If you’re a fan of the award-winning Netflix series “The Crown,” you probably think of HRH Prince Philip as, at best, merely tolerating the horses so adored by his wife Queen Elizabeth. But in reality, the Duke of Edinburgh, a rider and carriage driver, presided over the Fédération Equestre Internationale from 1964-1986 and is credited with developing the concept of a World Equestrian Games in 1982. In 1984, the FEI General Assembly chose Stockholm to host that first WEG, which would take place in 1990.
It’s fitting that the idea came from royalty, as nothing like it had been attempted before.
“The organization of World Championships in six disciplines within the span of two weeks in a small country like Sweden is more than a major undertaking,” said Princess Anne, FEI president from 1986-1994, according to the Chronicle report in 1990. “It is an unprecedented endeavor.”
The Swedish Equestrian Federation established a staff of 30 people who worked for five years in preparation for the Games, and they were aided by more than 2,500 volunteers, many of whom were set up to guard the horses. The event was deemed the “Horse Festival of the Century,” and a huge clock pillar in Stockholm counted down the days until the Games.
With the exception of parts of the endurance, the entire event was held within city limits. The dressage and show jumping took place in the Stockholm Olympic Stadium (which hosted the 1912 Olympic Games and the equestrian portion of the 1956 Olympic Games, since Australia had an extended quarantine), while the vaulting and three-day and driving dressage were in the Gardet Sportsfields, and the cross-country and marathon were held at nearby Royal Park.
Unlike many of the WEGs that would follow, the Stockholm Games were hailed as a financial and organizational success based on ticket sales, television viewership (one billion viewers from 40 countries), and sponsorships from the likes of Commodore, Grand Hotel, Nordbanken, Silja Line, Skandia, Volvo, Breitling, Swiss Chronograph and Skora.
That first WEG hosted six disciplines and had exhibits of tent pegging (which is an FEI sport!). “At a full gallop for 100 meters, the Indian tent-peggers picked up small wooden pegs from the ground with their lances,” reported the Chronicle.
Swedish pop group ABBA, best known for their hit “Dancing Queen,” composed a song for the WEG, which the Chronicle described as “a peppy march with Swedish polka flavor.”
U.S. Endurance Gold And U.S. Dressage Disappointment
Becky Hart and R.O. Grand Sultan won the endurance individual gold for the United States, the only gold medal the U.S. riders won in this Games but the second consecutive individual gold in a World Championships for Hart.
“The drizzly 4:30 a.m. start at Taby racetrack summoned an assortment of tack and mounts from 18 countries,” wrote correspondent Carina Kjellstrom Elgin. “There was English, western and Australian stock gear, in leather and synthetic, as well as an unusual Soviet Caucus mountain saddle, which looked like four boxing gloves sewn together.
“Arabians, Thoroughbreds, warmbloods, and even a Norwegian Fjord prepared to tackle the ride. While a Swiss rider yodeled across the start and the Australians quickly broke out front, most ambled along as if for a pre-dawn stroll in the rain.”
In the dressage, Rembrandt and Germany’s Nicole Uphoff earned the individual gold with a record Grand Prix score of 76.36 percent.
“Rembrandt, a Westphalian owned by Nicole’s father, Jurgen Uphoff and the German Olympic Committee, started training under Nicole as a 3-year-old,” wrote Joan Gach for the Chronicle. “She got him four years after her first exposure to riding, on a vacation. Lessons followed and her early trainers were Klaus Balkenhol, Fritz Templemann and Uwe Schulten-Baumer Sr.”
Hard to go wrong learning to ride in that company!
Carol Lavell and Gifted were the top-placed U.S. finishers in 11th, but many Americans were apparently upset at the scoring. “I think I’ve seen more irresponsible judging here than in the United States,” Lavell told the Chronicle. “We’ll go back to the United States and say, ‘We’re not all the bad. They have bad dressage over here as well. We don’t have a corner on that market.”
She also had some advice for American riders considering competing in Europe: “You have to get in and swim with the sharks. In the United States, we’re babes in swaddling. Here there’s a lot more real politics. You can be really good in the United States, but when you get here you have to work.”
Viking Boats, Lapp Tents And Rise Of Kiwis
The show jumping competition had some serious star power, with the likes of the great Milton and Gem Twist advancing to the final four, where Gem Twist was named the Best Horse. Rodrigo Pessoa, then just 17, also competed in Stockholm, riding in the same arena where his father had contested the 1956 Olympic Games.
In the table C class that opened the WEG after the warm-up classes, only five of the 75 starters jumped clear. “The more exotic, and expensive, creations by course designer Olaf Petersen made their debut in this class,” wrote Findlay Davidson for the Chronicle. “Obstacles included the horse wings, the Viking longboat parallel, massive wooden horses forming wings, and Lapp tents doing the same job.”
Eric Navet, who had originally been the French reserve rider, won the individual gold, and France earned the team title. “Usually the Navet family sells its best horses, which is why Navet isn’t a constant member of the French team,” wrote Davidson. “But since Quito de Baussey is an excellent sire and competitor, they wisely decided to keep him.”
In eventing, Bruce Davidson earned the bronze individual medal aboard Pirate Lion, and the U.S. squad boasted the youngest rider in the event: Molly Bliss, 21, who fell but remounted to finish 32nd on the famous Hey Charlie.
New Zealand’s win marked its first team victory in an international championships, following on the heels of Mark Todd’s individual Olympic gold medals in 1984 and 1988. With the team gold and Blyth Tait’s individual gold at the WEG, they were on their way to the dominance they would display in the sport for decades—although Todd was described in the Chronicle report as “a former dairy farmer.”
Great Britain’s Virginia Leng, who was attempting to defend her title from 1986, had a refusal and a fall and joked, “I have the potential to become a tent pegger and a vaulter.”
In his commentary on the event, the Chronicle’s then editor, Peter Winants, declared, “Our congratulations go to the Swedish Equestrian Federation and the FEI for a job well done at the World Equestrian Games in 1990. It will be a tough act to follow.”
Did You Know?
—150,000 people attended the cross-country phase of the eventing.
—500 children participated in Opening Ceremonies, some on broomstick horses, some on ponies.
—Two of the countries medaling in dressage no longer exist: West Germany (gold) and the Soviet Union (silver).
—Vilmer the stuffed horse was the Games mascot.
—About 700 horses and 550 riders from 39 nations competed.
—Fibresand footing in the main arena was dyed bright green.
—The driving marathon course was designed by Berit Thulin, a teacher from Gothenburg, and the cross-country course was designed by Jan Stokkentre of the Netherlands, who was a scrap metal dealer by profession (but also designed Boekelo CCI courses).
—Animal activists spread flyers around Stockholm, but the organizers assured media that animals were being treated well, including a relatively new FEI system of yellow cards used as warning for abuse of a horse, among other things. A dressage rider received a yellow card for riding in the main stadium before the competition started, and Anne Kursinski got one for spurring a horse. A Hungarian driver also received one for excessive whipping.