One episode from this year’s Olympics that has stayed with me is the extraordinary show-jumping competition in the women’s modern pentathlon. This event involves fencing, swimming, riding, pistol-shooting and cross-country running. (Ah, fencing, the most modern of sports. In case you’re wondering, there aren’t many British competitors who went to a local state school.)
Whatever my qualms about its elitism, it is a fascinating competition to watch. You need a combination of speed and endurance, a steady hand and a clear head, just to complete the final round, where you have to get five shots on target with a laser pistol and then run 800m. Then wipe the sweat out of your eyes and shoot again, and run again – four times in all.
Annika Schleu was way out in front after the fencing and swimming. Then came the show-jumping. The athletes are allocated a horse at random. They have 20 minutes to get to know the animal. Riders who compete in the purely equestrian events think that a year is a short time to form a bond with their horse.
From the moment they came out, both horse and rider looked tense. The first four fences went all right, then the horse clattered noisily into the fifth, hardly jumping at all. Schleu led him to the next and he shied away, refusing to jump. His eyes were wild, and so were hers. They were both panicking and it was hard to watch. She tried the approach again. The horse was bigger and stronger and he was determined not to jump. At one point he even started walking backwards. Annika Schleu was in tears, sobbing noisily. She did not manage to complete the round so she ended up with zero points, falling to 31st place. It was excruciating.
In the studio were two experienced riders, Clare Balding and Samantha Murray (who won silver in 2012 and did not go to a public school). They had sympathy for Annika, but some comments on how best to handle an unfamiliar horse.
When I get on a new horse, said Sam, I always sing quietly to it. Horses can’t see you, when you’re riding them. They can only feel you. If you are tense, they feel that. You need to get rid of that tension.
Clare agreed. That’s why you hear so many jockeys singing to their horses as they line up at the start, she said. (Jockeys, of course, ride several highly-strung thoroughbreds in a day.) Singing or humming is great, it’s a quick way of making yourself breathe more slowly and calm down, and the horse can hear it and feel your muscles relax.
What can I say? Singing can soothe a savage beast.
We may not all have to deal with large feisty animals but there are other situations where a bit of singing can help you to face a nerve-racking situation. I’ve used it myself when walking in the dark, and had a “silent sing” in my head when having unpleasant things done under local anaesthetic – it regulates and slows my breathing.
People might be fooled by a tense grin, but animals know when you are stressed. Singing is a short-cut to loosen the tension. That’s horse sense.