"Black Beauty," "My Friend Flicka," "National Velvet," "Smokey." All the world loves a horse. Sometimes that love shows up as chaps, or polo sticks, or Kentucky Derby stable colors. Sometimes, as seems to be the case for more and more Utahns, it shows up in equestrian riding events.They call their sport "eventing," and the tournaments tax the skill and temperament of both riders and animals. Those who try it, however, seem to get hooked in a hurry.
"I like to compare eventing to figure skating," says Nancy Roberts, a local novice. "There's precision in the compulsory moves and there's also creativity. I get two feelings from it all; a physical exhilaration and mild feeling of terror."
Last week the Golden Spike Empire Horse Trials were held in Ogden. This is the second year for the event, and the organizers are pleased. Last year 86 riders competed. This year 115 entered, but there were several who had to withdraw because of lame horses.
Mary Ann McFall and Sandy Crosland are the driving force behind things. And, like most eventers, McFall is bullish on horses and local riding.
"It's a very friendly group of people," she says. "Everyone is easy to get along with.
"I think the sport has always had appeal here, but finally we've had the gumption to build a course. And the riders are very appreciative. The city of Ogden couldn't believe how clean we left things."
The sport of eventing itself was originally a competition for cavalry horses. Soldiers started rivalries among themselves to test speed, courage and stamina, qualities needed by horses and men in battle. The little tests eventually evolved into a formal competition called "The Military Three Day Event."
Today the event is divided into three segments: dressage (a series of complex moves performed in an enclosed arena), cross-country (galloping to test speed and endurance) and stadium jumping (leaping a series of painted fences and obstacles). Just as the saddle bronc competition has become the symbol of the American rodeo, stadium jumping seems to be the image most people have of eventing.
One appealing aspect is the sport gives men and women the chance to go head to head in competition. Some of the finest riders in the nation today are women. At the Ogden competition 90 percent of the entrants in the Junior Starter Novice division were female, and riders such as McFall usually show up in the regional championships.
In the end, eventing in the American West isn't as elitist and "high horse" as some may think. Says Roberts:
"Many of the competitors locally have almost no money at all. They ride what we call `backyard horses' - horses that don't come from fancy barns. And some riders even work in barns to pay for the care and keeping of their animals.
"None of that seems to matter. All the competitors are generous and quick to praise each other. When we went into the `victory gallop' last week with ribbons streaming and the anthem playing, I was very stirred. It wouldn't be hard to find yourself grinning with tears in your eyes."
As for the future, it now looks like Utah will play host to the regional championships next year. And a couple of strong local riders - such as James Moore - will be traveling east to compete.
In short, eventing's finally found its niche here. And has filled it well.