Five winters ago Mark Todd, who is about as fine a rider ever to set a horse, was lacking a mount he could use in Three-Day Eventing. The Three-Day is an especially difficult and comprehensive competition, one that demands elegance and endurance, grit and grace in equal measure.
A friend suggested that Todd, who comes from New Zealand, take a look at what might be a useful old gelding stabled way out nowhere, near the backwater town of Taupo. The gelding bore a champion's noble name, Charisma, but at 11 years old he had never achieved anything of consequence, and around the stables he was dismissed with the workaday sobriquet of Podge.
Todd could barely believe his eyes when he peered into the stall and spied "this little, fat, black pony." At 15 hands, two inches, Podge looked like something out of a Saturday morning pony show for kids, and Todd, as tall a rider at 6'3" as the horse was short, smirked as he thought to himself that his legs might scrape the ground if he tried to ride Charisma. "I nearly turned round and left," Todd says. But he figured, What the hell, I've come this far. So he called for tack.
And then, out in the cold, in Todd's rein, there was an epiphany—"It clicked" is what Todd says. This was one of those rider-meets-horse/horse-meets-rider legends that we have celebrated ever since the beardless Alexander turned Bucephalus toward the sun so he wouldn't spook at his shadow, sprung up on him and then began conquering the world from the great beast's back. With Charisma, Todd had found his mount; with Todd, Podge had found his charisma.
Within two years Todd and Charisma had won the gold in Eventing at Los Angeles, and then, on Sept. 20 in Seoul, Charisma, now 16 years old. easily placed first in the dressage, the first element of the Three-Day. Todd patted his neck. "This is your last dressage," he told him. The next day, in the cross-country, Todd rode Charisma over hill and down dale in an exhibition of horsemanship so contained and flawless that it took away the breath of the most jaded experts. "This is your last cross-country," Todd told his little horse.
And last Thursday, in the show jumping, the only relatively dicey event for Charisma, he knocked down one rail but was so far ahead by then that it barely mattered. "This is your last jump," Todd told him. Then Todd, the gold draped around his neck, and the other two medalists took off in the exuberant gallop that makes the Eventing medal ceremony the most stirring of them all. The recipients of the silver and the bronze peeled off, and Todd and Charisma looped back to the center of the show ring, alone, one final, bittersweet time. Then they trotted away together. This was the last ride.
Charisma will retire now, to a farm in New Zealand. He and Todd are only the second horse and rider in history—and the first such pair in more than half a century—to win consecutive gold medals. My, what a dandy little steed he has been.
It's a pity more Americans aren't acquainted with Three-Day Eventing. Of course, the sport can be its own worst enemy, with its dreadfully dry and arcane name and patronizing upper-crust participants who too often do their best to turn off anyone who wasn't born with a silver bit in his mouth.
Take, for example, one Mark Phillips, a balding gentleman farmer from Gloucestershire who had the good fortune to share in the British team's silver medal despite having to withdraw from the competition. By chance, very possibly for the first time in the history of the Olympic Games, a winner's wife presented him with his medal. This happened because Phillips's wife, Anne, is HRH, the Princess Royal, and the president of the Fèdèration Equestre Internationale. Such a charming moment. What, someone at the ensuing press conference asked Phillips, did the Princess say to him as she draped the silver around his neck?
"That's for me to know and you to wonder," he snipped back.
So although a number of the horses' asses in Eventing are not attached to the horses, the sport still provides a magnificent spectacle.
In Seoul, the first and third days' competition took place at the new $83 million Equestrian Park, while the cross-country was set at a ranch north of the city near the DMZ. The Three-Day deserves special interest because it is far and away the most demanding (and dangerous) sport in which men and women compete equally against one another. Coming into the Seoul Games, the world champion was Ginny Leng of Great Britain, who got the title in 1986 in Australia after Charisma unseated Todd in a rare fall.
This cross-genderization is particularly ironic because Three-Day Eventing began as the most male of all sports—the Militaire it was called, a test in which a cavalry officer could show off his mount's full range of abilities. Thus the first day is for dressage, the equine ballet designed to exhibit a horse's precision and obedience. The second day, called the endurance test, measures speed and stamina. At Seoul this test opened up with "roads and tracks," a trot or canter of 3.7 miles, and was followed by a stint of almost two miles around an oval with nine jumps. The contestants then went back on the road for another trot of some 6½ miles and concluded (after a mere 10-minute breather) with a timed gallop over a 4.7-mile course that included 32 obstacles to be jumped. That all takes about two hours and the animal, almost spent, is asked to return a third day and cleverly maneuver rails.
Not until 1924 were civilians allowed to compete, and women couldn't enter for another 40 years. Today, though, most particularly in the U.S. and to some extent in other English-speaking countries, females are the mainstay of Three-Day Eventing.
The cross-country counts for roughly 60% of the total score, and the battle for team honors, between Great Britain and West Germany, would be settled by this segment. The teams knew each other well: Two years ago the British and the Germans shared a quarantine before their horses were shipped to Australia for the world championship.
The Brits won that team championship, so afterward the Germans bought a couple of British mounts and copied British ways so carefully that they even started talking like the British. The favored English word in Eventing is "super." Just super. Super ride. Super super. Suddenly everything with the Germans was "zuper," and they played these Olympics zuper zafe, eschewing individual honors to go for team gold.
The British countered with two of the four best riders in the sport—Ian Stark, and Leng, who is the top woman in the world and the measure of any man save Todd. Leng, 33, grew up in a colonial world fast fading—Cyprus, Singapore, that lot—as the daughter of a Royal Marines officer. In the cloying first week of the Olympics, when we must endure a raft of cutesy-poo adolescent girls, Leng was that most welcome treasure: beautiful and a woman. She is also, by turns, determined, flirtatious, mischievous and brave. In 1976 she fell and broke her left arm in 23 places, almost losing it to amputation.
On Sept. 21 she and Stark both took the 32 jumps safely. With Phillips's horse disqualified for medical reasons—he pulled up lame—the remaining British rider was a team rookie, Karen Straker. She was astride an 8-year-old named Get Smart, who as a young colt had been saved from the worst at a horsemeat sale. Now he carried Straker safely over the first 21 jumps.
The next three composed the course's showpiece, the Royal Pond: over a stone wall, then over a low railing into the water, then up onto a platform and over another railing, then back down into the drink and out and up a steep incline. Princess Anne was standing by the water as Straker drove Get Smart down toward it. Her Highness turned to her companions, and, very softly, she spoke. "She's going too fast," the Princess said.
And so Straker was. She got Get Smart in the water safely, but took off too early getting out, couldn't purchase clean footing on the platform and tumbled into the drink. That cost 60 penalty points, and the gold medal was lost to the Germans.
By contrast, Todd flew so effortlessly over the course that when he crossed the finish line, he had to holler "Look out!" to clear the area ahead, for Charisma was still flat out and full of run. "He never put a foot wrong," Todd said.
Charisma was as old as any horse at Seoul, and surely the smallest. At the team awards ceremony, he really did look like a pony standing beside 11 real horses, and the scene was all the more bizarre when the riders dismounted and the tiny horse's man stood head and shoulders above the other 11 riders.
Todd, 32, who was raised on a farm, has been riding since he was seven. He has wavy brown hair that shines copper in the sun when he doffs his helmet. He smokes Silk Cut cigarettes, and so there is a timeless quality to him as he stands there in his classic riding costume, razor thin, handsome and elegant—the way all people in cigarette advertisements, going to the hounds, used to look.
But Todd is no dandy. Indeed, he's more like his equine partner, strong-boned and unspoiled. Such qualities seem to be characteristic of his nation's team; the No. 2 rider for New Zealand, which earned the bronze medal, is a farmer's wife with the wonderful name of Tinks Pottinger, and she takes her Olympic horse, Volunteer, out sheepherding to keep him in fettle.
Charisma is so fit, Todd isn't sure he'll just be able to go to pasture. "He'll miss the crowd, too," Todd says. "He loves showing off. I thought about making him a dressage horse now."
A new career at 17?
"Yes, but he's done such a tremendous service for me, I couldn't ask any more of him. So he'll just get plenty of hugs and kisses and carrots and oats."
Todd took another drag on his Silk Cut. Behind him, a groom walked Charisma, cooling him off. The last time. "I kept saying, all week, every time we did something, that would be the last time for us. The last this, the last that." The last gold.