That’s All She Rote!

(“Get this to the general as quickly as you can!”)

When I was young I thought curmudgeon was some kind of spice you put in pies at Thanksgiving. Now I know better. It’s me! I am a living example of the cranky old “get off my lawn” neighbor. Especially when it comes to things which may not have been better but at least were different in the old days. No, actually they were better.

So for a day let’s leave the lettered court and talk about jumping. Before my nostalgic, teary eyed rant, let me say that one thing truly is better now. When I began to compete in the mid/late 60s, the lowest division I could go in was not very low. I was slightly older than a junior. I was not an amateur owner. So the first class I ever rode in at a show was Second Year Green, and that meant 3’9. When I rode in my first horse trials, the lowest division was called Jenny Camp, with heights, widths, and speeds comparable to today’s Training Level. There was no Novice, Beginner Novice, Tadpole, Pre-green, Golden Age Chicken, Power Poles or any of those other steppingstones that routinely deliver horses and riders to more advanced work in gradual steps. This is a good development both in terms of confidence building and as an income source for organizers to subsidize building the bigger courses.

Now the cranky part— As you probably know, the sport of Eventing was originally known as the Military. It was said to be the complete test of an officer’s mount. The Dressage demonstrated the obedience and control needed on the parade ground. The Speed and Endurance phase (more on this in a moment) tested stamina, soundness, and boldness. And the Stadium Jumping phase on the final day proved that after the rigors of day two, your horse was still fit, tractable, and sane enough to do a show jumping course of moderate difficulty.

If you event at all, you’ve read the discussions about the change from the long format to the short one. The former Phase D is now what Day Two is all about. Endurance means a different thing without the steeple chase or the roads and tracks. However, that’s not what I’m here to lament.

The Cross Country phase reflected an era when two way radios were unreliable and battlefield telegraph lines were problematic. It envisioned an outpost commander handing a written dispatch to a young officer and curtly ordering him to “Get this to the general as quickly as you can. It’s imperative!” And the lieutenant would tuck the message into his blouse, mount up, and ride like hell to headquarters ten or twenty miles away, no matter what obstacle, embankment, river, cliff, or any other hazard stood in his way. There was a courageous, almost romantic notion to it. Your horse was brave and trusting. You had taught him how to negotiate all sorts of terrain features, and together you could attack any and all of them successfully the first time you encountered any of them “on course.”

It was similar to the relationship I had with my horse when I whipped in for the local hunt. “Stay out on point and turn that hound back!” was not a command you could parry with “Can I get a lead over that fence?” “There’s a ditch in the way!” or “He’s never jumped downhill into water.” You just did it!

One of the things which separated us from “those show ring people” was that we didn’t have to arrive the day before and school the roll top 15 times to be able to do it for the judge on Saturday. Yes, you practiced—as creatively as possible—over different kinds of fences, but generally you didn’t go school the course ahead of time. Most of the events were far enough away that, while you were able to walk the course that morning or the day before, the first time your horse saw any of the jumps was in the competition itself. Nowadays when I hear someone say “I’m not too worried. He’s been over just about everything they’ll have on that course,” it sounds like cheating or at least like missing the point.