, remembers the tears of disappointed girls who had not been accepted into a riding school and the pleas of their parents for the trainers to reconsider.


"Now, people who want to ride can ride, and put their money into it," Larchinkov said. "This wasn't possible before."


There's a flip side to this, of course. Larchinkov recalled when George Morris, the preeminent jumper trainer in the United States, came to Moscow in the late 1980s to give clinics to riders here. Morris, Larchinkov said, told him he was lucky: "You get to work only with good athletes, while I have to train those who pay me - and mostly they're fat little girls."


The decline in equestrian sports began after the 1980 Olympics as the old cavalry officers faded from the scene and it became clear they had left behind few successors to fill their roles as trainers, Petushkova said. The lack of qualified trainers in Russia became more acute after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 because many ended up in other countries, in Central Asia and elsewhere.


Old-time horsemen lament the decline of the country's equestrian schools and the breakdown of systematic training.


But even for those who now receive proper training and are fortunate enough to have talented horses, they can only climb into the international ranks if they have the chance to compete against the best, and that means in Europe.


"Even the best trainer can't make up for a lack of competitive experience," Petushkova said.


Gennady Khayainen, 61, the Soviet champion in 1974 and 1975, said in the 1970s the Soviet equestrian teams traveled abroad five times a year and consequently felt at home at the big international events.


But thus far only one Russian rider, Yelena Sidneva, has qualified for the 2000 Olympics in Sydney. Sidneva, a dressage rider, has been able to compete regularly in Europe because she and her Russian horse are based in Austria.


Another problem for Russia's equestrians is the impoverished state of the country's stud farms, where horses are bred and raised. Riders complain that many of the young horses are so poorly fed in the first years of their lives that they will always be stunted. The principles of horse breeding in Russia also need reassessing, many horsemen say. Horses are often bred to produce foals of a certain color or to maintain the purity of the bloodlines, with too little attention paid to passing on the genes of talented sport horses.


Better horses, more competitions, wider international experience. All this takes money, which is where Baturina comes in. She has firm roots in Russia's business community through her plastics company, Inteko, and is entering the political arena with a run for parliament from the Kalmykia region. In an interview with Moskovsky Komsomolets published Sept. 21, she said she was looking forward to campaigning across Kalmykia's steppe on horseback.


Baturina, who began riding a few years ago, said she now owns two horses. Luzhkov also has a horse, as do each of their children, and on Sundays they ride together as a family.


A number of prominent business and political figures also ride at the Moscow Sports Club: Vladimir Yevtushenkov, head of the Sistema holding company, and several members of Luzhkov's Fatherland bloc, including Andrei Kokoshin, former secretary of the presidential Security Council. "Well, and [Deputy Mayor Valery] Shantsev, who is still a beginner," Baturina added.


The expectation in the horse world is that Baturina will be able to raise the sport's profile and pull in new funding. In the West, competitions depend on corporate sponsorship, and many riders have their top mounts courtesy of corporations or wealthy individuals.


Petushkova, the previous president of the Russian Equestrian Federation, said she was glad when Baturina agreed earlier this year to take over the job. The Mayor's Cup competitions, which drew big crowds and got full media coverage, showed what Baturina is capable of.


"It's very important to attract real interest and attention to equestrian sports, and from this point of view, I think that these competitions were on a level that we have not seen here since the 1980 Olympic Games," Petushkova said, acknowledging Baturina's success in attracting sponsors and media attention.


Credit for the high quality of the recent competitions also goes to Larchinkov. Baturina - who is relatively new to the equestrian game - brought him into the federation and gave him the role of inspector. It is his job to make sure competitions are run properly, to provide for the needs of riders and spectators.


As president of the equestrian federation, Baturina is bringing order to the competition calendar and making "strict demands" on how things should be done and how the money should be spent, Larchinkov said.


Alexander Polozkov, the general secretary of the federation, said Baturina's biggest contribution is "above all, her energy."


Baturina's dream of seeing the Russian flag raised for its riders at the next Olympics may not be realistic, but what are Russia's chances of making it in 2004?


The weakest discipline in Russia now is three-day eventing, which combines dressage, cross-country and stadium jumping, although the meat of the competition is the grueling cross-country course over treacherous obstacles. The Soviets won European championships in the 1970s, but have since fallen off the map. The conventional wisdom here, though, is that eventing is more quickly rehabilitated than the other disciplines.


Jumping, the most spectator-friendly equestrian sport, is getting most of the attention, but the riders and horses have a ways to go to be able to challenge the Europeans and North Americans. Petushkova says Russian jumper riders suffer from a lack of training and would benefit most from working with trainers from Germany, which dominates the sport.


Dressage is traditionally the strongest discipline, and the dressage team was the only one that had a chance to go to Sydney. A Russian team competed in the European Championships this summer and had the potential to do well enough to qualify for the Olympics, Petushkova said. But the horses performed poorly, showing their lack of competitive experience.


To the delight of the federation, another international equestrian sport - endurance riding, in which horses race over distances as great as 160 kilometers - is starting to take hold in Russia. One recent competition had the horses circling Moscow along the Ring Road. The feeling is that Russia should excel at this type of riding because it already breeds the types of horses known for their endurance.


The new Baturina-led equestrian federation has its job cut out for it. The test of Russia's rise in the international horse world will come at the Olympics in 2004.