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Israeli Horseman Saddles Up for Summer Olympics

When Oded Shimoni competes at the Athens Olympics this summer, he could do more than win a medal. He could make history.

Shimoni is the first Israeli to qualify for an Olympic equestrian event. He will compete in dressage, in which riders lead their horses through a series of prescribed movements; scores are based on the horse’s accuracy and response to commands.

In modern times, Germany has dominated dressage at the Olympics, consistently taking home the medals in recent games: “It’s a very old sport, and a very German sport,” Shimoni told the Forward. Although Shimoni spends his winters riding his gelding on a sunny farm in rural Florida, he — like many of his peers — spends much of the year on Germany’s preeminent dressage training grounds.

Shimoni is proud that he has established a reputation for Israel as a contender in dressage. “It took me a few years to be accepted,” he explained. “There are not many judges in the world who don’t know me. There are not many people in the international circuit who don’t know me.”

Shimoni, 41, qualified for the Olympics two weeks ago in Florida, when he edged out a female rider from Belarus. He will be part of a four-person European equestrian team. (At the Olympics, Israel is considered part of European League Group C.) Although there are other Israeli equestrians, none will compete for Olympic representation this year, because they lack suitable horses, due to a combination of circumstance and limited resources. “In this sport, you are totally dependent on what you are sitting on,” he said. If a horse has an injury or doesn’t fit well with a rider, it can compromise one’s score.

Shimoni’s horse Glenstern was not sound enough to compete for Olympic qualification. So a German former student of his lent her 17-year-old horse Falco to Shimoni for the Olympics qualifying competition. Shimoni has yet to decide which horse he will ride in Athens.

Shimoni has not always groomed himself for Olympic competition. He discovered horse riding at age 13 through a government-sponsored program in his hometown of Ramat Gan. He took to it immediately, and though the sport is expensive, he worked in stables in exchange for training lessons and riding time. After he finished his army service in the mid-1980s, Shimoni left Israel to pursue his equestrian interests. He spent two years working with Israeli trainer and competitor David Pincus in England and also trained in Switzerland with George Wahl, a world-renowned dressage trainer.

Shimoni represented Israel for the first time in 1998 at the World Equestrian Games in Rome. The Israeli government, however, does not offer financial assistance to sportsmen like Shimoni. “In Israel we have some great athletes, but unfortunately, the number one priority of money-spending in Israel is in security,” Shimoni lamented.

Even prize-winning equestrians earn virtually no money in competitions, so Shimoni supports himself through Kingsclere Inc., a private dressage training business in Palm Beach, Fla. and New York that he has been running with fellow equestrian and partner Nancy Later for 17 years. His Olympic bid will require more money, however: Shimoni estimates his costs for competing in Athens to be $100,000. Most of that he hopes to raise through donations via Maccabi USA/Sports for Israel. The group has collected money for him in the past, and continues to funnel him funds that donors have earmarked for dressage, in which Shimoni is the only recipient. Shimoni has already garnered product sponsorship from the Der-Dau boot company, a famous riding-boot manufacturer. He also hopes to raise money through speaking engagements and events in the Jewish community.

Kenneth Braddick — Shimoni’s friend of 16 years and the founder, editor and publisher of Horse Deals US, a magazine focusing on equestrian sports — has a plan to help Shimoni raise more funds by creating a book about the Israeli’s “road to the Acropolis.”

Braddick believes Shimoni has a strong shot at a medal in Athens. “Familiarity counts,” he noted. “Now all the judges know him. Now instead of looking at him as someone new, they look at him as someone who’s paid his dues. So I suspect he’ll do very well.”

The son of Holocaust survivors from Hungary, Shimoni will compete in Athens against an American team that includes his friend Robert Dover, a five-time Olympian who is also a fellow Jew — “which is unusual,” Braddick mused. “It tends to be a somewhat WASPy sport. It’s changing obviously, but I think a lot of it is traditional, the landed gentry.”

When asked about competing against another Jewish equestrian, Shimoni replied, “For me they are all Americans. I am competing against the performance.”

The roots of dressage are usually traced back to ancient Greece, where chariot fighting involved similar skills. But some archaeologists suggest that the sport may have its roots even further back, in ancient Israel, which puts Shimoni’s achievements in a different historical perspective.

Deborah Cantrell, a doctoral student at Vanderbilt University who is writing her dissertation on the horsemen of Israel, said her academic research — involving extensive archaeological digs in Tel Megiddo National Park in Israel (the legendary battleground prophesied as the setting for the ultimate clash of Armageddon) — has shown that ancient Israelites were prominent horsemen as long ago as the eighth century BCE, long before the classical period in Greece. “At Megiddo was likely the largest horse-training center in the Iron Age period,” she said, noting that the Bible and ancient historical texts claim Israelite King Ahab had the largest chariot fleet in the Middle East at the time.

Cantrell, a horse-breeder who has been friends with Shimoni for eight years and gave him his primary horse, Glenstern, said that Shimoni’s Olympic quest is even more significant because of the history it echoes. “Getting Israel in the Olympics for the first time ever to me is exciting,” she said. “It’s really something that should happen, because in antiquity, the best horsemen in the world were from Israel.”

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