It was October 1989 and I was at the Volvo FEI World Cup qualifier in Helsinki in Finland.

During the competition a young rider was introduced into the arena as representing the Russian Soviet Union(URS), but on the lapel of his riding jacket were pinned two small maroon and white ribbons indicating that he wanted to be seen as a citizen of a free Latvia.

This was the first time in 50 years that a show jumping rider could make that declaration in public.

It was an emotional moment, much appreciated by all who knew just what was happening in the Baltic States at that time.

Latvia along with Estonia and Lithuania were involved in the ‘Singing Revolution’ that strove to extricate those nations from the claws of Russia.

Flash back then 50 years to the Nations Cup at Nice in 1939. There, the Irish Army jumping team that had been formed as part of our own declaration of independence was having its last foreign outing prior to the sport being shut down by Hitler.

Among the eight other nations fielding uniformed teams on that occasion was Latvia. This small country which had won its independence back in the same year as Ireland did in the early 1920s, was soon to lose it again – first to Russia in 1940, then to the Germans in 1941 and back into the Soviets in 1944.

Flying the flag

So, over 50 long years from their last Nations Cup outing in Nice in 1939, until that emotional moment that I witnessed in Helsinki 1989, Latvian equestrians had to ride under a flag of occupation. This brave moment at a televised international show jumping event was the first time since 1939 that a Latvian rider was declaring himself part of a “nation once again”.

Through the symbolism of those two maroon and white ribbons on the lapel of a lone rider in the Helsinki Exhibition Centre, the spirit of freedom was again proclaimed from the back of a horse.

The so called “Singing Revolution” lasted from 1988 until finally in 1991, under Mikhael Gorbachev’s Glasnost, the three Baltic States finally got their independence back.

As freedom in the Balkans is again under brutal threat, I am happy to recall the moment in Helsinki when that young Latvian rider declared: “I do not want to be listed on a start sheet and announced into the arena under the letters URS, but rather under LAT.”

Thousands of Ukranians have been saying something similar over the last week as they put their lives on the line for freedom. Interestingly, Russia has a team entered for the FEI Youth Equestrian Games at Aachen in June. How will that work out?