Rolton's cross-country falls didn't stop the Australian eventing team from taking gold for the second time, with a record score. It's fearlessness and obstinacy like hers that give the Australians good reason to believe that in Sydney they can win their third consecutive gold medal. "We haven't left a rock unturned," national eventing coach Wayne Roycroft says of the team's preparations. "And if someone beats us, I'll be the first to say they've done a great job."
The three-day event combines dressage and jumping with an endurance section that involves road and track tests, a steeplechase and a cross-country competition. Here a horse must move easily from the methodical elegance of dressage to the caution and precision of jumping and then to the boldness and speed of cross-country. Tough on horses, the event is just as exacting of their riders. It demands, Roycroft says, "the total skills of a complete horseman."
The meticulous Roycroft, who is the son of legendary rider Bill Roycroft, was instrumental in Australia's 1992 and 1996 gold-winning performances; Rolton jokes that she got back onto Peppermint Grove partly out of fear of what Roycroft would say if she didn't. In the lead-up to both Games, he focused on honing riders' fitness and used intensive veterinary testing to pick the soundest mounts. In the wake of those successes, more funding has flowed into the sport and a pool of new riders has sprung up. "There's so much talent in this country," says Olympic team member Stuart Tinney, "that we could have a second team of four and they'd have just as good a chance."
Then there's the Australians' riding style-which calls to mind the brash skilfulness celebrated in Australian bush ballads like The Man from Snowy River-and their preference for Thoroughbreds, gutsy horses known for their agility and alertness. "When the going gets tough, the Aussie horses really come to the fore," says Rolton. What Australia won't have at these Games is the Atlanta team. Both Rolton and teammate Wendy Schaeffer missed the cut because of the inexperience of their new horses. Instead, the seven-member squad-four team riders and three individual riders-is a mix of veterans and novices. Five-time Olympian and dual gold medalist Andrew Hoy, Barcelona team and individual gold medalist Matt Ryan, and dual gold medalist Phillip Dutton have been chosen, along with Olympic rookies Tinney, Brook Staples, Amanda Ross and reserve Olivia Bunn.
The bond between horse and human in equestrian events is unique in sport-and crucial. "You can't buy it and it's very difficult to train for," says Wayne Roycroft, "but without it you can't win." To take their third gold in September, Australia's three-day-event riders and horses will need the same sort of bond that saw Peppermint Grove carefully carry home his injured rider, who never lost faith that he would.