I’ve been on a girl-power kick lately, mostly because I’m a girl, and I think it’s fantastic to hear about women doing things that aren’t necessarily … lady-like.
Lis Hartel had some serious girl-power.
Born on March 14, 1921, in Hellerup, Denmark, Hartel had a fairly normal childhood. She grew up riding with her sister, Tove, under the watchful eye of her mother. While most girls in that era grew out of horses, Lis married a man who shared her passion when she was 20 years old. By that point, she’d been competing fairly extensively since 1934 in dressage and show jumping competitions.
Lis had her first daughter, Pernille, in 1942, a year before winning her first Danish dressage championship in 1943. She won it again in 1944.
However, in 1944, Lis—pregnant with her second child, Anne (born in 1945)—was stricken with polio. At the time, polio was a common illness in Europe, and a vaccination was still a decade away. Despite doctors’ best efforts, Lis emerged from her illness paralyzed from the knee down. She eventually regained the use of most of her muscles, although her arms and hands were also affected. It was hard to imagine at that time that Lis would ever return to the saddle. She had other ideas.
After three years of struggle, determination and willpower, she was riding again.
While Lis overcame her disease, she also had to fight strict rules regarding women’s participation in the sport. It wasn’t until 1952 that women were even allowed to compete in equestrian events at the Olympic Games. In a sport totally dominated by military men, Lis had a tough mountain to climb.
Under the watchful eye of Gunnar Anderson, Lis made history in Helsinki, Finland, in 1952 by becoming one of the first women to compete against men in the Olympic Games. When she won the silver medal with her horse, Jubilee, she became the first woman to win an equestrian medal, and she turned the equestrian world upside down and gave it a good shake before setting it on its feet again.
Lis couldn’t mount and dismount on her own; she walked with the aid of crutches and then a wheelchair in her later years. After she was helped off her horse in Helsinki, Henri Saint Cyr, the gold medal winner, picked her up and carried her to the podium. There wasn’t a dry eye in the crowd.
Four years later, in Stockholm, Sweden, (the equestrian events were held in Stockholm rather than Melbourne, Australia, due to the strict quarantine requirements of the country), she and Jubilee repeated their performance and once again brought a silver medal home to Denmark. Cyr won gold again, as well, and the pair carried a friendly rivalry throughout their careers.
But Lis didn’t stop there.
Lis and Jubilee went on to win three consecutive Danish championships from 1952-1954, and they won it again in 1956. She won her final Danish championship on Limelight in 1959.
Even after she retired from riding, Lis continued to be a strong presence in the industry, training young riders such as Nils Haagensen, who would have competed in the 2000 Olympic Games if not for an injury. Outside of the equestrian world, Lis was an inspiration for polio survivors and spoke publicly all over the world through the Polio Foundation.
Perhaps the most important contribution Lis made, however, was that she was a firm believer in promoting riding to help the disabled. After winning her medals, she founded Europe’s first therapeutic riding center, which soon came to the attention of the medical community. By the 1960s, riding was accepted by the American Medical Association as an “invaluable therapeutic tool.” She is widely credited with inspiring a worldwide effort to better peoples’ lives through horses. The Lis Hartel Foundation continues to work in her memory.
In 1992, Lis was inducted into Denmark’s Hall of Fame, and in 1994 she was the first Scandinavian to be inducted into the International Women’s Sports Hall of Fame. In 2005, she was named one of Denmark’s all-time top 10 athletes.
Lis passed away on February 12, 2009, at the age of 87. While the equestrian world lost one of its great inspirations, her vision lives on in the thousands of riders who have benefited from her courage.
One of web writer Coree Reuter’s favorite parts of working at The Chronicle of the Horse is adventuring up into the attic. While it’s occasionally a journey that requires a head lamp, GPS unit and dust mask, nearly 75 years of the equine industry is documented in the old issues and photographs that live above the offices, and Coree is determined to unearth the great stories of the past. Inspired by the saying: “History was written on the back of a horse,” she hopes to demystify the legends, find new ones and honor the horses who have changed the scope of everyday life with this blog.