Described in her day as a goddess of equestrian art, Lis Hartel, who was paralysed from the knees down, is a pioneering figure in the history of both dressage and Olympic sport.
In one of equestrianism’s finest and most emotional hours, the dressage medal ceremony at the 1952 Olympic Games saw Henri Saint Cyr, who had just won gold for France, graciously helping silver medallist Lis Hartel down from her horse and carrying her onto the podium.
In 1921, the year that dressage was introduced as an Olympic discipline, Lis was born in north Copenhagen, Denmark. A talented and passionate rider from childhood, she grew up in an age when only military officers were allowed to compete in equestrian sports at the Games. It wasn’t until 1952 that women finally won the right to compete in Olympic dressage, and Lis was a pioneer, both as a civilian and as a woman, in a discipline until then only considered suitable for officers and gentlemen.
That summer of 1952, when she entered the beautiful outdoor arena in Helsinki, Finland as an Olympic newcomer, she had already had plenty of experience when it came to fighting against the odds.
Only eight years before, at the age of 23, three years after marrying a fellow equestrian and shortly after winning her second Danish dressage championship, tragedy struck this charming and charismatic young woman. While pregnant with her second child, she was left paralysed by polio. Despite her doctors’ best efforts, no one believed she would ever be able to walk again, let alone return to the saddle. But with incredible willpower Lis regained the use of most of her muscles. The paralysis remained only below the knees, although she suffered with weakness in her arms and hands for the rest of her life. This was enough to enable her to walk with the aid of crutches. At a time when the therapeutic use of horses and riding were unheard of, Lis began her rehabilitation in 1944 with her mother and husband by her side. A year later she was riding again on the family mare, a Bay Thoroughbred cross called Jubilee. She would need help getting on and off the saddle for the rest of her life, and the weakness in her hands forced her to use the reins as sparingly as possible. But once she rode with incredible skill, and by 1947 she was competing again, coming second in women’s dressage at the Scandinavian riding championships.
Four years after the pair’s triumph in Helsinki, Lis and Jubilee repeated their success at the Olympics in Sweden in 1956, again winning silver. For the gentle and faithful Jubilee, Stockholm was to be her very last show; she died a year later. Together the pair had won the unofficial world championships in dressage in 1954, and were Danish champions in dressage six times in total.
Lis continued to be at strong presence on the Danish dressage scene throughout her life, and once she retired as a rider she kept herself busy training others. She travelled the world giving demonstrations and exhibitions, donating the proceeds to organisations for polio. Her contribution to therapeutic riding and rehabilitation for people with disabilities was unique.
Despite her disability, she became the first woman and the first civilian to earn an Olympic medal in an arena formerly reserved for men in the military. In 1992, Lis was inducted into Denmark’s Hall of Fame, and the Women’s Sports Hall of Fame in New York in 1994.
Lis passed away in 2009 at the age of 87, but will forever remains an equestrian icon. She shared an extraordinary bond and sensitivity with Jubilee, carrying them to a level of success that has proved an inspiration for the world ever since.
First published 2012, The Horse Rider’s Journal #5. Photo courtesy Dansk Ride Forbund.