US Equestrian Team applies high-gleam polish
South Hamilton, Mass.
Two dogs cavort on the sweeping front lawn, their breath forming misty gray clouds. The thermometer reads well below zero this winter morning, and inside the brick mansion which serves as headquarters for the United States Equestrian Team, secretaries wearing cardigan sweaters hover around a majestic old fireplace.
In the parking lot behind the indoor arena a Mercedes with foreign plates shoulders a battered horse trailer from Virginia.
Inside the arena, business goes on as usual.
Four horses are being put through their paces as their riders receive intense scrutiny from Jack LeGoff, the French trainer who hopes to help mold them into future world champions.
LeGoff, in a pale purple ski parka, circles as he follows the course of a shining chestnut, and lets flow a French-tinged stream of admonitions to the horse's young rider.
"Keep his nose up. Keep it up, keep it up. He's drowning, don't let him drown. Now increase the tempo, don't lose the harmony. The cadence, the cadence. Keep the nose up. Keep it up!"
The arena is cold, and the seven spectators huddle deeper in their down jackets as LeGoff turns his attention to a young woman on a brown and white speckled mount. "Alright, alright, that's it, that's it! Yes, yes. That's right." Then the cadence shifts just slightly. For 30 seconds it had been almost perfect. These are the seconds for which LeGoff aims. They aren't come by easily.
The US Equestrian Team was formed in 1950 to promote American excellence in this exacting and highly disciplined sport. Previously the United States Cavalry had furnished and subsidized the equestrian teams that represented the US in world competitions. With the mechanization of the cavalry, interested sportsmen organized this non- profit, privately funded organization intended to pick up where the cavalry had left off.
They have been successful. The United States is represented in world equestrian events by dedicated, sophisticated riders. In the 1976 Montreal Olympics, the American riders took four out of a possible 12 equestrian medals, including both the team and individual gold medals, the best showing ever for a US equestrian team.
At the Pan American Games in Puerto Rico last summer, the US team took four medals, including all three gold.
While the names of top riders like Tad Coffin and Bruce Davidson are still not household words, interest in equestrian events in growing and no longer restricted to society circles.
Maj. Gen. Jonathan R. Burton, executive vice-president of the USET and former cavalry member, notes that most of the team's top riders of late have been from middle class, or sometimes "struggling" families.
"The events we participate in don't take the kind of money that polo and hunting do. As far as showing goes, a lot of commercialism and politics have crept into the horse shows, but that's not true in the 'three day.'"
The "three day" refers to the Three Day Trial which is the focus of the training here. On Day 1 of this trial, riders demonstrate the basic training and footwork of their mounts as they put them through paces in the dressage competition.
Day 2 incorporates a steeplechase and a kind of an obstacle course, designed to test the horse's strength and endurance. This event is the heart of the trial, and the most exciting for spectators. It is also the most difficult for both horse and rider, as they must navigate miles of unfamilar territory and jumps at top speed.
Day 3 is a more formal jumping competition.
The USET also operates training facilities in Gladstone, N.J., where dressage and jumping squads are trained.
There is no official team roster for the USET. Rather, the organization selects those national and international events in which it wishes to participate, and then decides which of the equestrians training are most competent.
Presently, a different group of four riders arrives at South Hamilton every few weeks for three weeks of intensive training. No promises are made to any of them, but in the spring, qualifying events will determine who will represent the US in international competition. All of these riders are amateurs, but most devote themselves to training full time.
Now that US participation in the 1980 Moscow Olympics appears out of the question, substitute events are being sought. The USET often sends teams to important equestrian events in Europe, as well as to the yearly international shows in Washington and New York. But missing out on the Olympics, which General Burton calls the "raison d'etre" of the USET, is a tremendous disappointment.
Had things gone as scheduled, five top- caliber riders and eight horses would have been picked this spring to represent the US in Moscow. Now the number of riders needed will depend on which events the team enters.
But in spite of the Kremlin, the training goes on.
"Like this, like this, like this," admonishes LeGoff, breaking into a spritely canter himself, and in the cold arena, four would-be world champs rein their horses in and try again for the perfect cadence.