Crumpled on the ground behind an unforgiving stack of cordwood where he parted company with his horse, J. Michael Plumb didn't look like a great bet to be named to his eighth Olympic squad. After making it halfway around the cross-country course at last October's Fair Hill (Md.) Three-Day Event, the 51-year-old rider was on his way to the hospital instead of the finish line. But no one doubted that he would be back.
The durable third-generation horseman has been riding for the U.S. equestrian team (USET) since the Eisenhower Administration. Over five decades, from the 1959 Pan American Games in Chicago to the 1990 World Equestrian Games in Stockholm, few major championships have lacked Plumb's compelling presence. He's a remarkable stayer, even in a sport in which competitors tend to hang on for years.
Competing in Barcelona would give Plumb the U.S. record for selection to the most Olympic teams. He was chosen for every Olympic squad from 1960 through 1984, though he didn't participate in 1980 because of the Moscow Games boycott, and he was injured in 1988.
Such achievements don't impress the man who owns them. "I don't keep track of the trophies," says Plumb.
June 14, 1992
Though he is a legend in his sport, he doesn't expect the recognition in this country that his counterparts abroad enjoy. Eventing, a sort of equine triathlon, is a real crowd-pleaser in Britain, for example, where it can draw more than 100,000 spectators for such famous fixtures as Badminton and Burghley.
Three-day eventing was devised by the military and is based on battlefield requirements. It demonstrates that a cavalry horse has the bravery and endurance to get a message cross-country, over all sorts of obstacles. The animal also has to be tractable enough to show obedience on the parade field and have the ability to bounce back after the most grueling test.
Eventing begins sedately, with dressage in a small arena. The horse must be in perfect control as it walks, trots and canters in specified patterns. Many eventers who love the rough-and-tumble aspects of their sport simply put up with the quiet precision of dressage. Not Plumb. "You can't jump and gallop every day," he points out.
The second day is the endurance phase, the heart of eventing and the segment that counts the most when the scores are totaled. Eventers leave their scarlet jackets and velvet hunt caps in the closet, dressing instead for survival in color-coordinated rugby-style shirts and crash helmets. Horses wear boots, and the bandages on their elegant, long legs are incongruously covered with grease to help them slide over the jumps.
Cross-country is the focal point of endurance and Plumb's favorite phase. After doing 16-20 kilometers of roads and tracks at a brisk trot and canter, punctuated by a twirl at high speed over a series of brush-topped steeplechase jumps, the competitors set off on their biggest test.
Against the clock they must take as short a route as is possible over a course of 30 or so cleverly devised cross-country obstacles—dog kennels, a cannon, hay wagons—as they cope with their horses' natural tendency to flee the unfamiliar. The jumps are immovable: They don't come down, the horses do. Injuries to man and beast are an accepted part of the challenge, though proper training goes a long way toward preventing disaster.
Splashing through water and galloping up and down hills as they battle exhaustion and sometimes confusion, participants must worry about the course before they worry about the other competitors. Refusal of a jump and a fall both carry penalties, as does exceeding the time allowed for the course. "You have to have a real relationship with your horse to get the best out of that horse on that day," Plumb says, summing up what he seeks in the endless hours of training.
Those who come through make an appearance on the final day, jumping poles, simulated walls and water obstacles. All are set at moderate heights and widths, since their purpose is to test the animal's resilience rather than its versatility.
At Fair Hill, one of only two advanced international events in this country, Plumb's Olympic quest seemed in serious doubt. Early on the second day, his first mount, The Executive II, could not proceed cross-country. The chestnut gelding's heart was beating irregularly during a veterinary check. So Plumb rode Adonis, a relatively inexperienced animal who misjudged the log pile and spun over it, sending his rider earthward with an ominous thud.
"He rang my bell," said Plumb, groggy after hitting his head and suffering a broken collarbone. Shrugging off the injury, Plumb was back in the saddle five weeks later, trying to make up for the lost time. That meant riding on Christmas and on New Year's Day, too, and long days of training and teaching at his farms in Massachusetts and North Carolina. Even with an Olympic rèsumè that includes two team gold medals, three team silvers and one individual silver, Plumb had a special impetus to try again in Barcelona.
This Olympics "certainly seems more significant for lots of reasons," Plumb said early in the year. He is hoping to make the team with his 26-year-old son, Charlie, but when the USET recently named its "short list," from which the Olympic team will be chosen, Charlie was among the highest-ranking riders to be cut. A last-minute rule change, though, may give him another chance to qualify. Still, Plumb was more motivated in his training than ever before. "It looks to me like it might be my last Olympics," he added with unexpected resignation—but not, perhaps, with conviction. "As you get older, things mean more to you. I think maybe I've taken for granted some of the other Olympics I rode in."
Certainly, earlier in his career, making the team wasn't the issue it is today, with qualifying requirements and endless trials. "It used to be easy," Plumb says. "Basically there weren't that many of us in the '60s or the '70s."
Plumb was discovered in 1959 by the USET after cutting his last semester at the Millbrook (N.Y.) School so he could train and compete in an event at the Broadmoor in Colorado Springs. Only six people participated. As far as making the team was concerned, Plumb says, "It was more who was available than who won."
Drafted for the '59 Pan American Games, the 19-year-old Plumb came home with both the team and individual silver medals. He wasn't awed. "I was still so young," he says, "it didn't hit me."
The next year the challenge was the Rome Olympics. Plumb turned out to be the U.S. team's best, coming in 15th, but only half of the four-member squad finished, and the team was eliminated. "I felt I was not ready," he says. Even so, the sport had consumed him. "I became a druggie on it."
Plumb and his late father, Charles, thought alike when it came to horses. Charles was a steward for Yonkers and Roosevelt harness tracks in New York. When he came home to Syosset, Long Island, he served as huntsman for the Meadowbrook Hounds, a fox hunt that once roamed fields that eventually became Nassau County's post-World War II housing developments. Charles handled the hounds; young Mike and his mother, Meem, served as whippers-in, keeping straggling hounds up with the pack. Mike's father was "a confident, cocky person" who believed neither he nor his son could be hurt on a horse.
"I had some hellish rides," says Mike, happily recalling his early days astride, "but I felt nothing could happen to me."
Mike was the only one of the three children in his family who took riding seriously. He applied the same dedication he demonstrated playing football at Millbrook and the University of Delaware. "Every once in a while I would make a tackle a little too hard and knock myself out cold," Plumb says.
In riding, his hardheaded determination paid off. But without the right horse even someone as accomplished as Plumb can't make the Olympics. Just as a socialite can never be too rich or too thin, an Olympic-bound eventer can never have too many horses. A stone bruise, a sore back or a bowed tendon—all among the everyday risks of this strenuous sport—can sideline a horse for months or forever, instantly making his rider a spectator instead of a participant.
Last month four world-class horses died or had to be destroyed at three-day events. That group included Mr. Maxwell, considered America's top Olympic prospect under the guidance of rider Karen Lende, after he suffered broken vertebrae in his neck as a result of a fall.
At Fair Hill, Adonis faced his biggest test, and Plumb wasn't happy about the way he answered the questions. "Training him, I can see a lot of small things I skipped over while thinking about going to the Olympics," he concedes. He rectified that with six months of hard work.
Three weeks ago he rode Adonis to second place at the Checkmate International, in Feversham, Ont., assuring himself a spot on the short list. Explaining his new success with Adonis, Plumb says, "He's a lot easier to ride. I found a way to control him without insulting him." There is more work to come as he refines his relationship with the horse for their ultimate challenge this summer. "Barcelona is going to be a bitch," he says.
By all accounts, even his own, Plumb is single-minded, maybe to a fault. "Horses are his only reason for being on earth," says former USET coach Jack LeGoff.
"Mike has consistently been the best and never got a chance to enjoy it, because he wouldn't let himself," observes Karen Stives, his teammate on the 1984 Olympic gold medal squad. "He always thought he could be better."
While keeping his horses fit, Plumb doesn't ignore himself. He has been doing culinary penance for years. To be able to weigh in for an event at the optimum 165 pounds (a figure that includes his saddle and bridle), the 5'11¾" Plumb cats only one meal a day. "I'd probably be easier to get along with if I could eat more," he says.
Plumb's diligence allows room for little else in his life but horses. Ask about other activities and he responds, "I love to watch television and go to bed early, get up early. I'm not a social person. When I get done with people and horses and lessons, I feel I want to be by myself. Maybe that's selfish. I have shortchanged people."
He concentrates on what he has to do, never worrying about what havoc another serious fall could wreak on his chances, let alone his aging body.
Integral to the sport "is an air of danger," as Plumb puts it. "It used to appeal to me," he confesses. "But right now I'm pretty respectful of it. I was a little more daring when I was younger—basically because I didn't know any better."
He learned a tough lesson through his father, who took up eventing only after Mike did. The senior Plumb's all-too-brief run with it ended in 1969 at a Pebble Beach competition in which his horse slipped and fell with him. He was paralyzed for the rest of his life.
Everyone who plays the game well accepts such mishaps and keeps on going. "He was doing what he wanted to do," says Mike. That phrase someday could be his own epitaph.
Though there are precautions that can be taken in training, a rider en route cross-country has to think about mastering the course and beating the time. The most skilled do whatever it takes, and even vast experience isn't insurance against serious trouble.
"In the last four or five years I've had a number of shoulder injuries [one suffered in the Olympic trials kept him out of the 1988 Games] and broke my leg once." Plumb feels the relative mildness of that record makes him "fortunate."
The passage of time doesn't help the odds against him, however. Whatever he may tell himself, Plumb can't deny that he's getting older, so he maintains that he's also getting better.
"I think I'm sharper than I was 10 years ago," he says. "I'm more analytical about everything, and I'm not so frustrated when something goes wrong, because I have thought about it and I have an exercise to correct it.
"So that makes me more confident and feel better about myself when I'm riding. It's taken me a long time to figure out how to ride and teach halfway decently, and I guess that's the way it goes."
If that's true, Plumb should be in really top form by the time the 1996 Olympics and his 56th birthday roll around. Is it a possibility?
"I don't know why not," Plumb admits.
When he finally does acknowledge that there will be no more Olympics for him, Plumb plans to devote his days to teaching, training and lower-level events. How could he not ride? This is a man whose license plate reads USA JMP.
If there ever had been a career alternative, he says, "I can't imagine what it was. My father's father was into horses." Plumb believes blood will tell in people as well as horses. "Always, there was no question as to what it was going to be."
Nancy Jaffer is the equestrian sports columnist for The Star-Ledger of New Jersey.