Thursday, Sep. 21, 2023

“Those Old Military Guys”



Our columnist reflects on the people and traditions behind the root of our sport—and what they have in common with riders today.

“Those old military guys.”

I see that phrase, in one form or another, as it pertains to the roots of dressage, eventing and show jumping, a sort of acknowledgement that what we have now is derived from something “cavalry based” that came before. But most of us have only the vaguest inkling of who “those old military guys” were, what they knew, what they taught or where they came from. Our primary knowledge of them stems from black-and-white faded photos of serious-looking men in the uniforms of a dozen countries, competing in events that took place before we were born.

World War I should have ended the cavalry tradition once and for all. Back in the late 1950s, my father’s constant summertime carriage driving companion was a retired U.S. Navy admiral named Joel Thompson Boone, who rented a farm near us in South Reading, Vt. Adm. Boone had been a military doctor in France during World War I, where he won the Congressional Medal of Honor in 1918. He told me of watching a troop of mounted dragoons trot through the French village where he was stationed early one morning. They were headed east on their way to the front line. That evening he watched what was left of the troop limping back on foot.

“They could scarcely walk in those riding boots with the high tops above the knee,” he told me. Adm. Boone never saw mounted cavalry in action again after that day.

But traditions die hard, and it was not until the end of World War II, in the late 1940s, that most countries gave up all pretense of using horses in modern warfare and disbanded their cavalries, except, perhaps, for a few ceremonial purposes like at the Arlington National Cemetery funerals in this country.

When I first got involved with eventing in 1961, most of the instructors were “those old military guys.” Some were Americans, like Gen. Burton, Capt. Fritz and Gen. Wing, but many were Europeans who had emigrated to the United States in search of new lives and better economic opportunities.

Some names I remember: Von Visy, Littauer, de Némethy, Rethy, Szilagyi, Wofford, Lynch, Wätjen, van Schaik, Popiel, Ljungquist, de Szinay, Marsman, Kitts. There were ever so many, and these are only a few.

These men came from Hungary, the Netherlands, Sweden, Russia, Poland, France, England, Ireland, Germany, any country that had a cavalry tradition. Although they were from different ideologies, were of different military ranks, came from different countries, and from both Axis and Allied powers, I remember that they had much in common.


Formal Structure

The most visible difference between these “old military guys” and modern instructors was that they were all males. They were invariably more formal than many of today’s horsemen and horsewomen. I cannot think of a single one of them who would show up to teach dressed in much other than highly polished boots, flared breeches, a dress shirt, usually a tie, and unless the weather was hot, some sort of a riding jacket or tunic.

There was a formal distance between instructor and student. We called them Mr. van Schaik, Capt. Popiel, Maj. Rethy, never, ever by first names. Perhaps their older students, like Alec Mackay-Smith, when he took a lesson, might be on a first-name basis, but I never was, nor were any of my contemporaries.

There was a much more formal structure to lessons. We were expected to be scrupulously on time, dressed neatly, horses clean, tack clean, boots polished, and if we had questions it was always, “Excuse me, sir—Would you repeat/explain that, please?”

I don’t recall a “boot camp” atmosphere of loud yelling or anything bombastic, but there was a definite line between “them” and “us.” At parties, there might be a letting down of some boundaries, but in the lesson structure, it was just that, a structure.

The phrase “an officer and a gentleman” implies a standard of deportment and a civility that is often more of a blurred line in 2016. I remember Roger Haller and I watched a lesson somewhere in New Jersey being conducted by Maj. Dezso Szilagyi. This would have been 50 years ago, give or take a year.

He was teaching a dressage lesson to a group of, shall we say, not entirely fit or supple middle-aged American riders. It was inevitable in those days that these European teachers did not consider the attainment of that elusive “independent seat” to be a goal. Rather, they considered a good seat to be virtually a prerequisite to anything beyond basic instruction, and I’m sure it was often frustrating to them to watch their students bounce and flail at the sitting trot.

As I say, Maj. Szilagyi watched in well-hidden frustration as his panting, perspiring little group attempted to sit the trot without stirrups.

Finally, he allowed them to walk. “Ladies and gentlemen, would you be so kind as to line up?” he asked. His manner, even when he must have been exasperated, was unfailingly courtly.


“Ladies and gentlemen,” he began. “May I respectfully suggest to you that dressage riding is not the last refuge of the non-athlete.”

No Easy Out

Jack LeGoff, who was a bit younger than the World War II generation and could be bombastic, explained to us some of the “secrets” to the cavalry training system, which had produced such a stream of accomplished classically trained riders and trainers.

An aspiring cavalryman couldn’t just “be” a cavalryman. All the nations prior to World War II had cavalry schools under the auspices of their respective armies, to which young recruits could apply. Once accepted, the young man would be assigned a small string of horses which it became his duty to care for, feed, and keep in a “white glove” level of cleanliness. A sergeant or an officer might run his hand over a horse’s back or neck. If the glove came away dirty, you, the recruit, had failed inspection. Woe betide you, because penalties and disciplinary measures ensued.

Each candidate, riding his assigned string, would, for a year or so, be subjected to the hard realities of what was essentially boot camp for riders. There would be hours of struggling without stirrups and often without reins, until the gradual process of melding horse and rider into one entity was achieved.

The young officer candidates couldn’t “switch” to an easier instructor if they found this process arduous. Warrior pride and the hard realities of mounted warfare left them no “out.” They either became one with the horse, or they didn’t become mounted warriors. Cossacks, Huns, Mongols, Sioux, Cheyenne, Stuart’s Cavalry, Custer’s Seventh, Alexander’s legions—all the mounted warriors in the long litany of the relationship consisting of man and horse had the same basic reality. They were in it for survival, and they had better get it right, or they might, very literally, die.

So these were the men who were the teachers and the coaches and the event organizers, the judges and the officials during the 1950s, 1960s and into the 1970s in dressage, eventing and show jumping. They had been forged in a hard system, where adherence to discipline was normal and simply accepted. I can’t say this as a known fact, but I find it hard to think that these were men who would have drugged horses to win ribbons or would have abused them by withholding water all night before some class to make the horse more subdued. They had more pride than that, and that code of “officer and gentlemen” would have rejected these attempts to contravene the rules.

But all of this was a long time ago. World War II ended in 1945. The youngest of these surviving horse soldiers would be 90 today. There are few of them left. Our current riders, those born after about 1980, scarcely know they existed. But each time some young rider faces down her fear and gallops at some yawning ditch and wall, she “becomes,” if just for that transcendent moment, an “old military guy,” maybe not in uniform, but in every other fundamental way that matters.

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.




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