Who’s your Daddy? Or, more likely…Who’s’ your Mommy!
Many years ago some friends and I were sitting on a beach around a blazing bonfire at a competitor’s party at the Pebble Beach Three Day Event in California talking about our equestrian “Family Trees”. It became clear that most of the people in that particular Event had emerged from only four or five Eventing “Families” and each family member could trace their roots back to a common source. These tribal associations were very powerful and the tribe members were proud of their lineage. In my tribe we were very aware of the ancestral lines we were competing against. I came from the Gurney tribe. Hilda Gurney (winner of the 1969 US Open Advanced Classic 3 Day at Pebble Beach and later the Dressage Bronze Medal at the 1976 Olympics/Bromont) was the chief of our tribe. We were very proud of her as she had bested in competition the East Coast tribal members Wofford, Plumb and Phelps of the USET clan. Other tribes on the field of play those days in California were the Humphries, Collins and Postel/Turill clans. Although I am sure there were others that I have forgotten to name those are the names we were talking about on the beach that night. In fact, these people were very (some still are) famous in the Eventing culture of the day. Every Area in the United States can lay claim to its famous Eventing ancestry from both past and present. We have seen Eventing dynasties emerge and decline over and over again as a part of our long history. People admire the competitive success and applaud the medals won. We cheer the Young Riders coached, the clinics taught and the knowledge passed on. However, this letter is not about any of these famous people. These admirable equestrians are not, in most cases, the “real” ancestral parents of the tribes that make up our sport.
To find the real parents of our Equestrian culture we have to go further back in each of our personal histories. Who taught that famous person to put that first left foot in that first stirrup? Who showed our heroes the proper way to hold a brush, pick a foot and bridle a horse? Who was the patient teacher that gave each of our leaders of today the small spark that future teachers would fan into a burning flame? Many people who begin riding as adults may have made a choice to decide which tribe they “come from” but the other side of that coin is if you began riding before the age of 12 you probably had little choice as to who your real “parent” would be.
Predictably, only a few people sitting around the fire that night had actually started riding at the location they observed as their tribal “birthplace”. In fact most had been started in small, non-descript barns or backyard stables. Some had started at large barns but in a sectionalized part of that larger environment that had been designated as the “Lesson Barn” a type of equestrian nursery specifically designed to start people’s exposure to horses. Some had been started by a family member, a local U.S. Pony Club instructor or a friend down the street. The overriding theme however was that this real, consistent, fun and basic training led to a passion for horses and eventing that for many lasted a lifetime. Without this first contact with a person to begin the process the sport we enjoy would not exist. These often forgotten, many times incorrectly discounted as inadequate or undereducated are in fact the wellspring from which every great rider, trainer and Olympic Team emerge. These are our true “Parents” and they deserve our respect.
These ”Up -Down” and beginner instructors actually do the heavy lifting that some more recognized trainers will avoid as being beneath their position. These hard working, patient and usually exhausted instructors are the reason each rider is here today. These amazing people work with children so young that much of what is being taught will leave the conscious memory before the child turns 10. Of course left behind in the subconscious are balance, coordination and love of horses that will endure. These people work with adults that should avoid photographs as the visual reality would break their hearts but the emotional reality is as inspiring and fulfilling as anything they have ever done. These bulwarks of the industry hire young trainers with little or no experience and give them that “first” job that will either send them screaming in tears for the corporate world or confirm them as trainers for a lifetime. These iron willed business people keep our older horses going, work with people that have more money than horse sense, populate our lower level events with the next generation of riders and do all this with little recognition by the system that benefits the most from their monumental efforts. It’s not that glamorous being a sieve through which everyone must enter but only a small percentage are caught and become the riders and trainers we all admire. And, it’s a bit heartbreaking when the awards are given, the medals hung and the articles written that the names of these amazing “parents” are rarely if ever mentioned.
So, be proud of your tribe. Go into battle with your tribal colors on and your clan allegiances clear. Bring home the totems of your success with scores, ribbons and medals. But, never, ever, ever forget that there was a day long ago when a smiling face and a kind hand moved your left foot into exactly the right place for you to begin your journey.