Kyniska of Sparta: The Olympic Equestrian Hero You’ve Never Heard Of

Parthenon Horseman, 438-432 BCE, photo from Edwin Roman


These days the Olympics look far different from how they began thousands of years ago. But how beloved they are hasn’t changed. Countries from around the world meet to compete and pursue excellence. Horseback riding, which often is not shown in the media, is graced with a spotlight as well. Each horse that enters the arena in Tokyo is a sight to behold, whether going down the centerline for dressage, galloping cross-country, or clearing unbelievable heights in show jumping.

What not everyone realizes is that equestrian sports were there at the beginning. They were a highlight in the Ancient Olympics themselves, ever since 680 BCE. A chariot race was first, the tethrippon, with more races in a chariot or on horseback added in later years. But what’s maybe even more significant is that this was the lone Olympic sport where women could participate. And it’s the sport where the first woman ever won an Olympic gold.

Similar to horseback riding today, chariot racing was an expensive sport. It required an entire team to manage a fleet of horses and train them enough to win glory. It was a full-time commitment of training and conditioning, and a slew of grooms was required to keep each chariot fighting fit. The charioteers themselves had no shortage of strength and courage to navigate such a dangerous sport and make the owner of the chariot team proud. Curiously, it was not the charioteers themselves who were considered the winner of this contest, but the owner and trainer of the team.

The original Olympics had many rules. Save for the charioteers, contestants had to compete in the nude. Only men were considered able to participate. Married women were forbidden from even entering the grounds. Athletes had to swear oaths before the gods to abide by the rules. Trials had to be completed before contesting the Olympics themselves. Some things are not so different from our Olympics now, save for, glaringly, the overpowering masculinity.

But there was a gap in these stringent rules. There was no writing on if a woman could own and train a chariot since the owner is not the one navigating the arena. It was assumed a woman couldn’t. Nobody tried until one woman came along.

Engraving of Kyniska by Sophie de Renneville, Creative Commons

Her brother, a king, wanted her to enter as a joke. Chariot racing was a money sport lacking excellence. He and other men argued, and there was certainly no excellence in women. In some form of protest, she took her training seriously and entered the Games as a true competitor. Her Spartan horses were fleet of foot. Her charioteer knew and so she took her team to the Olympics in 396 BCE where she won an Olympic wreath. She entered again at the next Olympics, and once more took home the winning prize. 

Her name was Kyniska of Sparta, and she was not a joke.

Female charioteers, Marlay Group Kylix, 430-420 BCE, photo from the Getty Museum

Indeed, Kyniska won those years. In her wake, more women entered the Olympics in equestrian sports—and won. She was the trailblazer for female participation in the Olympics, and yet, she has been forgotten to time and by her own contemporaries. The ban on married women meant that she may not have even been able to watch her own chariot win or receive her winning wreath. And while some statues of athletes still stand today, only a single slab of her victory monument in Olympia remains. It read:

My forefathers and brothers are kings of Sparta

I, Kyniska, was victorious with my team of horses, fast of feet,

and I have erected this statue. I may say that I am the only woman

in all of Greece to have obtained this garland.

What would this female hero have looked like? How much did her horses’ coats shine when they raced down the arena track? What would her brother have said to her? These answers are lost, but not her effect on equestrian sports as we know them.

The Charioteer of Delphi, 470 BCE, Creative Commons

By daring to enter the Olympics back in 396 BCE, Kyniska paved the way for more women to get involved with and be competitive in equestrian sports. She proved that gender was no obstacle in horsemanship and found a way for women to liberate themselves through sports in what were, largely, patriarchal societies.

In our modern Olympics, women now compete side-by-side with men and are a formidable force each year. No one would ever think them inferior in the saddle and in training, and so many young riders and women can find modern heroes to relate to. Who hasn’t idolized Beezie Madden? How can we not look on in amazement as Charlotte Dujardin continues to deliver perfection in the dressage arena? How lucky we are that we should be able to see these incredible women ride. We owe so much of this to the women from years and years ago who dared to take their horses on a pathway to glory.

Scenes of Horsemanship, Kylix, Painter of Berlin, 510-500 BCE, National Sporting Library

As so many outstanding women guide their horses into the arena in Tokyo, I cannot help but think of, and thank, the legendary Kyniska of Sparta. How deserving she is to be another role model for young, equestrian girls, who also wish to keep achieving excellence. Though much of history has forgotten her, she lives in our modern Olympics, where so many can now compete as equals. She was the first woman to win gold, and was far, far from the last.

May all the riders in Tokyo come home safely, and ride their best. This was Kyniska’s dream all along.

Noa currently lives in Scotland, where she’s finishing off her Masters degree and working in art and archaeological research. When not in the lab or museum, she writes fiction and nonfiction, and steals time to ride. She has one retired horse, Gatsby, and has spent her years in the hunter/jumper, collegiate, and eventing worlds.