Spurs On Their Hearts

Sep 4, 2017 - 1:16 PM

Our columnist reflects on the galloping skills and “go-for-it guts” that were once the hallmark of U.S. riders—and whether they can be reclaimed.

Way, way back in the day, when Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson were the U.S. presidents, the small but growing world of USA eventing was led, supported, sponsored, even “created” by men and women whose other riding passion was riding to fox hounds.

All of the first U.S. Combined Training Association presidents—Philip Hoffman, Gibby Semmes, Ed Harris, Neil Ayer—were avid foxhunters before they were involved with eventing.

There was open land in the 1950s and 1960s, and that meant room to gallop. Those nascent eventers might not have all been able to sit the trot or halt squarely at X or “put a horse on the aids,” but man, woman and child, they were comfortable and confident on galloping horses.

In the snow, in the rain, in the mud, on good turf, on rocky hillsides, downhill, uphill, over creeks, where hounds ran, they learned to follow. The galloping skills they learned out hunting were precisely the same skills they would need in this new sport, three-day eventing, a sport they “rescued” from the military men when the cavalry units were disbanded after World War II.

Look at those old photos and compare, for one thing, the tack, clothing and gear. The first thing to note is that there were no, as in zero, as in not any, protective helmets as we know them today. They wore hunt caps, top hats and bowlers, and those things flew off and hit the ground before the heads of their wearers when horse or rider fell.

The saddles! Try to imagine perching on a block of ice attached to a horse’s moving back, and maybe you can get close to appreciating how good those riders had to be. Pancake flat, no knee rolls, slippery, so out of balance that we see many riders with their lower legs kicked forward in the infamous chair seat. Some things were better back then, but saddle design, saddle fit and saddle construction were not some of those things.

There were no stretch fabrics and no synthetics, so riders had those “aviator” style breeches with the huge flares, and they baked in wool coats on hot days and long runs.

There were no warmbloods. They rode Thoroughbreds, Thoroughbreds crossed with various draft breeds, a few big drafts and lots of unks. (An “unk” is a popular breed. It stands for “breeding unknown.”)

Brave By Osmosis

I used to reckon that there were two groups of riders naturally comfortable at the flat out gallop: the real deal cowboys and the real deal foxhunters. They were brave by osmosis. Galloping wasn’t something they were taught. Galloping was something they just did.

Matthew Mackay-Smith hosted a birthday bash for his father, former Chronicle of the Horse editor, USCTA founder and MFH, Alec Mackay-Smith, a 90th birthday celebration, or some such. “My father taught me how to ride with two words,” said Matthew. “Follow me.”

When hounds were running, or cattle were running away, the riders ran to stay with them. Little kids terrorized the neighborhoods riding bareback, and later, out hunting, a relentless gallop across hill and dale was nothing new, simply “no big deal.”

As the foxhunting fraternity took to eventing, it was only natural that eventing’s main attraction was the cross-country, or at the three-day events, the accompanying steeplechase phase. Most hunts, especially in the Mid-Atlantic states, ran point-to-point race meets, so the idea of flying down to three-rail solid fences at 800 meters a minute was just another day at the office for some of the braver riders.

Many event and horse show riders “back in the day” rode in timber and brush races. Frank Chapot and Kathy Kusner took a break from puissance walls to race in the 4-mile “big one,” the Maryland Hunt Cup.

I raced my first event horse, Lighting Magic, in the Essex Foxhound Point to Point in 1964. Mike Plumb catch rode to second place in the 1976 Maryland Hunt Cup. Kevin Freeman won the 1969 Pennsylvania Hunt Cup. Bruce Davidson rode several times in the Maryland Hunt Cup.

Cormac, a Maryland Hunt Cup almost winner (stepped on a beer bottle and broke down while in the lead), sired Tad Coffin’s Olympic three-day gold medalist, Bally Cor.

It was basically a foursome of cross-country galloping and riding back then: foxhunting, timber and steeplechase races, eventing cross-country and eventing steeplechasing, and there was a lot of mix and match between the disciplines. Our U.S. Equestrian Team coach, Jack Le Goff, believed so strongly in the importance of galloping that when we were in England in 1974, before the World Championships, he arranged with a local trainer to have us gallop race horses on the downs.

Wheezing, Tottering, Lurching

Skip 30 to 40 years ahead.

We are light years better in dressage from those days when DER-SARGE was what you suffered through to get to the fun part. Show jumping precision and expertise today is normal. Back then, we were pretty rough and ready except for Medal/Maclay stars like Plumb, Michael Page and Bernie Traurig. But cross-country galloping? The phase that used to be the centerpiece of the sport? Today, at all the levels, we watch too many riders struggle.

So many modern riders grew up in suburbs. They cut their riding teeth in enclosed spaces, not on the lone prairie or some slope, greasy with wet red clay, on a Virginia or Pennsylvania hillside. Their stirrups are too long. Their legs swing in the breeze. Some pant. Some wheeze. Some lurch. Some are fully seated as they totter through the finish flags, too spent to be able to maintain their two-point, up and off the back, balanced posture as an aid to the horse.

Some American riders can’t finish the big three-day events because their horses have run out of stamina and endurance. The phase which used to be an American strength is becoming an American liability.

It doesn’t have to be this way, and if there is one current U.S. upper level rider who is a poster child for the more traditional “old style” galloping event rider, it would be Jennie Brannigan, the only recent American four-star rider who has also tackled the Maryland Hunt Cup over vertical post and rails, some 5′ high.

Jennie is a throwback, more like the sort of riders of the 1960s and 1970s who hunted, raced and evented, and for whom speed on terrain was familiar territory.

I don’t know Jennie. I met her maybe once, a few years ago, but I’ve followed her career in a vague sort of way through media. When she decided to race in the Maryland Hunt Cup, though, last April, on the same weekend as the Rolex event, I realized that this woman was a serious horseback rider and someone whose gritty drive might inspire other American eventers to dig a little deeper into their own psyches and face down some of their own fears and insecurities.

I caught up with Jennie by phone recently, as she was driving home after riding three gallop sets for flat trainer and former USET jumper rider Michael Matz.

Jennie gets up at 4:45 a.m. to be on her first horse at 5:45, and when I spoke with her, she was on her way home to start riding her event horses. I asked her how she got involved with race horses. She’d been invited out to have drinks with a group of friends, and after supper, everyone lit up cigarettes except Jennie and one Irish guy, Willie McCarthy. Jennie learned that he galloped for Matz, and she asked him if Matz needed another rider. McCarthy replied, in an Irish accent so thick that Jennie could barely understand him, that, yes, Matz liked show riders, and that she would be welcome.

That was about 4 ½ years ago. Typically, Jennie gallops early morning sets four to five days a week when she’s not eventing, during a season that runs from April to November.

About 2 ½ years ago, Tim and Nina Gardner, who also own event horses that Jennie rides, claimed a horse, and Jennie rode him in a flat race in Aiken, S.C. Then Jennie was given the chance to ride in a flat race during the Pennsylvania Hunt Cup meet in 2015.

Out hunting with Cheshire, Jennie met steeplechase and timber trainer Kathy Neilson, who eventually asked her to start racing over timber. Jennie rode in a schooling race, then two point-to-points, and then, like the saying “diving into the deep end of the pool,” Jennie rode Joshua G for Neilson in the 2017 Maryland Hunt Cup.

I asked Jennie how all the galloping, hunting and race riding has changed her perspective as a rider. She used the phrase “living outside your bubble,” to mean pushing toward previously unreached limits and how it’s changed her perception of many things: fitness, how dealing with things that scare you make you “gritty,” her comfort with speed.

“People think I’m crazy,” said Jennie.

So here’s the thing, U.S. riders.

Jennie Brannigan isn’t the only brave, gritty, driven athlete out there trying, but because she seized opportunities that others did not, she is the most visible example of what is possible if you have the courage to go for it.

Fifty years ago, Allen Leslie, Cheshire MFH Nancy Hannum and I were standing on a Unionville, Pa., hillside one chilly April morning. Allen and I were holding two Cheshire Hunt staff horses that we were ponying under Mrs. Hannum’s direction. We were watching three riders schooling over a series of timber fences. Two of them, neck and neck, flew over the fence, but the third rider, fighting with his horse, had a refusal. He came around for a second try, and the horse quit a second time.

Either Allen or I said, “Maybe he needs bigger spurs.”

Mrs. Hannum replied, “No. He needs what they have,” pointing to the two now distant riders galloping up a far slope, “spurs on their hearts.”

As Jennie has discovered, if you have “spurs on your heart,” there isn’t much that can stop you from chasing your dreams.

SIDEBAR Did You Know?

While the average four-star eventer gallops 570 meters per minute over about a 4-mile course, a horse in the Maryland Hunt Cup could be going as fast as 780 mpm over 4 miles of timber, and a race horse going 1 ½ miles could be traveling faster than 1,070 mpm. The world record for 5 furlongs is 53.69 seconds, or about 1,132 meters per minute.


Denny Emerson rode on the 1974 World Championships gold-medal eventing team. He served as the U.S. Eventing Association president twice and won the USEA Wofford Cup for his lifetime dedication to the sport. At his Tamarack Farm in South Strafford, Vt., and Southern Pines, N.C., he trains horses and riders, and he owns shares in stallions standing at other farms. An original Between Rounds contributor, Emerson began writing his column in 1989.


This is a Between Rounds column “Spurs On Their Hearts” by Denny Emerson, which appears in the Sept. 4 & 11, 2017, issue of The Chronicle of the Horse. If you’d like to read more great content like this, you can subscribe and get online access to a digital version and then enjoy a year of The Chronicle of the Horse and our lifestyle publication, Untacked. Or you can purchase a single issue or subscribe on a mobile device through our app The Chronicle of the Horse LLC.

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