Olympic eventing has shape-shifted quite dramatically over the years, with early editions being nearly unrecognizable side-by-side with the modern sport. As we approach this year’s Olympic Games in Tokyo, which is adopting yet another format, we’ll be taking a look back at its evolution over the past century.
We kicked the series off with the 1912 Stockholm Olympic Games, the first year an eventing-type competition was first introduced. After sharing an overview of the format and competition results earlier this week, today we’re introducing you to very first Team USA eventing Olympic medalists, who won team bronze that same year.
It didn’t take many tries for the Americans to make the Olympic podium in the equestrian disciplines. While we unsuccessfully campaigned a single rider in 1900 in a smattering of now unrecognizable contests (and no equestrian events were included in 1904 or 1908), the military boys brought home the gravy in 1912.
The U.S. eventing team (known then simply as “Military Riding”) was comprised of Lieutenant Colonel Ephraim Foster Graham, Lieutenant John Carter Montgomery,Lieutenant Ben Lear and Captain Guy Henry, one of the great cavalry reformers of the 20th century. Our first bronze medalist team was not just a smattering of athletic heroes, but military men of the highest order.
Lt. Colonel Ephraim F. Graham was a 1903 graduate of West Point, as was his future teammate John Montgomery, and the legendary General Douglas MacArthur. Graham was an officer of the U.S. Army’s 10th Cavalry Regiment, known as the Buffalo Riders.
The Regiment was a segregated cavalry, in other words, the regiment was composed entirely of African American soldiers, except for officers. It had extraordinary challenges, but Graham deeply respected his men, and was known for making an effort to keep his regiment, fit, sharp and intimidating in the battle. He remained in the Army for his entire career.
Colonel John Montgomery served with the 7th Cavalry division in various locations, including the Philippines, and was an instructor at the Mounted Police School in the two years prior to the 1912 Stockholm Olympics. After his bronze medal winning ride, he would go on to serve as Inspector General of the 2nd Division in World War I, and be awarded the Distinguished Service Medal. He remained in Germany after the war ended as Chief of Staff of American Forces up until 1920, and retired from military life in 1930.
General of the Army Ben Lear was already a veteran soldier when he entered the 1912 eventing contest, and he would go on to be the most decorated and revered of the United State’s first medal winning team. After first serving in the bottom ranks in the Spanish American War, he was quickly promoted through the ranks in Philippine-American War and WWI.
In WWII, his vast experiences made him a valuable resource to the army, and as lieutenant general he become responsible for the training styles and processes for innumerable soldiers entering combat. He was known to be extremely strict, and when he punished a convoy of soldiers who cat-called at a group of ladies in his presence, he made them march 15 miles back to their post in 97 degree heat, earning him the derogatory nickname “Yoo-Hoo.” All told, this giant of a man served with distinction in FIVE wars.
He received permission to attend and graduate from France’s Cavalry School at Saumur in 1907. He returned with invaluable knowledge about better conditioning, more natural and less violent training methods, and was solely responsible for the U.S. Army abandoning more severe bits in exchange for snaffles and double bridles.
In addition to competing, Henry was also the organizer and trainer of the 1912 team and — are you ready for this? — competed his horse Chiswell not only in eventing (which as we previously mentioned, included more than 30 miles of endurance in that era) but also individual show jumping and dressage. In addition to his eventing bronze, he placed 4th in show jumping and 11th in dressage.
Henry would go on to serve as Chef d’equipe, President of the FEI, and Chief of the Cavalry over the next 30 years, continually working to improve horsemanship and quality of riding in the United States competitive and military programs.
In Stockholm, the four officers performed admirably in the grueling Military event, with all completing a test that was certainly intended to weed out the weak. Each completed the distance ride in less than four hours, each went clean in steeplechase and cross country (save a few time faults in the latter) and all earned very solid “prize riding” (dressage) scores that bested much of the European contingency.
While none of the American officers went clean in “prize jumping,” neither did their fellow competitors, and the whole board was shaken up significantly; most notably, it dropped France out of contention, and propelled Sweden into the lead, making them champions on their home turf. Mere fractions separated the individual leaders, and both Lear and Montgomery were within a few fractions of the individual podium.
It was nonetheless a triumphant performance by the Americans at a significant overseas event, and it set the tone for North America’s scrappy and dedicated program for years to come.
As a fascinating side note, Sweden’s equestrian powerhouse would continue to play a dominating role in eventing for the next 60 years before experiencing a terrible drought from 1972 until just the past games in London in 2012, when Sara Algotsson Ostholt and her mare Wega won the individual silver medal, and the Swedish Team missed the podium by a single rail.
America had set its precedent at illustrious overseas competition, but World War I was going to leave the world map, the Olympic Games, and the sport of eventing in excruciating limbo. Stay tuned for the next edition of ‘Olympic Eventing History in Review” and in the meantime…