The first team
The story of Australia’s first Olympic equestrian team, put together in the wake of Melbourne being awarded the 1956 Games, is a fascinating one. It is little known, perhaps overshadowed by the heroic antics and gold medals of the 1960 Eventing team in Rome.
Equestrian events at the Summer Olympics is very much a 20th century phenomenon, first included at Paris 1900, and then not again until Stockholm 1912 (though polo featured in the London 1908 Games). From the time of the Stockholm games, the Summer Olympics has included competitors (competing both as teams and individuals) in the disciplines of dressage, jumping, and eventing (where a horse and rider must compete across three disciplines – dressage, cross-country, and showjumping).
Despite the horse being so integral to our nation, 1956 was the first time Australia considered forming an equestrian team, largely prompted by a desire to ensure there was a wide representation for the host nation across various events. Even then, the 1956 team – eventually represented by Brian Crago, Wyatt ‘Bunty’ Thompson and Ernie Barker, with captain David Wood in reserve – were only competing in the Eventing.* And, even though the Games themselves were being held in Melbourne, the equestrian events were actually being held in Stockholm, due to Australia’s strict quarantine requirements.
Even though Australia was the host nation, the Eventing team still had to qualify to reach the Olympics. Sailing to the United Kingdom in 1955, the team spent over a year competing on borrowed horses at events across England and Europe, including at Badminton in April 1956. Fortunately, they qualified for the Games.
While the Australian contingent were initially discounted as a serious prospect, they astounded their competitors, many of whom hailed from nations with long traditions in the equestrian arts, and wound up coming fourth overall.
A heritage of horsemanship
The choice to compete in the Eventing, while including the team’s weak spot of dressage,  played to the Australian strengths very well. Australia, as elsewhere in the world (as evident by its inclusion in the Paris Games of 1900), had had a healthy high jumping (or show ring jumping) circuit, which gained its greatest popularity during the interwar years. This tradition, in combination with riding skills born from days spent in the saddle working the land on horseback, created a strong background for the Eventers to draw upon.
This may sound like I’m buying into the rhetoric about Australia’s mythological horsemanship, but it’s certainly true that the members of the 1956 Eventing team had strong credentials, which hold up against the popular narrative: Bunty Thompson grew up riding on the family farm, and was working the land himself at the time of the ’56 Games, as was Barker, while Crago was a horsebreaker. None of these men learned to ride within the confines of an arena, and their achievement speaks for itself.
In fact, rider and racehorse re-trainer Scott Brodie believes it was only because of an act of compassion by Brian Crago, who accrued 60 penalties by dismounting to help a floundering horse that had fallen into a water jump and was at risk of drowning, that the team missed out on a medal. 
On another note, if you, like me, are wondering where Australia’s great women riders were in all of this, it’s worth pointing out that women were not allowed to compete in any Olympic equestrian event until 1952, when the Dressage ring was opened up to them. Jumping followed suit in 1956, though it was not until 1964 that they were permitted in the Eventing class.
Australia’s first female equestrian competitor was Bridget ‘Bud’ Macintyre, who formed part of the four person jumping team in Tokyo 1964. Australia did not select another female equestrian competitor until the 1980 Moscow Games, when Phillipa Glennon became the first female to join the Eventing team, and Marianne Gilchrest was selected for jumping. Unfortunately neither of these women had the chance to compete, as the teams were withdrawn in protest.
In 1984, Vicki Roycroft (daughter-in-law to Bill Roycroft, father of the famous Roycroft equestrian dynasty) was the first woman to compete as part of the Eventing team, which placed 5th at the Los Angeles Olympics. Four years later, she was on the jumping team, though they only placed 10th at Seoul.
It was not until 1992, in Barcelona, when Gillian Rolton and her mount Peppermint Grove formed part of a gold medal-winning Eventing team, that Australia equalled her 1960 glory in this event. Since then, women have been much better represented across Australia’s equestrian Olympic competitors. 
*Bert Jacobs competed as an individual in the mixed showjumping, a different event altogether.
 Jane O’Connor, “Olympic Trailblazing’, Equestrian Life [no date], http://www.equestrianlife.com.au/articles/Olympic-Trailblazing
 Scott Brodie, “Part 5: ‘Mirrabooka’: horseman of the Southern Cross”, Horses from Courses blog 26 January 2016, http://horsesfromcourses.net/2016/01/26/part-5-mirrabooka-horseman-of-the-southern-cross/
 Australia’s Equestrian Olympic Record, http://www.equestrian.org.au/sites/default/files/Australian%20Olympic%20Equestrian%20record.pdf