In the rarefied atmosphere of championship sports, few contests are more exacting or more dramatic than that classic of classics in the pageantry of the horse-show world, the international jumping competition. Framed in the ornate trappings of tradition, demanding the precision of a ballerina and the power of a pole vaulter, it is a trial which combines artistry and athletics in their highest degree, a field reserved by stern selection for a heroic few. Twice yearly, in Harrisburg, Pa. this week and in New York's Madison Square Garden from November 5 to 12, the U.S. plays host to those who have attained this perfection—and always present is the man who in 20 years of jumping has made himself the dean of competitors in this small elite, Brigadier General Humberto Mariles of Mexico. On the opening day at Harrisburg, when the teams from Canada, Ireland, England, Chile, Argentina, Mexico and the U.S. lined up in formal parade, Mariles was again there, resplendent in white jacket and gold braid, a fiery-tempered, stocky, shaven-pated bullet of a man, who rides like a lightning-crowned Jove.
The crowds know Mariles and love him. They know him from countless victories at Harrisburg and in the Garden, as well as from some spectacular defeats. They know him as an Olympic champion in 1948 and as a gallant loser four years later when a possible victory at Helsinki escaped him by an agonizing quarter of a point. They know him for his enthusiasm, his color, his blunt and forceful speech, which more than once has got him into political trouble at home. But most of all they know him as the indomitable competitor—the man who rode here in 1955 despite the crippling pain of a fractured vertebra at the base of his spine, the man who, win or lose, has always ridden out his course until the final obstacle is cleared.
This is the Mariles of legend, who has made the horse-show ring his world. Few know him out of it, or can even imagine what his life is like out of the saddle, on foot, in his office or at home. Yet his is a rich life too, a life of children, horses, dogs, a wife as energetic as himself, a large and lively equestrian domain outside Mexico City, a life of teaching pupils old and young, of crises large and small, of strenuous activity and ebullient relaxation—the life of a dedicated and forceful man. In the course of a recent visit to Mexico, I spent a fortnight following the general on his daily rounds. It is a strenuous life—not only the general, but his wife and his children spend most of their time on horseback—but it is an experience, an experience in living.
The life of General Mariles is centered in the western outskirts of Mexico City. Here, where the crowded dual lanes of Highway 15 lead out from Chapultepec Park toward Toluca and distant Guadalajara, are the sprawling grounds of the National Equestrian Association, a sort of super riding club which the general oversees. Behind an ancient, high wall beside the highway are 300 unpretentious stalls for nearly as many horses. Across the road, in buildings considerably more imposing, are a dormitory for foreign visitors and students (it used to house the general's crack cavalry officers) and a casino complete with restaurant, bar, lounge, billiard and ping-pong rooms. Near the gateway to the road is the general's office, a small building where formerly he presided as an officer over cavalry affairs, now as a civilian over a civilian school.
October 28, 1957
But the most imposing part of the equestrian plant is its most important section: a huge ring forming a polo field, containing almost every conceivable type of obstacle that a horse could encounter in a show ring. It is complete with a grandstand and lights for night riding. On its outside perimeter are solid fences of all sorts and sizes, and beyond them still another outside course runs over rough terrain. A smaller ring, also well equipped with solid fences, rounds out an establishment that would set any horseman's heart to skipping.
Some 10 minutes away, in the suburb of Chapultepec, is the general's home, a modern, one-story house and garden. Workmen were busy on it when we arrived near noon of a hot and sunny day, putting up a new roof, adding a wing. Already the general had put in the equivalent of a full day's work for any average man—a couple of hours of methodical schooling of his horses over varied courses in the early morning, a brisk but thorough inspection tour of other horses in the stalls, a fast 45 minutes in his office dealing with correspondence, visitors, accounts and future schedules, a quick trip back to the course for more schooling with Chihuahua II, his current favorite mount. Now he was relaxing before lunch, thrown back in his chair, feet spread before him, oblivious to workmen, children, servants and all the other tumult of his lively home.
"When you are young," he said, "as I was when I first came to the U.S., you ride with your heart. Then around 30 you start riding with your intellect. I am 43, almost 44. I have been riding for 30 years. Perhaps soon I should retire. The French have a saying." He paused, searching for the translation. "It goes something like this: 'A man only begins to understand riding when it is time for him to stop.' That is true—but," he continued, "I am also sure that once a horseman stops competing, he stops learning. It is the end of the book."
For Mariles, the book began when he was 12—and its first page was a story of rebellion. The son of an army colonel, he joined some students in his native state of Chihuahua in a strike against the government which had closed the schools preparatory to a reorganization of the nation's school system. Mariles' padre found his son's protest against organized authority not only contrary to his own beliefs but downright dangerous in those revolutionary times, and he hustled young Humberto off to the army for discipline and security.
"At first," the general recalled, "I hated it. I had never before been away from my mother and every night I cried. Then I started working with the horses. When my father, thinking I had probably learned my lesson, came to take me home, I wouldn't leave. I knew by then that I wanted to stay with the army and be with horses for the rest of my life."
The general paused and glanced at the trophies that ranged the walls from floor to ceiling. "Things were very different then," he continued. "There was little formal instruction. Then, in 1926, in my first year with the army, General Amaro, the war secretary, decided that the standards of the cavalry should be improved. He sent officers to Europe to study for a year or two in all the well-known centers of riding-Italy, France, Spain, Germany." He waved his hand at the trophies from all these countries on the walls around. "The heart of General Amaro was in the right place, but, naturally, each officer came back with a different set of ideas. Wherever I went in the next few years I was told something different—it was an equestrian Tower of Babel!
"And look what happened!" he continued in exasperation. "The three Mexican riders on the Prix des Nations team who were sent to the Olympics in Los Angeles in 1932—well, two of them were out at the first fence and the third went out at the second! The whole world was laughing at Mexico! I don't care where you send your men to learn, but they must all learn one single set of principles, one doctrine, even if it comes from China!" He waved his fist in eloquent determination.
The door burst open and a Weimaraner ran in, energetically wagging its rear end. "This is Henry," the general explained. "He was given to me by a friend in Harrisburg. Siéntese!" he ordered. Henry continued panting happily with his head on the general's knee. "Well," Mariles went on, "in 1936, when General Avila Camacho was Undersecretary of War, he sent me along to Berlin as an Olympic observer. I decided that a composite of the various styles, based mainly on the Polish and German, would be best suited to Mexico. General Camacho thought I was right. Many others thought I was crazy. But Camacho never doubted me, and when in 1940 he became President, he ordered me, yes, ordered me put in charge of Mexican riding."
By that time Mariles was already making a name for himself in the international horse-show world. His first appearance in New York, in 1939, for example, turned out to be a moment with dramatic consequences not only for international riding but for Mariles himself. "I was only a captain in the cavalry then," he recalled, "and I had been working with a little horse named Resorte. He was almost a pony, so small"—he indicated the height with his hands—"and he was so scrubby-looking that my commanding officer refused to let me bring him to New York. He was afraid it would be bad for Mexican prestige. As an army officer, I had to follow his orders; as a horseman, I thought differently. I smuggled Resorte onto the train along with the other horses.
"When I got to New York, there was a telegram for me from my commander. He was very angry; he warned me that I would answer to him for my disobedience when I returned. For me, this New York jumping was a matter of win or be court-martialed." A happy grin spread slowly over the general's face as he savored once more the tension of that ride. "The first event in my New York horse show was the Bowman Cup. There were 46 horses entered; 43 competed. Resorte was the only one to make the course without a fault. The next day I had another telegram from my commander. This time he congratulated me.
"I rode Resorte for many years," the general went on. "A story grew up about how I found this horse, a sort of legend—how he came out of the herd one day and put his head against my cheek." He smiled. "Very nice, and I probably told it once myself. But to tell the truth, he did come out of the herd, but not to kiss me. He came because I got so mad at his bad behavior that I threw a rock at him. I hit him, too—and he jumped right over the corral fence. That fence was 6 feet high, and I knew I had a jumper.
"Resorte died just a few months ago—he was 31 years old. He was a great horse." The door opened and Alicia Mariles, the general's vivacious, dark-haired wife, came in with a pre-lunch-eon cocktail. A horsemanship teacher, too, she was still in her riding clothes. He waved a greeting to her. "I will tell you something," he went on, inspired by a sudden idea. "A good horse is more difficult to find than a good wife! I am a fortunate man. I have had both"—he smiled at Mrs. Mariles—"and besides little Resorte I have had Arete, who had only one eye, and now Chihuahua II. So many riders, you know, never get to ride even one great horse. Not even one!" He waved a forefinger.
"Arete was killed jumping," he continued. "But Chihuahua II—he is still young, and he is the best of all. You know why he is so good? It is because he is a coward. He hates to hurt himself. He took 67 fences at Harrisburg last year before he touched one!"
It was time for lunch now, a fact which was announced by the lively entry of the general's three daughters, Vicky, aged 15, Alicia, the 11-year-old who is nicknamed La Gorda (The Plump One), and Patty, 7 (their 17-year-old brother, Humberto, was away at military school). The general followed them into the dining room. There was an expectant wait as he strode to the head of the table and took his seat. With that, activity commenced.
Henry the Weimaraner, banned from the room by Patty, pushed the door open tentatively, spied his master and bounded to the safety of his side. Patty, with a scolding look at Henry, hurried up to fill the general's glass with milk. The general fed Henry a banana. "I'm not eating much," he explained. "I never do before I ride." He bit on a tortilla. "The Mexicans," he went on, "are almost the only ones of the international teams who do not eat before they ride." La Gorda and Vicky left their places to fetch from the sideboard some scale-model obstacles they planned to use as a centerpiece for the forthcoming Equestrian Ball. The general studied them critically, then announced his approval. "The Americans," he picked up his thought again, "get indigestion for a different reason." A maid appeared with a tray which was set down in the center of the table. The general fed Henry a tortilla. "They have read so much," he went on, "about so many different styles that they cannot digest it all." Patty brought her father a platter of poached eggs. He kissed her on the cheek. Henry put a paw on the table and was roundly denounced for his bad manners. Conversation flew. The general mopped up his eggs with another tortilla. "Down, Henry!" he shouted. Outside, sudden thunder rolled.
"Good Lord!" Mrs. Mariles gasped. "What is going to happen to the ceilings? We have no roof...." The general calmly continued his dissertation on the American situation. "In no other country," he said, "are there so many fine horses—the best in the world—but there is no central school—everyone is so busy trying to make money that they will not spare the time and effort to train the horses and riders...." Thunder crashed again, followed by the snare-drum tattoo of a downpour. A servant rushed by, carrying a pail and mop. "It is raining into the bathroom!" she cried. Mrs. Mariles exclaimed in despair and, pushing back from the table, issued rapid commands. The general and the children scurried about the room snatching trophies from the walls. Plink, plonk! The drops were already falling in the dining room. Plink, poing, ping! They fell into the silver cups and bowls. The general stared in exasperation at the widening cracks in the ceiling. There was a crash of thunder, then a crash of plaster as a spot gave way. Lunch was over.
Politically, the strongest friend Humberto Mariles ever had was Avila Camacho, the man who, as Undersecretary of War, recognized Mariles' abilities and subsequently, as President, saw his judgment confirmed when Mexico became a topflight power in the horseshow world. Under Camacho, Mariles founded the equestrian school for army officers, whose international success was climaxed by the great Olympic victory of 1948 in England. That victory made Mariles a national hero. When Miguel Alemàn became President in 1946, Mariles continued to enjoy the benefits of favor in high places; as an admirer and close friend, Alemàn, too, gave him virtually free rein. But under President Ruiz Cortines, elected in 1952, things have been different. No horseman, Cortines had little interest in the development of Mexican equestrianism, which was Mariles' passion. As long as Avila Camacho was alive, however, the general was still assured of an influential voice in high official quarters. Then, one day in October 1955, Avila Camacho died.
In less than a year, Mariles' laboriously constructed equestrian empire crumbled and disappeared. The army jumping team was disbanded. Mariles himself was transferred from the cavalry to a meaningless job. Mexico went unrepresented in the 1956 Olympics in Stockholm, and it was only by a last-minute effort that the general was able to bring a scratch team, mounted on his own personal horses, to Harrisburg, New York and Toronto last year (SI, Nov. 12,1956). This year, too, the general remained in a military limbo, but he managed to stay in Mexico City and on horseback. And as technical director of the civilian-run National Equestrian Association, he won a quite different kind of recognition in his chosen field. By this summer, his children's classes were drawing pupils to the riding club near Chapultepec from all over the country.
It was with one of these classes, later that day, that we were riding home, following an afternoon on the outside course of the school.
"I prefer to work with children now," the general was saying. "They are not afraid and they learn so much faster." He dropped to the rear as the group strung out in the rough terrain approaching the highway. "There is no fox hunting here, so children do not have the chance to follow the hounds, jumping anything that comes along. Instead, we organize cross-country rides" (opposite).
Suddenly his attention was attracted by one of the club members riding in the nearby ring. "No! No!" he roared, "not that way!" Abandoning his children's class, he galloped alongside the boy. "What makes you think you are a horseman? See!" He motioned to his back. "Watch me—like this!" He moved his horse into a slow gallop, slowly circling the rider. "Now make yourself heavy in the saddle as you approach the fence...take the movement in your thighs, in the small of your back...in your shoulders...urge the horse with your legs, not with a whip. No wonder he refused!" He changed his horse's direction and sent him toward the fence. "Now!" he shouted, "arch your back, lift your chin—you are light in the saddle...you can get out of it when you jump. See? Now you try it." The boy circled his horse around and put him over the fence. "Again!" shouted Mariles. "Another time! Again!" After some 10 successful jumps Mariles allowed horse and rider to stop. "Let him walk a bit," he grunted. "Next time, your horse will know that fence and you will know how to make him take it." He rode back to his class.
The riders, relaxed and chatting, were just starting through a gap in a hedge, the horses with ears pricked in eager anticipation of the barn. Mariles' daughter La Gorda was in the midst of them, happy as the rest at a good day's work well done. Suddenly her horse, 14 de Agosta, in an access of playfulness, whinnied, tucked his head between his legs and bucked. La Gorda was thrown downhill, hard.
The general was by her side in an instant. Before his horse had slid to a stop he was on the ground and kneeling. "Move your arms, Gordita!" he commanded gently. The child raised them up and down. "Now your legs!" She bent one, then the other. "Now sit up!" La Gorda rose and buried her head, sobbing, against her father's shoulder. The general patted her back consolingly. Patty, her youngest sister and another member of the class, slid off her horse and put her arm around her. "¬øTe duele mucho?" she inquired. "Does it hurt badly?" La Gorda nodded and rubbed her head. Patty stepped back to examine her older sister critically. "She's not hurt!" she announced. The general clucked reprovingly.
"I think maybe her pride hurts her more than her head," he said. "This is the third time this horse has thrown her." La Gorda began to cry again. "My head!" she sobbed, rubbing her forehead. Patty again looked at her with suspicion. "But you landed on your back!" she said. La Gorda sobbed louder. "We will take her to the clinic," said the general.
Phone calls were made, cars summoned. Vicky, back from the barns, also arrived. She, too, stared at her sister suspiciously but put her arm around her nonetheless and cushioned her head against her shoulder as they drove. The little procession entered the hospital, was ushered past roomfuls of waiting patients and into the X-ray cubicle.
La Gorda climbed to the table and loosened her waist-length hair. Her sisters started carefully picking the grass and straw from the thick blonde tresses while the general patted her shoulder consolingly. "She isn't hurt!" said Patty again. "She just wants a Lambretta motor scooter like Vicky's!" La Gorda burst out sobbing again.
"There, there," said the general. "Did the horse really hurt you?" La Gorda nodded vehemently and whispered into her father's ear. "We'll see, we'll see," he said.
"I told you," said Patty triumphantly. "She wants a Lambretta like Vicky's." "We'll see," said the general, with a smile. The doctor came in. Crisp and jaunty, he shook hands with the general and the children, then went to work with his equipment.
Ten minutes later, he was back. The general still stood quietly stroking La Gorda's hair as she continued to sob weakly. The doctor waved the X-ray plates. "Absolutely nothing here!" he announced happily. "She is only in a mild state of shock. Let her rest a few days to make sure—but nothing seems wrong." Mariles clapped the doctor on the back. The doctor produced a framed photograph. "See, mi general, I used to ride too." He handed the picture to the general. Mariles studied it. "You were very good," he said graciously. "Your legs are just a little too far back, but you were not bad at all."
A gentle snore came from the couch. La Gorda, exhausted, had fallen asleep. The doctor winked at the general. "She was not hurt," he said. "I thought not," agreed Mariles, "but one has to be sure. She has not yet learned that a fall is no tragedy. I remember my last fall—Chihuahua put me down in Toronto at the Royal Winter Fair. I was circling the ring with the trophy I had just won when they turned the spotlight on us. Chihuahua thought it was something to jump, so he jumped. Was I surprised! There I was, sitting on the tanbark, still holding that big, silver bowl!" He walked over to the sleeping La Gorda and shook her gently by the shoulder. She woke up and buried her head against his chest, sobbing again. "There, there," said the general. La Gorda raised her head and whispered lengthily in his ear. "All right," agreed the general, "all right—we'll get you one too."
Last spring the Mexican Equestrian Federation, the actual official representative of the nation at the International Equestrian Federation congress, decided to hold five tests of its own to select a Mexican non-army team. In an atmosphere of some tension, alert for any signs of unfavorable government reaction, the trials were held. Mariles entered, won and was appointed captain of the team.
With an entire summer to practice in, the general was ebullient about the prospects for putting on a worthy show north of the border this fall. He showed his confidence when, later that evening, he arrived with his family at the club casino, laden down with movie projection equipment and reels of film, to show and explain some of the victories of former years. "You may learn a good deal about jumping from these films," he said. "I always have. And I have shown them many times to the members of my team this past summer as we trained. We have trained hard, and I think we will do well. Anyway," he added defiantly with a gesture that included all forms of higher authority which sought to keep him out of competition, "we will show them! They may have the power, but I have the heart, and they cannot break it!"
The screen was set up, the first reel threaded in, the lights dimmed. "Now," said the general, "we will look at what we have here. I study these films. I learn my mistakes and I analyze the different styles of riding. I changed my ideas on balance after watching movies of my daughter Vicky riding when she was 5 years old." He clicked the projector's switch. Nothing happened. He jiggled some wires and peered at the interior. He flicked the switch; again. Nothing happened. Mariles turned away from the machine in disgust. "Wait, Humberto! called his wife. She inspected the projector and pushed at a plug. The machine started.
"This movie," Mariles explained, his good humor restored, "was taken in Rome in 1948. Ha!" he shouted, "There goes Raimondo D'Inzeo. Look at his elbows—now remember and watch how much better he is four years later—he became one of Europe's great riders. But that year when I was in Rome one of the officers told me that I was the only one that really rode in the Italian style."
The film whirred on as riders from assorted countries appeared. "Now this is me on Arete," he continued. "Watch my legs—my stirrup is longer—the center of balance different. This way I can use my legs to help the horse, both on the take-off and landing." The film ended with a Mariles victory. "The saddle," he said as he readied the next reel, "is extremely important. In fact, I have designed my own saddle, and now people are writing to me from all over the world, asking how they can get one. My saddle is short from pommel to cantle, and deep. This way one has the most contact with the thighs—and therefore better balance and security."
Now the family settled deeper into their chairs, obviously expectant. They knew what was coming—the film of the general's Olympic victory in 1948. "Here first is a Chilean," Mariles announced. "They believe that the rider's body should be parallel with the horse's neck. That is why they always fall off when there is any trouble. They are not deep in the saddle, so it is not a secure seat." Several other riders made the course, drawing praise or criticism from the general. "Ha! Here come the Russians!" he exclaimed. "The Americans would like this film...all three riders fall off." There was a silence while the Russians made their appearance and fell off. "Now," said the general, "here I come...." His family drew in its breath as though truly unaware of the final outcome.
"See," Mariles continued, leaning forward earnestly, "I headed for the center of that obstacle. It looks bad, but if you aimed there it wasn't. Many riders did not realize that. Now this next one—it is harder than it looks—parallel bars always are. Now here comes the last one." It was a brick wall, 6 feet high. Arete skimmed over. There was a general expulsion of breath. The film's remaining footage was devoted to the pomp and circumstance that come with a great triumph.
Mariles was equally eager to show a film in which he was not the hero, but the reel taken at Helsinki was run in an atmosphere of anticlimax. "Now there goes Llewellyn," explained the general, completely absorbed. "He is England's best rider. He won. I do not care for his style, however." He watched several more round the course. "Now here is Pat Smythe—she is very, very good. I prefer the way she rides; in fact, she is among the world's best 10 riders." A Russian rider appeared. "See, they have improved, but they still have a long way to go.... Now, here I am on Petrolero. Watch!" he announced objectively. "In a few seconds you will see where I lost the Olympics."
Petrolero was obviously making a good round. He leaped the penultimate obstacle, rounded a turn—and slipped. Mariles slowed the film. "See! It was the easiest fence on the course but I couldn't get him back in stride." In slow motion, after the horse had landed, the bar comes tumbling down. The family sighed.
But the general, keeping the film in slow motion, was already absorbed in the next horse. "Now look," he continued. "Watch the horses when they jump. See how they change stride and get both hind feet on the ground to make the leap. I find that in the States many riders—even experienced horsemen—do not know this. They think a jump is just a part of the gallop stride. Now see how they land—always one foot only on the ground first. Then a split second later the other foot lands. That is why a rider must be balanced and ready to help a horse here."
The film flickered to an end and Alicia Mariles snapped on the lights. "It is enough for tonight, I think," she said. "We have many more—Spain, Argentina, France, the U.S., the Pan-American Games. We learn so much from these." Mariles stretched and patted Vicky on the head. "Yes," he agreed, "soon Vicky will be ready—I have written Prince Bernhard, the president of the Fédération Equestre Internationale, and have asked permission for Vicky to compete before she is 18. He has given his permission, and next year, with good luck and if she is riding well, she might represent Mexico with the team in the Garden. Then I will retire and she must try to better my record."
He rose slowly from his chair and began packing up the projector, screen and reels. "You will see," he said. "I know that this year we are facing the toughest competition we have had since the 1952 Olympics. But we may even have some surprises this year. Maybe we don't always win, but we never disgrace the country. Once you are among the top 10, winning and losing are part of the breaks of the game. But when they disbanded the team," he went on, his voice rising in anger, "that was not part of the game!" He pounded one fist into another. "And then we raised the money ourselves to send a team to the Olympics and they would not let us go! They made us give it back." A flash of his former anger returned. "People said I should go to the government and apologize and they would let me form my old team again. Apologize? Why should I bow? If I am going to be kicked in the tail," said General Humberto Mariles with a growl, "it will be when I am standing up straight, not when I am bending over!"
DOWN GOES CHA-CHA-CHA
In the slashed and eroded ground around the National Equestrian Association, pupils of General Humberto Mariles find the severest tests which horse and rider can encounter. "I take them to all sorts of different places," the general says, "and as they become more advanced the terrain is made more difficult. Some of them cry when I tell them it is too soon for them to go cross-country. They are so eager they want to jump their horses over the moon in less than a month. But when I finally tell them they are ready, they believe in me; they know I won't ask them to do anything they are not able to do. So when I tell them to do it, they are not afraid." On the opposite page, and on the three pages following, Adalina (Cha-cha-cha) Manero, one of the general's students, vividly illustrates the truth of what he says.