Mary Hanna is about to enter the ranks of Australian sporting history.
Jill Scalon

28 Jul 2016 - 11:30 AM  UPDATED 28 Jul 2016 - 11:30 AM

At 61, Hanna becomes our oldest competing Olympian, surpassing the legendary Bill Roycroft - a name synonymous for so many years with the Australian equestrian scene who also made it to five Olympic Games (1960-1976).

It sort of happens one by one and then you look around and you’re coming up to five - but I didn’t see any reason not to keep going.”

But if you were thinking that five is the magic number when most athletes think of retiring or, at the very least, scaling back on their commitment to their sport at such an elite level, you would be underestimating Mary Hanna.

In a conversation with this remarkable woman, one of the first gems to emerge is that her horse for Rio – Boogie Woogie – is still young in dressage terms but will be a perfect age for Tokyo 2020.

So the automatic follow up question is – you’re thinking about Tokyo?

Not only is Hanna thinking of it, the planning process around the horses and the training has already begun.

“I’m already planning. The young horse I’ve got at the moment – Boogie Woogie – he’s only just starting on his career and then I have another very nice horse and they will both be the perfect age for Tokyo. So we’re in the planning stage already.” she laughed.

Equestrian is a very particular sport. More often than not it’s in the genes and is a complete and all-consuming lifestyle.

Hanna grew up on a farm around horses which were used for both work and sport. Her parents were riders as were her sisters.

“My family were a very horsey family and we grew up down in the Western districts on a farm and horses were always a part of our life.   My mother was absolutely mad on horses: jumping and show-jumping and racing and my dad was the same – and of course we always rode stock horses around the farm rounding up the sheep and the cattle. So riding a horse was part of our everyday life.

“With both our parents were in the competition side of it as well we were encouraged from a very young age; I can’t even remember when I first got on a horse but we were always on horses,” said Hanna.

And she has passed on the tradition to her daughters with even her three grandchildren now starting to take up the reins.

“My eldest daughter Gitte is also passionate about horses and runs her own dressage business. She has herself trained up a very nice Grand Prix horse which could be a possibility for Tokyo. So one of our dreams is that we might get to be in the team together which would be nice,” said Hanna.

Hanna’s international career in the saddle has mostly been over the last 20 years and so having her youngest child and husband with her became preferable in the early days when the travelling to competitions could be a lonely experience.

While others would perhaps have decamped to live overseas full-time in pursuit of an equestrian career, Hanna spends just under half the year in Europe – a necessity if you want to compete at the top level of this sport – but always preferring to return, still calling Australia home.

“I like to be home for the summer because I want to remain a home-based rider – it’s just too hard to live in Europe when you’ve got children and grandchildren in Australia. I love Australia and I love living there,” said Hanna, speaking to SBS Zela from Germany where she has been recently competing and preparing for Rio.

Well equipped for the trip

Equestrian is a unique sport in that the ‘tools of the trade’ are living creatures and not just pieces of equipment – or are they?

“They call it an equipment sport – which amuses me – because I don’t really think of my horse as a piece of equipment,” said Hanna with a laugh.

The key factor in equestrian is that the horses must be considered more as a team-mate or fellow athlete rather than just equipment, because they cannot just be thrown on and off planes and shunted with the baggage.

Time and preparation are very much key factors in the welfare of these finely tuned animals and it’s something of which Mary Hanna is all too aware.

Having lost a much beloved horse around the Athens Olympics in 2004, she is now quite conservative about the timeframes around travelling for her horses.

“Nowadays I’m extremely careful about travelling and how we manage the whole thing,” she said.

“Initially it takes about a week to get over a big trip and then to do things, about a fortnight. But then after six weeks to three months is a real danger period where they can be susceptible to viruses and become unwell so you have to monitor them carefully and really look after them.”

Horses for courses

Hanna naturally refers to her horse as her partner – they are a team.

Selecting that partner then is a long process and is an investment of time, patience and passion for both the horse and the sport.

“There’s a whole number of things when you’re trying to choose your partner,” she said.

“First of all a horse has to have the physical confirmation and ability to do the work because what they have to do requires a lot of strength and a certain movement – a certain cadence. Then the horse has to have the right attitude and you have to have a horse that matches your style of riding and your personality.”

Dressage horses do not reach their peak until at least 10 years of age and in fact, are not allowed to compete at an Olympic Games until they are 8 years old as it takes many years to develop the strength and the ability needed to do the work.

This is a physically demanding sport, so what about the rider’s strength and fitness?

Mary Hanna has a fitness routine that would make someone half her age weary but she is well aware it is essential if she is to perform at the highest level and probably why she is not hesitating in planning for a sixth Olympics.

“I do cross-training and swimming as well as some yoga and Pilates because you have to have very good core strength. I have had injuries in the past with my back so I really learnt the importance of core strength and keeping that under control and always taking care of the fact that you’re sitting correctly - you have to sit in a very correct position on the horse so that you don’t injure yourself and so that you’re effective as a rider,” she explained.

“Dressage is supposedly about harmony and beauty, and you should never have to force the horse through the use of strength to do anything.

“If you have good harmony with the horse then you don’t have to put yourself out or injure yourself – you ride with lightness rather than brute strength to control the horse. It’s more about technique – not strength – that’s the key to it,” she said.

70 is the magic number

Hanna is the first to admit that Boogie Woogie may not quite be there yet for this Olympic campaign, given his youth in dressage terms. But his recent consistent improvement is giving her reason to hope for a big result.

“We’re still a little bit unpolished and we’re still making mistakes but there are a few weeks to go to the Olympics and every day in training he’s getting better and better,” she said.

Therefore, she will be trying her best over these lead up weeks to get him to the point where he can get a score that puts him in contention – the magic number being 70.

“The thing with the scoring is that it keeps creeping up because everyone keeps getting better and better. 17 years ago if you were thinking of getting an average of over 70 you’d think you were dreaming, but now that is the reality. All of us (the Australians) have improved, but the trouble is the whole world has also improved,” said Hanna.

“The good riders must get above 70 percent to be competitive and if you have a team that averages around 73 or 74, then you would (probably) be in Bronze medal contention. The Gold medal team this time could be up around the 80s – but that’s never happened before.”

The Aussies have a strong team going to Rio – a team Hanna believes can pull off something special.

“I’m hopeful that I can really pull something out here. And I know that Lyndal Oatley and Kristy (Oatley) have both gotten 70 already and so has Kelly Layne on her horse – so we have a team there that could be our best team ever!”

Unfortunately, since speaking with Mary Hanna, disappointment has come for Kelly Layne as it has been announced over the weekend that her horse has been ruled out of the Olympics having not fully recovered from a previous minor injury. She will be replaced in the team by 60 year old Olympic debutante, Sue Hearn.

Swapping a horse for a buggy

The lifestyle of a competitive equestrian rider can be all consuming so while Hanna likes to get home to Australia for the southern summer and spend time with her family, she has also found an outlet that is perfect for getting away from everything to do with horses – something she admits is essential for her sanity.

“I think I would go insane if I didn’t remove myself from it occasionally.

“My husband and I have both started playing golf.  Living here in Germany there are a lot of nice golf courses and it is something you can do all around the world and it’s fantastic – you get your head completely away from the horses. Golf is a very mental game and I just love the fact that I have to switch off everything else out of my brain and just concentrate on what I’m doing with the golf. You have to put all your effort into that one thing and not think about the horses if you want to play well. I think it’s a great thing to do,” she said.

The downside of Olympic competition

Sadly, Hanna says for all her Olympic experience she has never been able to watch other sports during an Olympic fortnight.

“As much as I’d love to go and watch some of the other sports, it has never happened. Out of four Olympics I have never got to see one other sport unfortunately, because you’re so involved in looking after your horse and making sure the horse is okay. So I’ve never had the opportunity or the time to see anything else.”

But what she has managed to do at each Olympics she’s been to is join in the camaraderie of the Opening Ceremony – an experience which she says has always been very special.

“The Opening Ceremony I have done every time and I love that – it’s just an amazing feeling as you walk in, in your uniform and with your country - it is a very special moment. That’s one of the things that’s most significant about being at the Olympics – to be with your country and feel very proud to walk with your fellow countrymen into the arena is just a great feeling and a great thing to be a part of.”

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