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Jill Henselwood: 'Animal factor' in equestrian

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By Tiffany Wong
For CNN
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HONG KONG, China (CNN) -- Jumping shadows is not on the agenda for Canadian rider Jill Henselwood in this summer's equestrian competitions. Night-time jumping is not common for North American teams, which rarely have evening competitions, unlike their counterparts in Europe.

Jill Henselwood rides her equestrian partner Special Ed.

As the sole female rider on the Canadian team, Henselwood is competing with her horse, Special Ed, a 14-year-old Oldenburg gelding who she says already has "a couple of very serious good titles under his belt."

Henselwood is referring to the duo's win at the King's Cup Grand Prix for show-jumping in Madrid, Spain, and a coveted gold medal at the 2007 Pan American Games.

Henselwood competes alongside teammates: Eric Lamaze, who is ranked in the world's Top 10; Ian Millar, who has ranked twice as No. 1 in the world; and Mac Cone, who is a seasoned international competitor.

CNN caught up with Henselwood in Hong Kong, after she spent her first day testing out her teammates' horses. She reflects upon horse-rider partnerships as a key requirement for equestrian medal-winning results.

CNN: What is your first impression of Hong Kong?

Henselwood: It is beautiful, the people are friendly and the venue is spectacular. Everything you see is set up for comfort, to make the horses happy. In the stable area, there's even an area, it's like a sandbox, for them to go roll in the sand!

And that's the purpose of the little place. Every thought has gone into how to keep the horses happy. You don't get that kind of facility anywhere in the world. It's just that every detail has been dealt with here.

CNN: Did the recent typhoon change any of your plans for the competition, your training schedule?

Henselwood: No, but it was a bumpy air ride to get in! And I don't think I saw the worst of the typhoon... Winds and rain, we certainly have that in Canada as well, not in the shape of the typhoon. I certainly saw the precautions that this country [Hong Kong] is able to make. Everything is basically shut down; they obviously know how to deal with these things.

The horses handled the plane ride well. It was very efficient from the airport to the stable. I think they said that of all the trips that we have made... It was an hour, barely an hour from the plane to in the stable. The organization is remarkable.

CNN: You had the choice of going into competitive skiing or horses. You chose horses. Why?

Henselwood: I was a kid at the time and I did downhill skiing, and it was really a financial choice. Where do they support their children? And how many activities can they support?

I was one of three children, and everybody had to make some choices. And so, I made mine. But I always loved the horses and skiing as a sport. And with horses it's a little bit different, because with the animals there is a connection. So for me, it was pretty simple.

CNN: What does it take to create a winning horse-rider formula?

Henselwood: What does it take to create any winning-partnership formula in any sport? The combination of the characters of the two and their desire and their ability to work together and communicate... I think that's there in any sport that has a partnership factor in it.

The love of the horse, the animal factor is the greatest influence. I go to see my [horse] partner when I get there in the morning. I walk through the stable and just at the sound of my voice, my horse will "knicker." It's a greeting from another species -- It tugs at your heart strings!

CNN: What do you anticipate for the upcoming events?

Henselwood: First of all, horses are something that people love, and it tends to bring people together. I think we're fundamentally insulated from the politics surrounding having the games in China by having the Games here in Hong Kong. The people are drawn to the horse sport, period. I think you'll find us insulated from the controversy here. My impression is that we'll be 100 percent safe.

CNN: How do you think the perception of horses in Hong Kong and China will change because of the Olympics being here?

I think the history of Hong Kong is already surrounded by the horses and the racing. I think we will impact it in a positive way. I suppose that for the youth of Hong Kong, you may see more interest, more recognition to come to the horse sports for the children. That usually happens if the Winter Olympics are in a certain place; you see the participation in that sport goes up. You may see that here in Hong Kong.

CNN: And what is your advice for young kids who want to become an Olympic equestrian rider? Those who would want to follow in your footsteps?

Henselwood: (Laughs.) I think for young people in any sport, it's not the quest for the Olympics that drives them, but their desire to do the sport and their love for the sport that brings them out to practice it every day. It's something they enjoy and that they can't wait to finish their work or their school to get a chance to do. It's the quality of life, and that's what it's about. And if it means that much to you and you're blessed to have a gift in the sport, then maybe the steps to the Olympics are yours.

CNN: How is it for female riders in the equestrian sport?

Henselwood: Modern-day horse jumping, the characteristics of the sport have changed. [Nowadays] it's a little more of a delicate sport that requires acuity and cleverness from the horse. And the horses are what we call a "blood horse," which means that it's a sensitive, quite high-powered race car. [It] basically takes a lot of technique to manage it well, and it doesn't require the sheer strength that the horses used to require...

It was a male-dominated sport, and it's still a male-dominated sport at the top. There are a bigger percentage of female riders, and at this point there are certainly a bigger percentage of top-ranked female riders from all nations.

CNN: What are your feelings leading up to the competition?

Henselwood: I suppose the best way for me, or at least my biggest successes have come by making sure that all the details are handled. And that everyone is ready, and the homework is done. And there's good health and good fitness. And a neutrality that comes with experience.

Some athletes will say that they need to be "up" or to be whatever to win. But for me, there needs to be a calm and a real sharp focus, and I think I have that here. I feel very settled about the venue. I can see that it's got an insularity that's going to lend itself to concentration. We're separated from the public by virtue of the security, they make it quite quiet in the back stretch, and all of those things suit me.

We just take it one day at a time. And we hope that the horses, your sport partner, has to be "on," and you don't really know that until probably the "friendly," where we jump a little bit. The human athlete can be one hundred-thousand percent "on" and if the horse athlete is not "on," [it's] very difficult to put in an Olympic performance.

So, that unpredictability makes us a little bit cautious about braggery (laughs) or the percentages of winning. You just go to do your best and make sure you're ready to make a good effort.

CNN: Could you walk us through pre-competition routine? Any superstitious rituals?

Henselwood: (Laughs.) I have no superstitious rituals... Having enough time to fully stretch before I go to the stables in the morning is a luxury in my home environment -- We're busy! It's nice when you're here, you get a chance to just relax, make your routine nice.

Right now, I'm riding, training in the morning nicely, and then I go back in evening, because our performances are in the evening. Make sure that the horses are good under the shadow... It's under the lights. And that's my basic routine, and I get some hours during the day to see Hong Kong and sort of relax and then start the day again.

That's the main thing: Break it, don't just keep going for hours and hours. Break it and start again, as if there's a new important day that night. And that's what you basically must get in the routine of before the competition starts.

CNN: And that's how you handle the stress or pressure of the competition?

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Henselwood: I think every competition has stress and pressure. I think the biggest difference with the Olympics is the media coverage. They turn the spotlights on you. That's the uncomfortable sector of Olympics, I think, for most athletes. But in equestrian sports, you have a more mature athlete, as a general statement, than gymnastics.

We have that base of international sport experience for more years, for more seasons, than most athletes. So I think that the jitters of pre-competition are pretty [well] handled. The only difference is the spotlight of the media that the Olympics is covered, and what the Olympics means to people.

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