1952, Helsinki Olympics. After much deliberation by the Olympic committee, women and civilians are being permitted to compete in dressage for the first time (show jumping and eventing are deemed too dangerous, despite the fact that women are already competing in those events internationally). In a sport that has traditionally been dominated by military men, Lis Hartel of Denmark wins the silver medal on her mare Jubilee. As the winners made their way to the podium, the crowd was shocked to see that Henri St. Cyr, the gold medal winner, was carrying Hartel to the podium.
Eight years earlier, while pregnant with her second child, Hartel had contracted polio. Paralyzed from the knees down, with no feeling in her legs and unable to walk unaided, she had been told by her doctors that she would never be able to ride again. The Danish national dressage champion in 1943 and 1944, she couldn’t imagine not riding; over the course of the next several years (and many falls off of the horse), she worked with Jubilee to regain her former finesse. Her daughter, Pernille Siesbye, remembers that
“Jubilee was brilliant! She always stood still like a statue every time my mother was lifted on and off her. She was such a clever horse. Though used to be[ing] ridden the usual way[,] she now realised that she had to react only to weight and back aids. My mother very much rode with her back and by gently shifting weight[,] because she was unable to use her legs in any way.”
With the encouragement and endorsement of many, including Col. Podhajsky from the Spanish Riding School in Vienna, Hartel set her sights on reentering international competition. At the time, therapeutic riding or Paralympic events were practically unknown, and many people did not believe Hartel was capable of doing it. But, after winning several national competitions, including a Prix St. George, Hartel and Jubilee were selected for the Danish national Olympic team. They continued their success, winning the World Championship in 1954, traveling to North America for exhibition rides in Madison Square Garden and Canada, winning several national titles, and reenacting their 1951 experience with a second silver medal in Stockholm* in 1956. Jubilee was retired for breeding after her second Olympics, but unfortunately had to be put down in ‘57.
Hartel herself went on to found the first modern-day therapeutic riding center; thanks to her legacy, the therapeutic riding and Paralympic equestrian movement soon spread around the world and still grows today. She continued to compete in dressage and train other riders and horses throughout her life, as well as proving to be a strong spokeswoman for those who survived polio. Lis Hartel died on February 12, 2009, at the age of 87.
* Due to strict quarantine laws in Australia, the equestrian events for the Melbourne Olympics were held in Stockholm, Sweden
“Jubilee, a Post-War Dressage Hero”. http://www.eurodressage.com/equestrian/2010/10/22/jubilee-post-war-dressage-hero. Accessed October 4, 2012.
“Well Behaved Women Rarely Make History”. https://www.chronofhorse.com/article/well-behaved-women-rarely-make-history-lis-hartel. Accessed October 4, 2012.