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(Sorry long-time readers…below is a re-post. I had too much on my plate today. There is a tiny update on Autumn at the bottom.)
US ARMY CAVALRY AND THE OLYMPICS
Who knew? I certainly didn’t. I had no idea that the first several US Olympic Equestrian Teams were the US Army. In fact, it was ALL the US Army. From 1912 until the US Cavalry was disbanded in 1948, every single US Equestrian Olympic team was in fact, the US Army Equestrian Team or the Cavalry. Yowsah!
OK, here are some of the very interesting early details.
First off, the US Cavalry was informed in January of 1912 that they had to come up with an Olympic Equestrian team for that summer’s Stockholm Olympics – the first to exhibit equestrian events. OMG! Could you imagine having only 6 months to prep your horses and riders for the Olympics?!
In 1912, Europeans dominated equestrian sports which were dressage, jumping and the three day event. Well, since the finest horsemen in the US who were also schooled in European styles and therefore competitive were the Cavalry. So, logically, they were chosen to represent. (In fact, no civilians were invited until 1952.) Anyway, the Army picked Captain Guy Henry to lead this task force. Captain Henry was the son of a General and an outstanding horseman. He had served as the mounted service school chief of horsemanship instruction and was also a graduate of the renown French Cavalry School, Saumur. Also, he’d served as a company officer with the French Cavalry. So, he knew his stuff, especially when competing against Europeans. (This first photo is Captain Guy V. Henry on Chiswell — Gruenther)
Poor guy, here he was, stuck in the middle of the United States (Fort Riley, Kansas) in the middle of a very ugly winter, having to get this impossible thing together.
Capt Henry thought about his options with his string of Army horses and riders. After contemplation, he decided that all of the Army horses were far inferior to what they had in Europe for dressage and jumping. The US was definitely behind the 8 ball from the start as far as stock. He then decided, wisely, that the US could excel in the three day event through superb conditioning and really accurate riding. Capt Henry felt with the extreme experience of both his horses and riders, they might just be competitive over the event course.
So, they set about doing the impossible — making an Olympic team out of the Cavalry. They were only given 1.5 hours to work each day, in horrible winter conditions and three of the riders still had to perform all of their Army duties. The recruits did their best and departed, aboard a ship, to Sweden six months later.
Once there, Capt Henry continued with the plan to train for the three day event more steadfastly than the other two events. Capt Henry felt that they were really only competitive in this one event. So, every one of the riders went over the course with a fine tooth comb to memorize every curve and hazard. They also did something no one else had ever done… they carried stop watches to understand precise timings and then wore wristwatches while riding. What a concept! Lo and Behold, it worked! The total underdog, the US Army team, won the Bronze in the three day event!
OK, now this is the part I love. Capt Henry rode his horse, Chiswell (also his Army mount) during the three day event. He also rode the gelding for dressage and placed 11th, and then rode Chiswell AGAIN in the jumping to place 4th. Yeehaw! I’d like to see that nowadays! Anyway, Captain Henry did a great job with the team and they surprised everyone. (This next photo is The 1912 Military Bronze Medal Team: Benjamin Lear on Poppy, John Montgomery on Deceive, and Guy Henry on Chiswell)
So, the pressure was on for the next Olympics. But, we didn’t do so well… Everyone was back doing their Army duties and no one was really minding the store. But, in 1928, someone in the US Army Dept decided to step up the game a little. Two things happened. The first was they decided to breed for a better (by Olympic standards) Army horse. This meant adding half to three quarter TB. The next was to start The Cavalry School at Fort Riley with an advanced course in Equitation.
Now, I woulda thought that the Cavalry already had a school… but in those times, I guess everyone was still riding horses often so maybe they didn’t need one. But, someone decided to teach the European way of riding. That was a really good idea, it turns out. Anyway, guess who was the head of that school? Of course, Captain Guy Henry! He had been serving for the past several years and was now Major General Guy Henry. He hand picked the students for his advanced classes which pretty much meant that he hand picked and trained the 1932 the Olympic team as only he knew how…
The result was astounding for the 1932 Olympics. The US Equestrian Team was ready! The jumping squad, led by Major Chamberlin riding SHOW GIRL in his fourth Olympics, won a silver medal. Lt. Earl Thomson on JENNY CAMP, led the eventing team. He and JENNY earned an individual silver and the team won the Gold! This was the first US Equestrian gold. And, in another stunning feat, Captain Tuttle used his own horse and won a bronze in dressage! Actually, the entire team won the bronze but the fact that Tuttle did it on his own horse of unknown registry was awesome! The 1932 games ended with the US winning 5 medals. This was unmatched for over fifty years until the USET tam earned 5 medals in 1984. Now, it must be noted that several countries did not compete in 1932. Those Olympics were the least attended Olympics in history due to the Great Depression. In fact, no other city but Los Angeles even bid for the event. However, the US’s chief competitors were there. (The third photo is Lieutenant Tommy Thomson on Jenny Camp Finishing the Cross Country Course enroute to a Silver Individual and Gold Team Medal (USET))
I had no idea there was such a big deal around the 1936 Berlin Olympics. I have read that the issues regarding the Equestrian events of this Olympics is one of the most controversial and studied of all time. Here’s why…
The Germans set up all the jumps and hazards for the event course, of course. Well, on jump four, there was a wall and then a 3′ deep water hazard. The high side of the jump had a firm landing. However, no one went over the high side except the Germans. The logical side to jump would be the low side, which is what the first several jumpers did. Disaster. The floor of the pond was muck on that side. All the horses that jumped there stumbled and faltered or hurt themselves terribly. Herein lies the controversy: none of the Germans took the obviously lower side. Hmmmm. Anyway, tragically, the American, Captain Willems on SLIPPERY SLIM who was having a faultless run and the fastest time approaching this jump, took the lower side. Slim cracked his leg and had to be put down on the spot. This disqualified the American team and created quite a stir. (To answer your obvious questions, they weren’t using walkie-talkies or anything at that time so none of the riders could be warned until “telephone” word of mouth made it to the front of the race.) The last photo is The US in Berlin Olympic Team: Captain C.C. Jadwin, Major W.B. Bradford, Major Hiram Tuttle, Captain I.L. Kitts, Captain C.S.Babcock;(2nd Row) Lieutenant H.S. Isaacson, Lieutenant R.W. Curtis, Captain E.F. Thomson, Captain M.H. Matteson;(3rd Row)Captain J.M. Willems, Major A.H. Moore, Captain C.W.A. Raguese (USET)
But, the US team didn’t stop. They knew that they were in a good place and should have won the gold on their newly bred and trained horses. They were doing something right.
END OF AN ERA AND THE USET
Sadly, WWII eliminated the games of ’40 and ’44. And, by 1948, Ft. Riley and the Cavalry were disbanded. In fact, the last job of Fort Riley was to train the very last US Army Equestrian Olympic Team. Colonel Thomson (age 48) was one of the athletes. Interestingly, all of the Army riders had seen war and had received various medals. All of them were rock solid competitors. Also, their horses were rock solid, older competitors. Most of them had been from the 1940 Olympics! So, with older men and older horses, they went into these games… and still kicked hindquarters!
Lt. Borg got a forth place in dressage which raised the team score to a silver. That is the highest the US has ever won in dressage. Next, Col Henry and Col Thomson went on to the eventing finals joined by Lt. Anderson and they took the gold! The fun fact here is that Col Henry was on the same horse, SWING LOW, who had been his mount in 1938! This medal for Col. Henry made him the only American in history to win three medals in one Olympic competition. And, another bit of trivia, Colonel Wind was riding DEMOCRAT (related to Jenny Camp, his previous horse) at 15 years of age! They were tied for second in jumping but came in fourth after the jump off. Incredible! This was an outstanding performance for an old team with old guys and old horses. Wow! So there.
After the Olympics, these Olympians toured and their record on tour was far superior to their Olympic feats so you can imagine how wonderfully trained and fit they really were. Wow, what a way to leave the field…
So, although the official participation of the US Army Equestrians ended after 1948, they continued by helping turn out the civilian team. Together, they formed the USET (US Equestrian Team). The first president of the USET was Col Wofford, a retired cavalryman who was a member of the 1932 Olympic team and an instructor at Fort Riley. From the beginning of the USET, Army officers were critical to running, maintaining and improving the group. Virtually all of these Olympic and Army veterans worked behind the scenes organizing and judging the local competitions, assisting with administration and training efforts for the new found USET.
To prepare for the 1952 games, the Army lent the Fort Riley training facilities to the USET and leased veteran Army horses to the team for $1. Here we see Democrat again, now 19!, who helped win a bronze for the jumping team. The eventers, coached by Col Wofford and Major Borg captured the bronze as well!
It would take much work for the civilians to create a team which rivaled the military teams… The Army Equestrian groups over the course of seven Olympiads earned a total of five team medals (two gold and three bronze) as well as six individual medals (four silver and two bronze). This dedication built the foundation and tradition upon which much of the American civilian equestrian sport is structured.
NEVER TOO OLD!
As an aside, after the 1952 Olympics, Democrat (now past 19 years) continued to compete in show jumping and had a phenomenal winning streak. He was then retired with full honors.
OH, FORGOT TO ADD ANOTHER TRIVIA TIDBIT…
Capt Henry was the first American to redesign the saddle with a forward seat and stirrups for riding and jumping.
HORSE AND MAN is a blog in growth… if you like this, please pass it around!
That is very interesting news! Keep us posted on what you find!
My grandfather, Fred Piquette, was a member of the original team in Fort Riley KS. I would like to find out more about him and the team. Anyone know where I might find information and possibly any photos. My aunt, his youngest daughter is still alive land living in Vermont.
I have a 20 page program entitled “PROGRAM OF THE TRY–OUT AND EXHIBITION OF HORSES AND RIDERS IN TRAINING FOR THE EQUESTRIAN EVENTS OF THE 1940 OLYMPIC GAMES”. I believe it came out in 1938 due to three horse shows which are advertised in the program. The cover shows Captain Milo H. Matteson, Team Captain – U.S. Army Equestrian Team – Riding “Masquerader”.
Thank you for sharing!!
I am the son of MH Matteson and would like to add that he was the coach and manager of the team training in Santa Barbara in 1938 for the Olympic Games of 1940 in Helsinki. Cancelled because of the war in Europe. Later broke his back in 1947 training for the 48 games.
Is there a still an army equestrian team or they just do ceremonies?
Many thanks for this marvelous article, and for Mara’s addition.
Who or what is Autumn ? Can’t tell from the photo.
My father was part of the Army Equestrian Team in the late 1920s, out od Fort Myer, VA. They called themselves “The Galloping Blacks” because all the horses were black. The riders were drawn from the same units who were under the much-resented command of MacArthur during the infamous attack on the Bonus Marchers across the Potomac River in Washington DC. Yes, my dad participated in that. The men all hated MacArthur for it. Dad’s unit was also the one that did all the state funerals. Anyway, Dad went all over with the team, doing exhibitions at places like Madison Square Garden. When I was a little girl and he was transferred to Maryland, near Fort Meade, he taught me to ride at the stable that used to be there. He was in his 40s then and not quite the rider he’d been in his younger days, but a lot of the officers at Meade used to treat him like he was a rock star. I gobbled it up. Love your site. I have photos if you’re interested, and a clipping from the New York Times about a scheduled exhibition at the Garden that describes the Equestrian Team and what audiences could be expected to see at the show.