ON A 225-ACRE TRACT north of Toronto seven young men have been training hard since January 1959 in hope of being chosen to risk life and limb in the Olympic Games' most dangerous sport. After tryouts in July a committee will pick four to ride for Canada in the three-day equestrian competition at Rome in September against the top horsemen of twenty nations.
Although Canadians must usually look on the social pages for reports of equestrian events (including Canada's long-shot bronze medal for third place at the 1956 Olympics and her first-place gold medal at the Pan-American Games last fall) this sport usually takes a high toll of competitors. Injury to rider or horse, or other reasons for “failure to continue,” are worse than those in other sports regarded as “rough” — hockey, ski racing, bobsledding, boxing and wrestling.
At Stockholm in 1956, twenty-seven of the fifty-three horses fell at one jump alone, and to add to the hazard, many horses had to jump a fence atop which a mortally wounded horse was trapped. At the thirty-three obstacles in one five-mile stretch, there were 107 falls—an average of more than two mishaps for each rider. Some riders fell six or seven times. Twenty-one did not make the finish line.
Women are barred from competing, not because they aren’t willing and able, but because Olympic officials feel that the sight of a woman bloodied or battered would distress spectators unduly.
Highlight of the three-day event is a race against time and calamity, twenty-three miles, cross country, including the five miles strewn with thirty-three hazards. Horses and men launch into breathtaking jumps where the landing is several feet below take-off.
The horse barely gets his footing when another obstacle looms; it seems to be no more than a heavy pile of logs, but that is camouflage. As the horse rises to jump, he sees that he is not going to land on dry ground, as he expected, but will drop far below into a pond-sized water hazard. A horse does not like to jump into the unknown. It wants to know where it is going to plant its front feet when it comes down. If it has a moment of indecision, the rider gets a ducking or worse.
The "drop jumps” sink horse and rider to dizzy depths. The perpendicular banks, the aptly named “coffin jumps,” the slides where a single miscalculation can send a man and rider crashing, are even more harrowing.
As though the conventional hazards were not enough, they rig the course with trick jumps they call mental hazards. Giant trees are felled and their branches block the pathway; medieval turrets and stacks of oil drums loom up, along with such startling objects as gaily striped beach umbrellas above tables and chairs. No well-mannered horse would think of charging into such a garden-party scene, but it must—or lose points.
Midway through the course the riders find themselves galloping through a farmyard into the darkness of an old barn. Here, the obstacle that looms up— and has to be jumped in stride—turns out to be a piece of farm machinery. When the riders reach the barn door and bright sunlight again, bales of hay and a frightened flock of sheep bar the exit.
Then comes the most dreaded jump of all, the trakehner. a gully twenty-two feet wide at the top, with steeply sloping sides and a water-filled bottom from which rises a solid log fence.
The horse must slither down the bank, manage the fence in the centre of the boggy ditch, then clamber up the other side to clear the bank at the top. It must be a bold, sure jumper to get across. The slightest moment of doubt or hesitation in horse or rider when jumping at racing speed can spell disaster. Some horses panic at the slippery bank and flounder in mid-stream. Some slide halfway down and negotiate the jump, only to lose their footing at the other side. Others, in a surge of physical power, push from their hocks and fly the twenty-two-foot spread from bank to bank. Some make it.
The Canadian team had no falls at Stockholm, and only twice did their horses refuse the mammoth jumps. This performance placed them just behind the gold medallist British team and the second-place German trio, and ahead of sixteen other nations, including Sweden, the U. S. and Holland, whose teams had shared most of the gold medals for the previous dozen Olympics.
And the Canadians were not only the youngest but perhaps the most thoroughly “amateur” of the competitors. Colonel Charles Baker, an advertising executive in Toronto and non-riding leader of the Canadian team, points out that most other countries have keen young horsemen, with enough money to give full time to training. Or they have cavalry officers who are simply assigned to preparing for the Olympics a year ahead.
“All our riders work for a living and can only train evenings and Saturdays,” Baker adds. The three Canadian riders at Stockholm were John Rumble, salesman for a Toronto oil company; Jim Elder, who commutes from his farm at Aurora, Ont., to a Toronto refrigeration firm he manages; and Brian Herbinson, who lives at King, Ont., and sells group insurance in Toronto.
Bold riding and a bit of luck helped the trio at Stockholm. At the dangerous trakehner, Rumble had planned to take his mount, Cilroy, by a cautious route — to slither down the bank, jump the fence and water-filled ditch, and scramble up the far bank.
“But I approached too fast,” Rumble recalls, “and at the last moment there was only one thing to do—call on Cilroy to take the big ditch from bank to bank. Cilroy is an eager horse and I knew he’d give it a try. We sailed across the twenty-two-foot gap with something to spare.”
Colleen, the second Canadian horse, was a cautious and surefooted mare. Elder took her down, over and up the trakehner without mishap.
Baker, who was coaching his riders at the trakehner, decided to try equally bold tactics, with Herbinson and his mount Tara. “Fly it, Brian!” he called. The big horse took the jump in one mighty leap, and the crowd of fifty-five thousand that crowded around the five miles of jumps took up the cry, “Come on, Canada!”
Among the spectators who cheered on the Canadian team was Queen Elizabeth. Her own horse, Countryman 111, was due to start with the victorious English team at 11 a.m., but when she heard that the Canadians had drawn a 6 a.m. start, she rose before dawn to drive the twenty miles from Stockholm to the course and watch them. Even when many other spectators sought shelter, the Queen and Princess Margaret stood in rain and mud until the last horse had passed the trakehner.
The Canadians would have been second but for a fine example of international sportsmanship by a Swiss rider. At the final fence, a German rider fell and his horse ran away. The Swiss rider, disregarding his own chances, pursued the horse and brought it back, enabling the German team to finish intact and place second. (Mishaps are so frequent that other riders and even spectators are allowed to help an unhorsed competitor.)
Because the failure of any of its three riders disqualifies a team, contestants carry on with injuries that would cause competitors in other sports to be carried off the field on a stretcher.
A Spanish rider fell at a fence and was obviously badly injured, but when onlookers suggested that he give up. they were met by a tirade of indignant Spanish. He was helped remount, took five more jumps, and at the finish line fell unconscious on the horse's neck. He had a fractured pelvis, seven fractured ribs and a broken collarbone. (This year four riders will form a team, with the three best performances counting.)
Does the three-day event's record of falls and injuries indicate that the course is unreasonably dangerous? One English rider declared: “If the standard gets any tougher, they will have us jumping barges on canals and trains halted at crossing gates.”
“After it's over, you can't believe you’ve done it,” says John Rumble. "But it's the most exciting sport in the world."
Baker admits that "it takes all a man can give of himself and all he can ask of his horse.” He points out that after the running of the Grand National Steeplechase every year there is usually a public outcry against the “cruelty” of the jumps—but that the Olympic course is tougher than any steeplechase, and the jumps more rugged than those any horse ever encountered in the hunting fields.
In fact the cross-country course is so arduous that this is the only Olympic event for which the contestants cannot practise under actual competitive conditions. The riders are allowed to walk over it the day before; the horses never see the obstacles until they face them at a gallop.
Major Anatol Pieregorodzki, trainermanager of the Canadian equestrian team, asserts that the training and condition of horses and riders is the prime answer to the challenge of the Olympic course. "It would be suicide to send out an under-trained man or horse," he says. "They'd never make it. But when condition and training are at their peak, the course becomes a challenge that horse and man can beat—and enjoy beating."
The three-day event originated, like many other Olympic events, on the battlefield. Before the days of semaphore signal Hags, field commanders communicated orders to the front lines through despatch riders mounted on superbly conditioned horses, trained to go through gunfire, jump seemingly insurmountable obstacles and battle swift rivers. The cross-country event is a close approximation of those despatch riders in action.
But more is asked of the horse than courage and condition. The first day is given over to an intricate series of “dressage” exercises designed to test the rider’s ability to communicate orders imperceptibly to the horse and the horse’s aptitude for carrying them out.
The day after the exhausting cross-country run, horse and rider are tested over a complex stadium jumping course, against time, to test their performance “after a period of sustained effort.”
Much of the Canadian team's success at Stockholm and in the Pan-American Games is attributed by the Olympic committee to the “discovery" of Pieregorodzki. now regarded as one of the top equestrian coaches in the world.
“The Major.” as he is generally called. was a Polish cavalry officer who rode in international events at the unusually early age of fourteen. During World War II he joined the Free Polish forces in Britain, and came to Canada ten years ago. His first job was on the night shift at the Toronto Transit Commission’s garage.
He was unaware, then, that Canada's biggest “horse country" lay just to the north of Toronto. He had little hope of being able to return to his lifelong love, horses. But his nostalgic talk with his fellow workers in the long night hours was about horses, and there happened to be a former cavalryman among his workmates who had friends in the “horse country.” Soon his name was being mentioned among horsemen, and he was back at work with horses.
His expert touch became so immediately apparent that he was appointed to train the Canadian Olympic team. After Canada’s gold-medal-winning performance at the Pan-American Games, the Olympic Equestrian Committee of the United States invited the Major to visit the magnificent training area at Rancho San Fernando Rey near Santa Barbara, Cal. There, forty thousand acres of land and every conceivable facility for training equestrian champions have been placed at the disposal of the U. S. Olympic team by John Galvin, a Californian who made a fortune in Australian mines.
It was a horseman’s dream, but Anatol returned to Canada. Today, his one aim is to make ready a team that has already gained prestige throughout the world.
“They’re beginning to notice us,” says Anatol proudly. “They're talking about us in the same breath as England, the United States and Germany. We’re in the big league now."
He predicts that in addition to tough competition from countries with a long tradition of Olympic horsemanship, the Canadian team this year will have trouble with the Russians. "In 1956 the Russian horses and riders were new to international competition,” he warns. “But they study their weaknesses and won’t make the same mistakes twice. Today Russia is breeding good horses and their riders are being expertly coached.”
The Major presides at the Canadian team's new training quarters at Green Meadows, the farm of John McDougald, Toronto financier and associate of another prominent horseman, E. P. Taylor. In preparing riders and horses, the Major is a tough taskmaster. His riders do roadwork like boxers training for a fight, to pare weight and toughen muscles.
He believes that, in international competition. the lessons learned by his riders as youngsters over the hunt fields of North York give an extra advantage. The farm-studded land north of Metropolitan Toronto has given Canada most of her blue-ribbon horsemen. Many a father and son get up at dawn to school horses over the jumps and Saturdays are spent galloping through the rough Queensville country or trying hunters over the gnarled root fences of Ravenshoe. Olympic training is essentially an intensification of an everyday sport in this area.
Among the seven candidates for mounts at Rome in September are the three who rode at Stockholm. Another is Norman Elder, who has set himself the toughest assignment of all. He is studying for his Ph.D. at Huron College, University of Western Ontario, and commutes to the training centre on weekends.
“My professors can’t understand my letting horses ‘interfere’ with philosophy,” says Norman resignedly, “and Anatol glares at me if I open a textbook around the stable.” Jim Elder, Norman’s older brother, is regarded as the most nerveless of Canadian riders. “He remains calm under stress,” says the Major, “and when the team is in trouble and fighting for points, Jim is the anchor man.”
Another candidate is Tom Gayford, a trader with a Toronto brokerage firm and known as one of the boldest riders.
These five young men have almost literally been training in horsemanship all their lives and have brought countless trophies to Canada in international competition. from Toronto's Royal Winter Fair to Madison Square Garden's horse show: from the Pan-American Games to the Olympics.
The "babies” of the team are two teenaged high school students from Aurora, Ont., Ken Robson and Jack Wallis. Like the older team members, both are graduates of the Toronto and North York Pony Club, part of a world-wide organization with several branches in Canada. Members of pony clubs pay only one dollar a year in dues, and if they don’t happen to own a horse—as many do not—ride horses lent by persons who have stables of their own.
The Canadian Olympic equestrian team receives the same government grant as other Olympic athletes: return fare and eight dollars a day as living allowance during the games. But it takes about a hundred thousand dollars to train, feed and maintain an eight - horse Olympic entry. This cost is being met by donations from horse-minded Canadians, headed by sixty-three individuals who subscribed a thousand dollars each.
The team’s chief benefactors, however, are the owners who lend their horses. Their reward is almost entirely their own satisfaction in helping the team, and the unsung honor of owning an Olympic competitor. The owner’s name is not even mentioned in the Olympic program.
On the other hand, the owner risks injury or worse to a horse worth as much as twenty thousand dollars. Insurance companies will not issue a policy against injury to a horse in Olympic competition, and the premium on fatality insurance is so high that most owners do not carry it.
One owner, Larry McGuinness, of a Toronto distilling firm of the same name, and the man who captained Canada’s first entry, in the 1952 Olympics, nearly lost his horse before it reached Stockholm in 1956, where he was again Canadian captain. The team’s flight across the Atlantic in a chartered plane came close to ending in a bizarre equine tragedy. Thirteen thousand feet above the ocean McGuinness’ horse, Tara, began to rear and kick. The big plane shuddered and shook alarmingly. The team members crowded around Tara’s stall, but had to stay a respectful distance from the flying hoofs.
It was dismaying. Baker had been required to sign an agreement that the senior pilot could shoot the horse he judged to be endangering the plane.
Presently the pilot came back to investigate. “Can you bring him under control?” he asked.
“Yes!” the Canadians chorused, with confidence they were far from feeling. Tara continued to rampage and the plane continued to shudder. The Canadians knew that another visit from the pilot might well mean Tara’s death.
Suddenly Chris Hughes, one of the Major’s assistants and a veteran handler of horses, went into action. Nimbly he dodged Tara’s flailing hoofs, grabbed his tail, and held it high aloft. Immediately the horse stopped kicking. In a desperate situation Hughes had remembered something he had seen as a boy in England. “When a horse kicked while being shod,” he explained, “the blacksmith’s apprentice would hold its tail up. It always worked.”
What started as high tragedy ended in something close to low comedy. For the rest of the trans-Atlantic flight the team members took turns holding Tara’s tail high.
In 1956, the Canadian team trained in England for several weeks before going to Stockholm. This time, Canada’s entry will fly directly to Rome a few days before the three-day event starts. Nobody knows what the course will be like — deliberately, final layouts are completed only a few days before the event is run, to prevent any team from becoming unfairly familiar with it. But the Olympic riders are agreed on one point: the Italians will probably devise a course trickier and more challenging than any before.