Dastardly Doings at the 1936 Olympic Cross Country Event

Courtesy of Lucinda Green who loaded this video onto her Facebook page and set me Googling. Cross-country at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, and there appears to be a bit of a problem at fence four, The Pond.  I’ve found some images of the posters for the Olympics here, and here on Ponybox is the story of “Tommy” Thomson’s mare, Jenny Camp, and the controversial water jump (written by “Mosquito”):

In the eventing, after the dressage the US team was in second place behind the Germans, and Jenny Camp was in contention for a medal. But … fence four, The Pond, … was causing the problems. It appeared straightforward – a three foot post and rail fence into water, cross the pond, and jump out again. But as the horses started going round the course, something seemed suspicious. The first US rider around, Captain Raguse riding Trailolka, popped into the water, taking the straightest, shortest route. What they found though was that the water was suddenly deeper than it had been on the course inspection, and the surface underneath was soft and boggy. They took a bad tumble, Trailolka injuring her shoulder, but they managed to remount and finish the course.

In those days there was no way to send messages back to waiting riders, and one by one the riders fell at The Pond. The second US rider, Captain Willems on Slippery Slim, followed the same route, but this time there were tragic consequences. Slippery Slim landed heavily in the mud, became trapped, and broke a foreleg. He was immediately destroyed. Not only was the death of Slippery Slim a great blow to the US team, it also took away any chance of a team medal. … Only 15 of 48 starters successfully negotiated The Pond. … 3 horses were destroyed because of injuries at the obstacle. Oddly, the Germans had no problems and their horses all negotiated the fence safely, taking a wider and much longer line to the left side of the fence.

By being second after the dressage, Jenny Camp was lucky to be late in the starting order. By the time she started, the rumors about fence four were filtering back to the waiting riders. Tommy sensed that something was suspicious about the fence, and even though he hadn’t inspected the longer left-hand route, he took it anyway, taking a chance that he and Jenny would figure it out as they went through. His plan worked, and Jenny Camp completed the course without penalties, and followed up with a clear round in the show jumping arena to take home the individual silver medal. …”

How very odd that every last man of the German team should take an elaborate route through such an innocuous jump… and win.

Riding Philosophically, Riding Culturally

Hello folks,

I haven’t been such a great blogger lately because I’ve been working on The Next Big Thing – actually the Two Next Big Things. They’re books two and three, the first of which will be underway this spring, and the second needs whipping into shape so that it can be rolled out sometime next year. I’ve become more of a Twitterer as a result, but there’s one big, considered blog post that I’ve been mulling for  a while and I’m going to type it up now.

In February and March I spent three weeks in the UK and had two very different and very interesting riding experiences. On my return I got stuck into a book my brother got me for my birthday, and my reflections on the book have been drawn into my thoughts on those riding experiences and the way I learned to ride at a British child in the late twentieth century. When I started riding again after an eleven year break (as documented in If Wishes Were Horses) I thought it would be pretty straightforward – after all, hadn’t I spent countless hours having lessons as a child and teenager? Of course I’d overlooked the fact that I’d lost my nerve aged 14 or so and spent the next five years pootling around inoffensively on a pony called Tav, so I had quite a rude awakening when I found myself riding big old warmbloods and being asked to do things like “shoulder in” (what?).

At the same time I was also reading about the history of riding for the first time, and becoming aware of classical equitation. As a bookish type who’s preoccupied with at least trying to be as benevolent a rider as possible, it was inevitable that I’d be drawn to the equestrian philosophy derived from Xenophon and developed in the Renaissance and Enlightenment. Sylvia Loch’s Dressage, The Art of Classical Riding, flicked a switch and I began to think, “If I had the cash to learn to ride all over again – which I clearly need to do – this is how I’d do it.” I was spellbound by Nuno Oliveira and the écuyères of the nineteenth-century French circus. The artistry and care required to not only make a horse dance, but to do so without coercion, drew me like a magnet. Classical riding is about perfecting what the horse does naturally. Its philosophy is irresistable to the horse lover. Xenophon, quoted by Loch, wrote:

“Now if when his fire is thus kindled, you let him have the bit, the slackness of him makes him think that he is given his head, and in his joy thereat he will bound along with the proud gait and prancing legs, imitating exactly the airs that he puts on before other horses. Everybody sees that such a horse cries out that he is free, willing, fit to ride, high-mettled, brilliant and at once beautiful and fiery in appearance.”

At the same time I’d become fascinated by side-saddle, not just because of those écuyères, but also because of lady riders like Nannie Power O’Donoghue, Mrs Hayes, Lady Salisbury and Catherine de Medici, all of whom were something I’m not, namely brave huntswomen who, like the “Fair Girls on Grey Horses” in Will H Ogilvie’s poem, never went wide of a fence. I asked for a side-saddle lesson at Christmas 2010, and my mother activated the Norfolk horsey network and found me a teacher operating at Pine Lodge School of Classical Equitation, which turned out to be a classical riding academy of the Oliveira/Loch kind only a few miles from home in Costessey. At the end of last June I had my side-saddle lesson, documented here, and found myself legged up on Xis, a beautifully trained and very patient Lusitano. I chatted with the Lodge’s owner and presiding spirit, Sue Barber, about my interest in classical riding and she said I should come back for a lesson. Due to the vagaries of income and travel, it took me a mere nine months to take her up on the offer, but I finally returned in March 2012.

I’d travelled to the UK to launch If Wishes Were Horses and to write a piece about side-saddle and the Flying Foxes Display Team for the Telegraph. On February 19th Mum and I went to Audley End to meet the Foxes, who’d decided that I was going to have not just a lesson, but a bit of a jump, no matter if it was my first leap in 14 years. Becca Holland’s big grey hunter, Henry, was a trooper, loping gently into the fence as I sat back with the reins as loose as I could leave them – I was determined not to snag him in the mouth – and good-naturedly putting up with my inadvertant acrobatics. Becca encouraged me to ride short and although in my first side-saddle lesson at Pine Lodge I’d used my left leg so little that I’d wondered why I bothered bringing it, I now found myself actively gripping with both legs, poised for speed and take off, feeling like a jockey rather than a lay-dee. Bex Hathway White took a series of photos of our efforts for the Flying Foxes Facebook page as a visual aid for others who are experimenting with jumping side-saddle, and you can see them, and my terrified concentrating face here. The crowning moment for me came later as we cantered for the photographer in full rig in front of Audley End, and Henry took wing.

As I wrote in the Telegraph,

Henry …  lengthened his stride and suddenly there we were, bowling along beautifully. I sat back and thought, “This is it. This is how those Victorian amazons felt when they were leading the hunting field. Easy, elegant, smooth and so fast.”

It was a hell of a rush. It was also, I realised, very horse friendly: you sit back and let the horse get on with his business with relatively little interference.

Three weeks later I was back at Pine Lodge, watching as someone warmed up a grey Lusitano called Sasa with a few canter pirouettes before my lesson. He was, I was told, currently ranked eighth in the world in working equitation and worth more than every horse I’d ever ridden combined. No pressure then… Sue warned me before I hopped on, “People pay not to be taught by me. You’re going to wish your parents bought you some shoes rather than a riding lesson for Christmas” and she lived up to her threats, although she wasn’t right about the shoes. I didn’t care if she was scarcastic or strict because I was there to learn, and though an hour of riding without stirrups left me as crippled as dancing on a pair of four-inch stilettoes, I knew which I’d rather have. Sasa and a whole new way of riding.

It was far more intense than I’d anticipated. I had to grip solidly with my upper legs and use not my seat but my calves alone to ask for a transition. Without realising it I’d gotten into the bad habit of holding my reins in my fingers, not the palms of my hands, and of rocking back and forth in the saddle and not, as Sue demanded, rising up and down. “You’ve got to look like you’re doing bugger all,” she stressed. “Effortless. Get that fire,” here Sasa leapt and surged, “and energy, and don’t let him doze off. Watch his ears. He’s not paying attention to you. Get him concentrating.” We walked, trotted and cantered in circles, all without stirrups, as I tried to pull off the confusing new style that seemed like the old puppeteer’s challenge of “rub your head, pat your stomach”. “Turn him with your shoulders,” she called, as I failed again again to get Sasa to canter on the correct leg. I knew that my seat was important (what was that line from Sylvia Loch’s book about Oliveira being able to direct a horse purely with his lower back muscles?) but I could only use it heavily and crudely, and Sasa was both confused and contemptuous.

Sasa – ridden by somebody who knows what they're doing

By the end of my hour I was aching all over and full of questions: the art of doing “bugger all” seemed to be quite a work out. I also wanted more lessons, and to pursue classical riding when I next had the chance. I began to realise what effort must go into the decades-long partnerships that great classical riders forge with their horses as they both work towards perfection, achieving physical communication so swift that it looks like mind reading between rider and mount.  However, I was also beginning to wonder how on earth one could ride like that cross-country, or even on a hack. Which was best? The light seat I was used to (although imperfectly executing) or the “effortless” classical style? How can two styles of riding be so different and both “good”? I emailed my friend Karen, who spent years studying dressage, and she sympathised “Classical equitation really fucked my hunting and my huntseat. But it does feel pure.” I turned to history for clues.

The book I mentioned at the beginning of the post is Noble Brutes: How Eastern Horses Transformed English Culture, by Donna Landry. It’s a cultural history of the way in which the English not only adopted Turkish, Arab and Barb horses and turned them, within a generation,  into the “most English of horses”, the Thoroughbred, but also appropriated Oriental riding styles and repackaged them as the English hunting seat. In contrast to the classical Continental European style with its long stirrup leathers and firm seat, Eastern jockeys rode short and lightly in a manner that favoured galloping over open country on rangey horses rather than cantering in a menage on stouter baroque horses. As hunting evolved in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the English lost their residual interest in classical haute école and focused instead on speed and leaping, riding in a manner that encouraged their mounts to be “forward going” rather than collected, their outline extended and relaxed.

This, I realise, is the tradition in which I learned to ride. Leg contact only when you need it. Light seat. Snaffles and the rein, as eighteenth-century jockey Samuel Chifney put it, “silken… as fine as a hair … that you was afraid of breaking it.” Compare that to a line in K M Peyton’s Fly-by-Night which I’ll always remember, as Ruth Hollis watches Peter McNair handling a brilliant but difficult pony at a hunter trial, “Toadhill Flax, as if held on a thread, trembling with excitement, pivoted on his forehand.” Compare this “natural” style also with a Horse and Hound “thruster of the week” from last year, who said that her horses were “almost feral” because she barely trained them, preferring to let them take hedges as they pleased, with minimal interference. In To Whom the Goddess the authors wrote, “For a woman riding side-saddle there is very little she can do to make a horse take off at the right moment, except give him a kick, and she is very handicapped in this way, and has to rely mostly on how she ‘presents’ her horse at his fences.” This is what I sensed with Henry, too – I could see how the grand hunting dames built up such confidential partnerships with their horses. Trust was essential. You could almost say that the British side-saddle seat for hunting with its long reins and low-positioned hands was the most extreme expression of the English/Oriental style.

Do not lean this far forwards when jumping side-saddle. Because when you land that's how far backwards you will ping.


Of course, as Landry is at pains to point out, this is very much an ideal which plenty of real riders miss by a country mile or flagrantly abuse. But the notion that the English rode “lightly” and “naturally” in opposition to the classical style with its complicated bits, philosophy and heavy collection, is a deep-set one. And the British were suspicious of dressage for a long time. Pat Smythe was criticised when she took the advice of the Swiss three-day event rider (her future husband), Sam Koechlin, and used dressage to train her horses. She won the Prix Caprilli, a competition in which participants both showjumped and performed a dressage test. For decades our three-day eventers excelled at the hunting-like cross country phase while falling behind in dressage – the exact opposite of the German riders. I’m guessing this is why, also, despite a decade’s worth of lessons in the UK, I never learned to “shoulder in”.

But my eleven year break from horses coincided with the culmination of a cultural change in British equitation that was a long time brewing. Dressage has become huge. Horse and Hound devotes as many pages to dressage as to hunting, and the traditional gymkhana faces stiff competition from local dressage events where expensive warmbloods line up against hairy cobs. We have a world-beating dressage team that’s a major contender for Olympic gold, and have begun to breed competition horses that wow even the Germans. There’s also an upsurge of interest in the classical style that goes hand in hand with a preoccupation with both its history and ethics, strictly and exclusively maintained by purists. As Sylvia Loch’s website states,

“Classical Dressage is correct for the horse, correct for you, and correct for that moment in time. The horse hasn’t changed in thousands of years, neither have human beings. We are all ruled by the same physical laws of nature, which is why there is no middle way. Only correct, and incorrect.”

How perfect to find the absolute Right Way to Ride a Horse, you would think, but then my childhood memories of the thrill and companionship of a darn good gallop with a sympathetic, excited pony intervene and I think of Donna Landry’s closing words in Noble Brutes:

“From the seventeenth century onward, utility and beauty were embodied, irresistably combined, in the Eastern blood horse as these equine foreigners embarked on their European sojourns. Inspired by their coming, abandoning the manège, and riding short, ‘after the Turkey fashion,’ horsemen and women in the British Isles would pursue the ideal of equestrian partnership not in dressage movements but in free forward movement over the green turf, where the love of galloping for its own sake, for the joy of liberty rather than collection and discipline, could be most keenly felt.”

So, which is it?

At the end of all these musings I realise I can’t be a partisan like Landry and Loch. Despite the clash between the two seats and the way that they have been played off against one another – especially by the British – to distinguish one nation’s horsemanship from that of others, they have more in common than purists would allow. Both classical and English-styles are performed on a rein that sags and with minimal tugging at the bit. Both involve a close, trusting relationship with the horse. Both are intended to look effortless and to enhance the horse’s natural skill to the best advantage. Both put the horse’s welfare foremost and celebrate its athleticism and intelligence. Why choose? I want to ride two horses: the Lusitano from an Uccello painting, balanced on his hindquarters in a levade that’s an expression of strength and art, and the English Thoroughbred with the loose, long stride and blood-quickening gallop.

Whole Heap of Little Horse Links

Thank you to Christina for this link about an Olympic three-day-event hopeful who survived a catastrophic barn fire. The NYT features includes a short film and a slideshow.

Christina also sent this extraordinary story about a rescued horse. It’s not so much the rescue that stands out, as the practice it sheds light on. Apparently the height of sophistication of STD testing in the horse world consists of breeding a mare to a newly imported stallion and seeing if the mare develops any diseases. Every bit as foul as the Premarin mares… This mare was lucky to be rescued, albeit with permanent damage to her reproductive system. UPDATE: Corinna has researched the story behind this, and I suggest you mosey over to her blog to have a read.

The Independent on Sunday has a long feature on the epidemic of horse abandonment and neglect in the UK. Redwings Horse Sanctuary has declared itself full. Redwings. ENORMOUS Redwings. I visited their HQ at Hapton in Norfolk two years ago for a chapter of If Wishes Were Horses, and was amazed by their incredible facilities: post-and-rail paddocks as far as the eyes could see, a fully equipped veterinary hospital, rehab facilities and retraining for adoption. They also have a healthy annual income. If Redwings can’t cope with the demand for shelter for unwanted British horses, no one can. Worrying stuff.

Side-saddle enthusiast Cindy Simms (whose grandmother was at the vanguard of the side-saddle revival movement of the 1970s) is looking for an off-side saddle. Blogger Sidesaddle Girl may have found the solution: a brand new piece of tack made by Zaldi in Spain.

More cheerily, someone at HHO provided a link to British eventer Phoebe Buckley’s 2010 round up of bloopers, which is great fun. Watch for the hair-raising stuff at 1.20!

Fair Hill, Fair Henny: Cross Country Through a Horse’s Ears


Ever exhilarating: take a ride round the cross-country course at the Fair Hill International in Maryland with the wonderful Henny and Peter Atkins of Australia. Henny (whom I wrote about briefly here) loves cross country, as you can probably tell by his ears, which are pricked all the way round. Atkins says he once saw Henny standing stock still in a turn-out paddock at a major event, gazing into the distance where part of the course could be seen, as though he were working out his tactics. He’s now being syndicated, and I can’t imagine who wouldn’t want a piece of him.

Salvos Across the Equine Gene Pool: a Reader

This is not so much a post as a string of links to some interesting, thought-provoking essays elsewhere and a question: what is “pure blood” and should it matter?

Let me explain. Roughly speaking, until the nineteenth century and even the twentieth century, the vast majority of horses and ponies in the West were not bred by someone who wanted to “preserve a bloodline” or produce a very specific set of characteristics. The aim was to make a “type” of horse to do a specific job, using the sires and dams that were available – ideally with good conformation. It was thoroughbreds whose breeders, inspired by Arabian breeding practices, changed the game. You can see that in the etymology of the words “thorough bred” “pur sang” “voll blut”. Soon it wasn’t enough to have a good horse, it had to be a “pure horse” (The warmblood bucks this trend, in theory. More anon). To a large extent, this probably did improve the quality of many horses: stallions were selected for meeting certain characteristics and performance criteria. But could the preoccupation with “breeds” over “types” eventually cause problems?

Here are my scattered thoughts and links.

1 – I just finished reading John Bradshaw’s In Defence of Dogs, which deals, among other issues, with the problem of pedigree dogs:

“Until very recently, the amount of variation in the domestic dog was sufficient to maintain genetic health. Multiple domestications and back-crossing with wolves meant that dogs worldwide still have an estimated 95 per cent of the variation that was present in wolves during the time of domestication. Most of this variation lives on today in street dogs and mongrels, but pedigree dogs have lost a further 35 per cent. That may not seem much, but let us imagine the scenario in human terms. Mongrels maintain levels of variability that are similar to those found globally in our own species. In many individual breeds, however, the amount of variation within the whole breed amounts to little more than is typical of first cousins in our species. And we humans know that repeated marriages between cousins eventually lead to the emergence of a wide range of genetic abnormalities, which is why marriages between close relatives are taboo in most societies. It is astonishing that the same consideration is not given to dogs.”

Over just the last six generations, inbreeding [of golden retrievers] has removed more than 90% of the variation that once characterised the breed. … In a recent sampling of Y (male) chromosomes of dogs in California, no variation was found in fifteen out of fifty breeds, indicating that most of the male ancestors of each and every dog in those breeds have been very close relatives of each other.”

This put me in mind of Fell Foal Syndrome, HYPP, assorted genetic problems in Friesians, Minxy the ill-fated miniature horse, the bug-eyed, seahorse-headed Egyptian Arabians who are unrideable…

2 – The new blogger at Fugly Horse of the Day asked readers to guess the breeds of a series of horses. Today she revealed that most of the commenters had gotten it right, they were all mustangs. She then embarked on what can only be a deeply unpopular polemic about America’s nominated “wild horse” and alternative national symbol:

“I’ve done some research on mustangs over the years, I’ve owned one, trained many and ridden one I would have liked to try to turn into a cowhorse. Each one was a very different type of horse. They were little and arab-y like, in the middle like a QH, big and draft-y or a horrible mix of it all. My overwhelming impression was I could easily find the domestic equivalent at an auction, or in someones backyard, or rarely, through a good breeding program. They had good feet and good bone, or bad feet and birdy bones, they were “primitive” in their coloring or they were red. Some had stubby appy tails, some had flowing tails, some were big, some were small, some didn’t seem like horses at all. OK, no more Dr. Seuss, you get my drift. I didn’t hate them, or consider them a waste of space, they were just horses. …

I learned there are pockets of different horses tucked away here and there with DNA which goes back to the Spaniards horses. Some go all the way back to the first horses reintroduced to America. This is kind of cool. I can see the value of preserving these little drops of history.I like the idea of watching a herd of ancient history running free through a national park. It does not make me think these horses are extra special, better than others, or worth more than any decently bred horse from a good breeding program. It seems to me small pockets of animals, holed up in a little tiny undiscovered part of the mountains for hundreds of years, will end up much like the royal families of yore which only married their kids off to others of royal blood. They ended up with weakened bloodlines, an influx of disease and mental instability. …

When I read about these rare pure bloodlines going back to the Arabs and Andalusians I think, Huh? Don’t ALL breeds go back to Arabs and Andalusians? Aren’t there still some Arabs an Andalusians out there? …

Then there are the other mustangs. The ones developed by ranchers turning out their own studs and shooting the wild ones to create their own herds. Or sprung up from the drafts and saddle horses turned loose before the World Wars or the Great Depression. These are nothing but grade horses folks. Nothing wrong with a good grade horse, but nothing to be revered either.

Shoot, we’re breeding a whole new kind of mustang right now in 2011. With horses being dumped in record numbers, natural selection should kick in any minute. We should be ready to start saving the elusive, yet kind of stupid, ‘Bushama Mustang’ in just another couple of years.”

It was the original FHOTD blogger who introduced me to the ever-increasing roll call of new “breeds” from “Gypsy Vanners” to “Warlanders” – to give two of the more reputable examples. Everyone wanted to have a “rare” horse, a “special breed” with an exotic history. It wasn’t enough to have a good individual horse. It had to have history and pedigree.

3 – An Australian racehorse breeder is launching a legal attack on the national Thoroughbred industry’s ban on artificial methods of reproduction. As this is a global requirement in horse racing, it will be very interesting to see the result. All other sportshorses can be bred using AI and often embryo transfer. Horse Talk covers the debate:

“Smaller breeders – the vast majority in Australian thoroughbred breeding are small operators with an average of three mares – would benefit from not having to ship their mares to stud, and would also be able to gain access to semen from top horses around the globe, Tonking argues.

McHugh does not put much stock in the central argument from the Australian thoroughbred industry that it would become a world pariah if articificial insemination was allowed. He has proposed a separate registry for artificially bred thoroughbreds. France, he has pointed out, allows such separate registries and it did not appear to have damaged its industry.

The whole debate is fascinating. The arguments offered by McHugh are hard to challenge. Yes, relaxing the live-cover rules would give smaller breeders access to stallions around the globe. It would undoubtedly save them money. Australia’s ban on thoroughbred artificial insemination goes back to at least the 1940s. The practice was banned to prevent any skulduggery, and to ensure that mare owners got the stallion service for which they were paying.

However, in the modern era of DNA identification, that argument has long since been buried. Does the requirement for live cover effectively create a restraint of trade? If you’re a smaller breeder unable to afford a top stallion’s stud fee, but able to afford a straw or two or semen from a similarly-rated sire, it is hard to argue otherwise.”

What then happens to the mid-range sires, the rare ones with no Northern Dancer blood? The ones that represent an outcross and variation in one of the smallest gene pools in the equine world? Where are the limits when top stallions can already cover a hundred or more mares a year? (I blogged a little about “partbred” racehorses here)

4 – A video, rather than an article. When I made my return, of sorts, to the horse world, one thing which struck me was the breeding of specialist horses for eventing, dressage and showjumping – to the extent that there are now futurity competitions for foals and youngstock in these categories. Performance is paramount. As a lumpen outsider, I’ve started to wonder if dressage horses in particular might become too specialised in a few generations. Maybe I should just relax and enjoy the sight of the dressage-bred foal which raised a record price of €200,000 at the Oldenburg Elite Foal Auction last week in Vechta. He’s even called A la Dressage: