I was born in a different century. What with computers, cell phones, jet airplanes and all, I am continually reminded of this. I have been connected with horses all my life and have lived through some changes with the sport. For this month’s column, I thought I would take a look back, and tell you about some of the things I have seen along the way. I feel that I have an unusual vantage point, because I literally grew up with the US Equestrian Team.
I was born and raised on Rimrock Farm, a horse farm in Kansas. It backed up to Fort Riley, which was the home of the US Cavalry between 1920 and 1945. This meant that I had thousands of acres of short-grass prairie to ride over, and I had some hair-raising experiences out there with my four-legged friend, Tiny Blair. I can remember riding out onto the military reservation early in the morning, dressed in blue jeans, ragged T-shirt, high-topped tennis shoes and no helmet, carrying a fishing pole, with a rifle tied to one side of the saddle and a gunnysack full of PBJ sandwiches and Dr. Pepper tied to the other. Basically a one-man (boy) crime wave on horseback.
My family had an unusual connection with the Olympics, so I have always remembered things based on the Olympic quadrennial. My father rode on the 1932 Olympic show-jumping team in Los Angeles and was reserve on the team in 1936. The first Olympics I remember were in London in 1948. The US Army was still in charge of all three Olympic equestrian disciplines, so the riders were all officers, the horses were for the most part owned by the Army, and the grooms and farriers were all enlisted men. Master Sgt. Harry Cruzan was Maj. F.F. Wing’s groom then, and I remember him telling me that they had a heavy wooden trunk for each horse, an additional one for the vet, one for the farrier ... and one full of whiskey! I think whiskey played a larger part in those people’s lives than it does now, which is progress.
It is worth noting that it was common in that era for young officers to ride in more than one discipline. Gen. Guy V. Henry, later Chief of Staff, US Cavalry, rode in both dressage and show-jumping in the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm. In 1932, Gen. Harry D. Chamberlin won the individual silver medal in show-jumping and was on the gold-medal eventing team. In 1948, Gen. Frank S. Henry won the team gold and individual silver medals in eventing and a team silver in dressage, becoming only the second US rider to ever medal in two Olympic disciplines. If you asked me what is the biggest change I have observed since then, that would be my answer ... that riders these days are specialists.
Years later, I commented to my mother that team selection was getting more and more competitive. “You have no idea” she told me. During Prohibition, the Army Horse Show team would go up to the Royal Winter Fair in Toronto. The horses would ship up on special trains, and the team would always take a certain horse who wasn’t much “’count” when it came to jumping, but he was hell to kick, and no customs officer in his right mind would get in the stall with him. On the way up to Toronto, they would store their hay behind Widowmaker, and on the way back down they would build a wall of hay that concealed a year’s supply of whiskey for all concerned. “You just think teams are competitive these days,” my mother said. “Those young officers would have killed each other for a chance at a year’s supply of whiskey!”
I was only 3 years old during the 1948 London Olympics, so I remember very little of that time. I do recall that the damage done by the Blitz was still evident everywhere, and rationing was still in effect, so my mother had brought an extra steamer trunk full of Hershey’s chocolate bars, silk stockings, and other delicacies and necessities. She also brought a case of rice, which had been unavailable since 1939. Fortunately, I found a way to jigger the lock on the trunk and break into the chocolate stash, so I stayed sugar-buzzed for the entire trip. While Gen. Humberto Mariles was winning the gold medal in show-jumping on Arete, I snuck into the enclosure at the base of the Olympic flame tower in Wembley Stadium to do what little boys do. A horrified English bobbie, helmet and all, chased me over the fence, calling me a “horrid little boy.” He did not know how right he was.