London 2012: Are GB victims of the horse transfer window?

By Ollie WilliamsBBC Olympic sports reporter

Equestrian sport's version of the transfer window shut at the end of December, but the results are only fully apparent now.

The British Olympic team lost three top showjumping horses to foreign rivals before the window closed, and Sweden nearly poached a British dressage horse considered a leading contender for Olympic gold.

Millions of pounds have changed hands, much of the cash coming from the Middle East.

Why has the British team allowed this to happen, and how much damage will the loss of three leading horses do to British hopes at London 2012?

The answer is that the fate of those horses was never fully in the British team's hands.

In equestrian sport, rarely do the best riders own the best horses. Far more common is for international competitors to ride and train a horse owned by somebody else.

If the owner is presented with an offer for the horse that they consider too good to turn down, there is nothing to stop them selling - regardless of the consequences for the rider or a nation's Olympic hopes.

"There's always a deadline, on 31 December the year before an Olympics, where horses have to be registered for nation they're going to compete for," explained Rob Hoekstra, performance manager for Britain's showjumping team.

"For some of the nations that qualified [for the Olympics] fairly late, it becomes a bit of a scramble to try to find Olympic-standard horses.

"That's happened throughout the years, but what's different this year is that the Middle Eastern countries - Saudi Arabia, Qatar and so on - are getting very involved in the top end of showjumping.

"They have definitely moved the whole sport and business up a level. They've got a big budget, and horses at that level are of course expensive, probably between £500,000 and £2.5m each."

The December before an Olympic year is therefore always a worrying time for riders keen to hang on to good horses.

But unlike a football team, which can at least normally choose whether or not to sell a star player during a transfer window, riders are usually powerless to affect the outcome if an owner receives a hefty bid.

Though the circumstances were not identical, British trio Guy Williams, Bruce Menzies and Robert Smith all lost horses in December as the all-important Olympic window creaked shut.

"Talan from Robert Smith was sold [to Saudi Arabia] and that had been on the cards for a while. We tried to see if we could keep him but in the end it wasn't possible," said Hoekstra.

"The other day Guy Williams' horse, Titus, got sold. That's slightly different, the part-owner of Titus makes a living out of buying and selling horses. They decided to sell and from Guy's point of view that's slightly less serious, he has a very good second horse.

"And Bruce Menzies' horse, Sultan, is owned by a Saudi prince. When Saudi Arabia qualified for the Olympics, the pressure on the prince to support his own nation became very great. His decision was he'd like the horse to participate for Saudi Arabia.

"Bruce has missed out on that and that's a shame for Bruce, because he doesn't have another horse to take that horse's place."

In other words, it ended any hope Menzies had of representing Britain at London 2012. The rug, and horse, were pulled from beneath him.

The same nearly happened to Carl Hester, one of the stars of world dressage, who helped Britain to their first-ever team European title in 2011 while picking up individual silver.

Hester and his horse, Uthopia, are considered strong candidates for an Olympic dressage title in Greenwich Park. In mid-December, Uthopia's owners received a sizeable offer from the boyfriend of Swedish rider Minna Telde.

Hester, who owns a minority stake in the horse, frantically set about trying to raise sufficient cash to head off the Swedish bid. While most people were enjoying their Christmas break, the world number two faced a question mark over his Olympic future before the Swedish finally gave up the chase on New Year's Eve.

The Briton told the Eurodressage websiteexternal-link: "Last week has been hell [but] British Dressage contacted the FEI to make double-sure no one had registered Uthopia, and it seems they are all too late."

The news has not been all bad for Britain. Several other owners turned down large bids for horses expected to star in British colours at London 2012, while showjumper Scott Brash picked up a horse that had been due to compete for Ukraine, the owners paying a reported £2m.

"Nick Skelton, who won European bronze last year, has got two fantastic horses that we've been able to retain," said Hoekstra. "The owners turned down offers for the horses and said, 'No, we want to go to the Olympics and try to get into the team'.

"But for a lot of people - riders and owners - it's a business, and the only way to keep going is to sell every now and again. We don't have a huge amount of commercial sponsors that can take the pressure off the riders, we're not like Formula 1 where you have Vodafone to put in several million.

"You always like to have depth in your team and the problem with losing three horses is you lose some of that depth. If you have an injury to one of the other horses now in contention, you have fewer to choose from.

"But we have strong riders, we still have very good horses and I think we have a good chance at the Games."