Wednesday, Jun. 5, 2024

The Pan Am Games In The Good Old Days

No, certainly not everything was better back then. And I’m going back some 50-odd years. And yes, some things are better today. But it was a time of simple, perhaps more altruistic values. The real interest in the horse as an individual, the history of the sport and a real study of the sport as an art.

Bert de Nemethy was not only a horseman of the highest class, but also a gentleman of the highest class. Those were the days when a social order was in place.
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No, certainly not everything was better back then. And I’m going back some 50-odd years. And yes, some things are better today. But it was a time of simple, perhaps more altruistic values. The real interest in the horse as an individual, the history of the sport and a real study of the sport as an art.

Bert de Nemethy was not only a horseman of the highest class, but also a gentleman of the highest class. Those were the days when a social order was in place.

After Bert came on board with the U.S. Equestrian Team in 1955, he was given carte blanche by Whitney Stone, the USET president, and the officers to run the show. Bert ran the show with a velvet glove hiding an iron fist.

He’d been on the Russian Front during World War II as part of the Hungarian cavalry, and Bert could be one tough customer beneath a veneer of gentlemanly customs. It was a mix our country needed in order to pull ourselves together internationally. Tough love.

I would say for the first six years (1955-1960) Bert was able to not only run a very tight ship but also a relatively small one as well. And Bert was a superb, superb organizer. As far as the bookkeeping, Bert did everything himself. He’d be up night after night with his paperwork. He didn’t have a secretary in the early days. His operation ran like a well-oiled machine.

I came on board in 1957 at the outset of Bert’s first full quadrennium. Yes, he’d taken the group to the 1955 Pan American Games in Mexico City and to the 1956 Olympic Games in Stockholm, Sweden, as well as the fall indoor circuit. But, in fact, he was just getting started and getting his feet wet. I would say, to be perfectly fair, Bert was really able to get his teeth into the program after Stockholm.

I was privileged to have been a part of Bert’s first “Band of Boys.” There were no girls on that first team during the late 1950s; the girls came into play during the early 1960s.

So there was Bert, his “boys” (Bill Steinkraus, Frank Chapot, Hugh Wiley and myself), Bob Freels (stable manager) and a groom for each rider. You can see how tight it was and how easy to control.

I’d say that Bill Steinkraus, the captain of the team, and Bob Freels had great input with Bert. Both Billy and Bob were fabulous, old school, American horsemen in their own right.

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Bert didn’t have a permanent base during those early years. Gladstone (N.J.) came into being in the early 1960s after the Rome Olympic Games. We were a little like gypsies and moved from base to base. For instance, during the spring of 1958 we based at Harmon Field, Tryon, N.C. (January, February and March), Alvin Untermeyer’s estate in Greenwich, Conn. (April), and Aachen, Germany (May and June). All of these bases, however, housed excellent stabling, riding areas, and good practice fences to jump.

Not only was our staff made up of very seasoned, experienced grooms, but they were also our closest friends and allies. Under Bob Freels’ management those horses shone. They were fed properly, clipped properly, trimmed properly, and groomed properly every day of their lives. Their manes were pulled to the correct length, just long enough to be prop-erly braided for every big class. Even their tails were braided. But, then, of course, in those days everyone, including the riders, could braid a horse’s mane and tail.

I see how important fitness and condition are in today’s sport. And so it always was. In fact, we’d “harden up” a horse’s legs to any kind of footing from rather firm to often very deep going. I believe the horses as well as the people in those long ago days were actually hardier. Of course, the show schedule was at a much more leisurely pace, and we’d have two- or three-week breaks between horse shows.

Now that I look back on Bert’s regimens of legging a horse up, conditioning, progressive flatwork, cavaletti, gymnastics, and then a few dress rehearsals over courses before major circuits, I see how perfectly correct this program was. We didn’t have lameness problems very often or veterinarians around the clock. We only called in a veterinarian when absolutely needed. Horses were not drilled or over-jumped. They were properly worked six days a week, hand-walked and grazed.

Bert, from his European background, hated turning horses out. I like turning horses out but not “on the road” in strange surroundings unless very carefully supervised. While traveling, I much prefer riding a horse twice a day, hand walking and grazing. It’s much less risky and just as good for the horse’s mental as well as physical well-being.

This is the third year of the quadrennium between Olympic Games and traditionally the year of the Pan American Games. While this is a most important and prestigious event, the Olympics next year are a bigger priority (we’re already qualified due to last year’s success at the World Equestrian Games), as well as the Samsung Super League, which is a very big priority for me. The Super League is our entree into the world’s biggest horse shows and our ongoing preparation for all championships.

I look back with great nostalgia on my first Pan American Games, Chicago, 1959. It had been a particularly hot summer and Chicago, at best, can be very hot. The temperature that summer had a lot to do with that event and specific episodes that happened.

My sister, Joan Neville’s, oldest child Eddie was exactly 10 years younger than I and one of my very first “guinea pig” students. I brought him around the team a lot. He was a great kid, and Bert loved Eddie. Joan and her husband had great friends in Chicago, and Bert allowed Eddie to drive out with me and be the team mascot. This was unusual for Bert or for any of us. We all particularly disliked “camp followers.”

When we got to Chicago it was hot—I mean really hot. The weather virtually ruined the three-day competition. Between the heat and the macadam-like ground, horses died, had to be put down, or were finished on that one day. In Rome the following year, it was more of the same. These two events left a bad taste in my mouth for eventing for years to come. Now, with the modernization of the sport, the technical cross-country and the emphasis on the welfare of the horse things are infinitely better. In those days, however, it was often “blood and guts.”

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We knew little or nothing of dressage in those days in North America. As a civilian discipline, it was just being born. I remember how fascinating it was to watch Jessica Newberry (now Ransehausen) being coached by Liselott Linsenhoff and Herbert Kuckluck, two of Otto Lörke’s disciples. Lörke was, without question, the greatest influence on German dressage during the 20th century.

Then, on the other hand, we watched Patricia (Trish) Galvin being helped by Jean Saint-Fort Paillard and Henri St. Cyr, two icons of the French school. Those two schools were archenemies and often had very different views on riding. Unfortunately, due to the French lack of initiative, the Germans have all but buried French dressage. It is a real pity because the French method has so much to offer. And I say this from a practitioner of both schools.

Soldier Field, as many of you know, is a huge stadium in Chicago. Historically, show jumping ended the Pan Am Games in the big stadium, and this was no exception.

Night Owl, my wonderful horse, and I jumped pretty well. What I remember most vividly is that as soon as I finished the course and walked off the “roped” field, I jumped off and ran to get a Coke. It was that hot. Believe it or not, I was eliminated. Evidently, I had not exited the arena.

The second round of the Nations Cup and the individual was after lunch. And while the weather was scorching hot, that was the coldest lunch I’ve ever had. First of all, Bert was as mad at me as I’d ever seen him (and I’d seen him mad, believe me!) Second, my teammates wouldn’t talk. Nobody said anything at all. I was literally a pariah!

I guess it ended up all right because we won the team gold medal. But this was in no way because of me (at least the first round) but rather in spite of me.

At any rate, these are some fond and not-so-fond recollections of the Pan Am Games a long time ago. I can only hope that my friends, colleagues, disciples and students have even a fraction of the rewards, values and memories that I’ve been fortunate to acquire over the past decades.

It’s from the horse and the art itself that I’ve gained the most satisfaction. I’m not saying that the victories, trophies, ribbons and even my prize money were not important. However, at the end of it all, they are certainly most secondary.

George H. Morris

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