Prior to riding out at the Sydney Royal, the competitors were gathered around Sydney Showground’s warm up area listening to Anthony Horden’s glowing, flowery description of Franz Mairinger’s past achievements and what he was offering to the Australian Olympic effort.
Morgan was unimpressed with Horden’s talk. He had been taught by some of the best Australian bush riders; he had never been unable to complete any task undertaken on a horse, he could sit the worst bucking bronco and spin a stock horse on a penny.
Mairinger though Austrian, to the average Australian, has an accent which sounds as German as his name. Australia had just lost thousands of its young men at the hands of Hitler’s regime and the tolerance of the general public of anyone foreign was minimal, the influx of European refugees had and would continue to be a sore point amongst the population.
Morgan could no longer contain his thoughts. “How come we have a Kraut judging us and coaching the Australian team? They were tryin’ to kill us not 10 years ago.”
Horden, whilst taken aback, was only a little surprised that it had taken so long for someone to raise this point.
“Sir, Mr Mairinger is Austrian. The Germans forcibly controlled his country. Gentlemen, I assure you that Mr Mairinger is 100% behind this effort. He has made Australia his new home. Mr. Mairinger comes to us from the Spanish Riding School in Vienna, the most acclaimed riding academy in the world, at which he had the honour of being the Head Instructor. Let me assure you, that should you ride well enough today to make the team, you will be in the hands of one of the greatest horsemen of our time. Thank you for your time gentlemen and good luck.”
Out on the main arena, Mairinger and Horden sat on a raised platform set up for the purpose of judging the event that would largely determine who would represent Australia as it contested for the first time in international equestrian sport. Time is not on their side. To pull together a competitive team from highly schooled jump and dressage riders is a possibility but to take this raw bunch of bush horsemen and mould them into something that could take on the might of European equestrianism, with a thousand years of development and tradition, is a massive ask. In this day and age it would be the equivalent of taking the best pony club kids in the country and preparing them for an Olympic campaign such is the lack of technical knowledge of the Australian riders, this will be Mairinger’s first real chance to see what he had to work with.
Horden was excited at the prospect of his dream finally coming to fruition. This had been some time in the planning and it had taken some effort to convince the Australian Olympic Committee to help with the funds to send a team to Stockholm to represent Australia when “real games” were to be held in Melbourne. This was Australia’s big chance to shine as a young country and our first chance to impress the world as a nation. The equestrian events could not be held in Australia due to our strict quarantine laws and this was almost enough to end the chances of Australia holding the games until it was decided that the equestrian events often held away from the main Olympic events, could just as easily be held in another country. Had Australia not secured the games, Horden may never have been able to convince the Committee to consider the cost of sending a team to Europe. As it was, there was no money for the transport of horses but this was not a major issue, as Franz Mairinger had no doubt it would be impossible to train horses to the standard required in the time available. No, they would need to purchase or borrow horses once they arrived in Europe.
A handsome chestnut thoroughbred with four white socks and a white blaze enters the arena. The rider salutes the judges and the bell rings. The combination canters boldly around the jumps, they approach the first jump and at ever increasing speed, the horse, with no assistance from the rider, jumps from an awkward spot and the rider loses his balance. On landing, the horse takes the bit between his teeth and gallops at breakneck speed across the entire arena. Horden shifts nervously in his seat and apologetically says, “ex racehorse I believe.”
The next horse enters the ring, a nervous, rangy looking thoroughbred. The horse shies right, then shies left and also shies at the judge’s platform and as the rider salutes, the horse rears and almost flips over. As the combination zigged and zagged towards the first jump, they smash through the first rail and then, largely out of control, do a fairly good job of destroying every jump on the course.
“Love a horse with a bit of dash.” comments Horden.
There is a break whilst the course is rebuilt and Mairinger walks to the warm up area where the black horse, now without his rider on board, is quiet and relaxed.
The rider reaches out to shake hands with Mairinger. “Mr Mairinger, Wally Brown, I met you at Adelaide Show where you were riding Coronation in the dressage. Talk about your beautiful horses, how long did it take you to get him goin’ like that?”
“Yes,” replied Mairinger “a fine horse, I had been schooling him for about two years to get him to that point.”
Brown obviously shocked at the two years to school a horse; “Two years? I don’t have that sort time to commit to a horse, no wonder he went so well!”
Mairinger smiles “Nothing worthwhile comes easily. How long have you owned this fellow?”
Brown, suddenly relishing the ridiculousness of his previous comment, apologises on behalf of the horse, “Oh I’ve had him for five years, but he’ll never be any good.”
Mairinger excuses himself and returns to the judging stand. “Amazing, two years to school a horse to an advanced test is too long, but it is acceptable to ride a beast such as that for five years. There is much to be taught Mr Horden.”
A steady stream of competitors crash, rush and refuse fences. The ring announcer booms out “And in the open jump, we have clear rounds by Roycroft, Morgan, Thompson and Barker. Our last competitor in the event is Brian Crago.”
Crago enters the arena and innocently omits to salute the judges, instead tipping his hat to a group of young ladies in the stand, much to their delight. At the sound of the bell, he turns his horse towards the first jump. He is mounted on his polo pony, the same one who had jumped the fence the previous day at Centennial Park.
At high speed, he attacks the course and the nimble little horse shines and turns as only a thoroughbred polo pony can. He has shortened the course to the absolute maximum and is the only horse and rider without a fault on the course. At the conclusion, Crago drops his reins and the horse changes demeanour and calmly canters from the arena.
Horden turns to Mairinger “Played polocrosse on that horse this morning they tell me, bit of an all-rounder our Brian. Well Mr Mairinger, you have now seen what you have to work with to pick our first equestrian team. Your thoughts? ”
Mairinger, with an air of wisdom, replied, “There is no questioning the dash and tenacity of the
Australian horsemen, however, in selecting an Olympic Equestrian Team, we must look at more than dash and tenacity. Attitude and coachability will be more important. I will have your team,
Mr Horden, by the end of the week.”
Mairinger and Horden walked through the marshalling yard where horses, still sweaty, exhausted, saddled and bridled are tied to a fence. With a look of concern, Mairinger surveys the scene. He and Horden enter a bar where the show jumping competitors are drinking and discussing the day’s proceedings. Horden and Mairinger approached Bunty Thompson and Ern Barker sitting at a table.
Horden addressed the room. “Congratulations gentleman, we will announce the team by week’s end.”
Mairinger addressed the room. “What is the most important thing to consider in showjumping?”
Barker fired back “I’d say balance, Mr. Mairinger.”
Mairinger directed his speech to Thompson “And what do you think?”
Thompson, worried it was a trick question answered, “Speed and picking the correct take off point.”
“Good answers gentlemen, but the most important thing is your horse; without him you would make hard work of the course. You must learn to respect him like a friend. Would you leave a friend as you have left your horses?”
The two men, obviously embarrassed at their failure to tend to their horses, leave the room and are followed by several others.
Mairinger looks to Morgan still sitting at the table. “And you sir, are quite happy to leave your horse outside without a drink?”
Morgan rises and follows the other riders out of the bar; there is an obvious tension.
Morgan walks to his horse and patting his rump answers Mairinger. “Let’s get one thing straight, this fella here is me mate, and I know how to look after me mates.”
On closer inspection Mairinger notices that Morgan has left his hat filled with water in front of the horse tied on a loose rein, so that he can drink. Morgan picks up the hat, empties the remaining water, and mounts his horse. They gallop off five or six strides on, slide to a halt and spin to the left on the hind quarters two full turns, he halts abruptly and carries out the same manoeuvre in the other direction. Finally he stops and facing Mairinger, the horse takes two steps back and then lowers its hindquarters further until his front legs lift from the ground in a perfect levade.
Mairinger admires and appreciates true horsemanship, but also recognises that with limited time attitude could be a real hurdle. Morgan’s horse walks calmly away and Morgan is aware that he may have made his point to his own detriment.