The First ‒ and the Biggest
In the days before Stockholm 1990 there was no World Equestrian Games, just individual world championships for each disciplines (jumping, dressage, eventing, driving). The first three-day-event ever held at the newly-opened Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington (and the first Worlds outside of Europe) was the 1978 World Championships, where the Canadian team scored an upset win against the powerhouse eventing nations Great Britain, Holland, West Germany (yes, this was 11 years before the fall of the Berlin wall), and the USA.
The huge, unrelenting course and the oppressive hot, humid weather combined to make it a very difficult test for the horses. Thirty-three jumps described by many as the biggest they had ever seen were spread across the 4½-mile cross-country course designed by Roger Haller which included the infamous Serpent (8 falls, 4R, 5E), Head of the Lake complex (8 falls, 7R, 1E) and Old Fort Lexington (6 falls, 1R, 1E). After Saturday’s competition, only 26 of the 41 horses and riders (63.4%) who started the cross-country course remained; four of the seven teams had fallen by the wayside (Holland, Argentina, Great Britain and New Zealand) and several riders had been taken to the hospital. Only eight riders had clear cross-country runs, but no one made the optimal time of 13:30.
The Canadians, comprised of team captain Elizabeth Ashton on Sunrise, Juliet Bishop on Sumatra, Mark Ishoy on Law and Order and Cathy Wedge on Abracadabra, got all four members around with some careful and conscientious riding. One of the eight clears was Graham Bishop on Sumatra, the team’s first rider out. She returned to report that excessive speed was dangerous and team coach Buck Ishoy ordered the rest of the squad to take it “cool and careful.”
It worked; their team total of 436.6 was 76.4 pp ahead of their nearest rival, the silver-medal West Germans, with the US placing third. Bruce Davidson (USA) on the great Might Tango took the individual gold medal (93.4), Ireland’s John Watson and Cambridge Blue claimed the silver (120.6) and Helmut Rethemeier and Ladalco of the FRG took the bronze (122.8).
The low completion rate (which would have been even lower today, as back then you were allowed to fall off and remount without being eliminated) and number of falls caused a storm of controversy after these World Championships along with calls for changes to the rules, fences, format, speeds and vetting process.
Watch the ‘highlight’ reel showing just how challenging the ’78 Championships were:
Prince Philip and I – A Short Story
by Teddie Laframboise, Stevens Creek Farm
In 1978, when many of you were not born and I was 20 years old, the Eventing World Championships were hosted at the Kentucky Horse Park. I believe it was the first big event for the site.
My family had volunteered at the 1976 Montreal Olympics and it was a lot of fun, so when Kentucky put out requests for volunteers many of us signed up. We were billeted with local KY residents and our job was to work on cross-country day but we had free passes to the rest of the week’s activities.
This was the era of the 4-phase endurance day with a steeplechase and two Roads-and-Tracks before even attempting the cross-country. The whole process could take two hours, start to finish. If you did not know how to fit up a horse, you did not get far. It was a hot, humid day without a breeze so typical of Kentucky. Only the fittest horses would survive or be close to the time on cross-country.
I had requested to work on communications and I got my wish. I was stationed on a radio at one of the water jumps later in the course in a 10’x10′ cabin with a door at the back and a half wall at the front looking out at the fence. I was partnered with an older woman and our job was to radio in results. In those days it was a real phone line and the telephone lines were organized in groups so you could listen on the phone to how the next few jumps went for the horse who had just gone over your fence.
After dressage Canada was down the list (5th), but Britain (3rd) was in the running for a medal. It was cross-country day and we were stationed in our little cabin awaiting what excitement might come our way.
At the time Prince Philip was president of the Federation Equestre International (FEI) and so an important figure not only as a Royal, but as the top man at the FEI. Early on he appeared unannounced at our jump with an entourage of about eight people and he asked to step into our cabin and listen to the radio. He wore official accreditation so we were happy to comply. He stayed for a few horses and then left to tour the rest of the course. Of course, as a Royal watcher I recognized him, but my American partner did not. She was so thrilled when he left and I told her who he was.
As the day grew blistering hot, each horse that came to our jump seemed to be more tired than the one before. They started to fall on the landing side. The jump (The Serpent) was a kind of zig-zag into water and it had a slightly downhill approach to it. Horse after horse did not jump high enough and would hit the top rail or catch their front end and go ‘ass over teakettle’ and fall into the water. As the day wore on more spectators came to our jump. There must have been 10,000 people there by the end of the day. It was crazy. Sometime before noon Prince Philip returned. Our jump was the jump to watch.
The Prince stayed with us for the entire remainder of the day, coming in and out of the cabin at will while his entourage remained outside. He especially liked listening to the phone when it was a British rider that managed to continue after our jump.
The British team did not fare so well [they were eliminated], but this was Canada’s time to shine. Slow and steady won the day and we won the gold. It was very exciting for us. If I remember correctly there were very few teams who accomplished getting three riders by our jump. Many teams were eliminated.
I have to say the Prince was charming. He was extremely polite and treated both of us with the greatest respect. It was so surreal to end up spending the day a few feet from royalty. In the end he came right up to us and shook our hands and thanked us for allowing him to spend the day with us. It was amazing. He was forever my favourite royal after that. What a job he had that day, and for his whole life. May he rest in peace.
Editor’s note: Organizers were not prepared for the crowd of 70,000 that showed up to watch the cross-country at the ’78 championships. I was one of them ‒ a fresh-faced 24-year-old with a two-week baby in a sturdy “cross-country pram” and a bewildered husband in tow. It was so hot and humid; luckily we had rented a trailer that was within walking distance that had the most delicious air-conditioning where we could cool off regularly.
It was so exciting being close to eventing royalty like Bruce Davidson, Tad Coffin, Mike Plumb, Lucinda Prior-Palmer, James Wofford, Mark Todd(!) ‒ and real royalty, although I only saw Prince Philip from a distance. One thing that will be ingrained in my memory forever is sitting under a tree as far away from the huge crowds as I could manage and discreetly breastfeeding the babe. Suddenly the Japanese rider and his entourage walked by and they all turned and bowed politely to me!
I honestly cannot remember what prompted me to drag my hapless husband and infant son to Kentucky. I owned a horse and was having fun doing little hunter schooling shows at the time but had never really witnessed upper-level eventing before that. It was astounding and exciting and terrifying and I soon after left my first starting box back in Ontario to begin my own less-than-illustrious eventing career thanks to the catalyst that was the ’78 Championships.