While it's often said that Britons are very good at seated sports — think rowing and cycling — this is shaping up to be the year of the horse at the London Olympics. Among the highest profiles are the queen's granddaughter, Zara Phillips, who is competing for Britain in three-day eventing, and a horse co-owned by Ann Romney, the wife of U.S. Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, which is taking part in the dressage competition.
And there is no better place that this (United) Kingdom to focus on the equine world. Every morning, the dust of Rotten Row, a sweeping dirt path in London's Hyde Park, rises from the patter of cascading hooves. Venerable steeds from the queen's military regiments are practicing so they can glitter at Royal Weddings carrying uniformed riders wearing shiny tasseled helmets.
Then there are horses that support the Household Cavalry's massive drums. Achilles and Mercury are not only known by name, but hold the rank of major when on parade. How can you not love that?
British eventing team competitor Mary King hopes the high visibility of the British riders will encourage more people to take up riding throughout the country.
"We hope this will get more bums back in the saddle," said King, a decorated Olympian competing in her sixth games.
First and foremost in this calculation is Phillips, the 31-year old daughter of Princess Anne who won a berth on the British Olympic equestrian team after a series of blistering performances on the country's rain slogged courses this year. Phillips, the 14th in line to the British throne, will draw cameras from around the world to the equestrian venue at Greenwich.
And if that weren't enough, her very famous relatives might be spotted in the grandstand — cousin Prince William and his photogenic wife Kate, the Duchess of Cambridge.
Phillips competes in three-day eventing, a grueling sport that combines the disciplines of dressage, show jumping and cross country. She rides High Kingdom, a 16.2 hands high (5-foot-6-inch) bay gelding.
And then there's Rafalca, the 15-year-old mare owned by Ann Romney, being ridden by Jan Ebeling of the U.S. dressage team.
The Romney/Rafalca duo has proved to be a godsend to Republican critics. Comedian Stephen Colbert has lampooned dressage as the sport of the well-to-do — but at least he noticed it. Rafalca has also been a gift to American equestrian writers, who suddenly find dressage on Page One, rather than in the Olympic stats section.
Princess Haya, the head of the international equestrian federation, FEI, told the AP in an email that her sport has more than just outstanding athletes and horses.
"What makes equestrian sport truly exceptional however is not the participation of athletes who may be famous by virtue of their status; it is the magic that is created by the perfect harmony of horse and rider," she wrote. "Horses do not understand titles or connections. ... Equestrian sport is one where men and women, the young and the not so young, the disabled and the able-bodied compete together, and where the horse is the great equalizer."
Riding is also truly a life-long sport.
Japanese dressage rider Hiroshi Hoketsu, who turned 71, is the oldest athlete at this summer's Olympic Games. He first competed in 1964 in his home city of Tokyo.
Another remarkable example is Ian Millar, who first competed at the Olympics 40 years ago, in Munich in 1972. This summer the 65-year-old "Captain Canada" will be making his 10th Olympic appearance.
But will young people flock to the stables, hoping to ride like Zara? Will the little girls who ride ponies in Hyde Park — helmets strapped around the chin, boots tucked into stirrups — become big girls who chase medals at the next Olympics in Rio de Janeiro and beyond?
Not necessarily, says Stephen Greyser, a Harvard University professor who has long studied the games.
Greyser said while there's plenty of evidence to suggest that non-famous people who rocket to the fore at the Olympics sometimes make others interested in their sport, there's little evidence it works the other way around.
He cited the example of snowboarder Shaun White, aka the "Flying Tomato," who secured back-to-back Olympic gold medals in halfpipe and drew people to the sport because of his fluid grace on the snow as well as his shock of long red hair.
But Greyser said the media are attracted to celebrities themselves, not necessarily their sport.
"I think a famous person has an opportunity to draw attention, but not necessarily to turn an entire sport into something more popular," he said.
Still, half the lenses on the planet will probably be turned on Phillips rather soon.
"But that's more a media thing," he said.
Margaret Freeman contributed to this story.Suggest a correction