Horses Without Landscapes

I was at the National Horse Show in Madison Square Garden, in New York City, thinking back to when I had been a trainer of hunters and jumpers in Southern California and about how I hadn't noticed, there, what a strange and necessary thing a horse show is. In California, most horse shows have landscapes, backgrounds, settings. At the National Show at Indio, which went with the Date Festival, you could look up any time you liked at the spectacular way the desert is edged by the San Bernardino Mountains.

In New York there is nothing like that, of course. There are the arena, the barn area and the practice ring, and outside there is Manhattan. Inside the building you think about the horses and riders. Outside the building, you think about statistics you read as you rode the subway to get to the Garden about your chances of being murdered, depending on your race and gender.

I was thinking about California because I hadn't been keeping up with Grand Prix jumping, so I didn't know who the new international-quality riders were. Back in California, there had been this kid named Rob Gage, and I would wonder about him, as I wondered about all of the junior riders, whether he would turn out to be for real. When they're young, it's hard to tell just by watching them whether they've got the real stuff, because they can get by with being merely superbly athletic, and because they haven't yet learned about mortality.

And suddenly it was 1985, and I was in New York, and the announcer was saying that the next horse on course was Largo, ridden by Rob Gage. As I watched them take the massive and deceptive, or trappy, fences of that course, I saw that at least one of those kids I used to watch had learned how to ride. The kid was gone. Here was a grown-up, who had, while I wasn't looking, acquired the genuine authority of the true horseman. He and Largo had a clean go, met the standards set for them.

The next morning, I learned that Gage had won the title Grand Prix Rider of the Year. It turned out that he'd done this with only two horses, Largo and Sage, instead of, as is more usual, with a whole string of horses. I decided I had better go ask Gage how he had done that.

Before I asked him, I read through my program again, because I didn't remember seeing his name there. It wasn't there because, as I later learned, the copy was already at the printer's when Gage rode the Grand Prix course at Baltimore. Baltimore had been the show in which Rob would either win or lose, not only the one class, but also the title and thus the chance to ride at the Garden.

Gage is 33 now, still too young for one to be able to see in his face what one sees in the faces of older horsemen of authentic hearts and minds. But here is something I learned about horses and horse shows at the Garden that I never noticed in the appropriately landscaped shows in Southern California: A horse show is an uneasy place for anyone who is sensitive to the difference between real horsemanship and fake variations. Because the deeply true and the deeply false meet there, in pressured situations, the authentic becomes more visible, at least to anyone with real eyes.

At the Garden, things are all crowded together, and as I have said, there is no background at all. The genuinely great riders and horses must warm up for the most difficult events in a tiny, stuffy practice area. Here, the riders and horses must create out of nothing more than the materials of themselves the whole of art of riding, because here there is nothing in the way of background, no landscapes to help horse or rider enlarge the meaning and beauty of their motions.

So with Largo, Sage and Rob Gage. They make their own landscapes. Largo is a very powerful and talented horse, but he was ridden stupidly for a while and was given up as crazy until Gage started riding him. Sage is steadier, but he doesn't have the power that Largo has. Yet it was Sage that Gage chose to ride at the Grand Prix in Baltimore, where the fences required a great deal of power.

And Gage was asked about why he had chosen Sage rather than Largo. He said: "Well, I keep being told I have this attitude problem. Every time I go into the ring I am absolutely convinced that I'm going to jump clean. I'm always astonished when I collect faults. So I forgot to tell Sage that the fences were too big for him."

This is, I think, a characteristically California attitude. Californians don't get proper upbringings, by and large, which is why Easterners regard us suspiciously as lacking tradition and culture. It's true, we do lack tradition, with the consequence that someone forgets to tell our horses and our kids that the fences are too big for them, and somebody forgot to warn Largo and Sage that Madison Square Garden has no landscapes.

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