Five winters ago Mark Todd, who is about as fine a rider ever to set a horse, was lacking a mount he could use in Three-Day Eventing. The Three-Day is an especially difficult and comprehensive competition, one that demands elegance and endurance, grit and grace in equal measure.
A friend suggested that Todd, who comes from New Zealand, take a look at what might be a useful old gelding stabled way out nowhere, near the backwater town of Taupo. The gelding bore a champion's noble name, Charisma, but at 11 years old he had never achieved anything of consequence, and around the stables he was dismissed with the workaday sobriquet of Podge.
Todd could barely believe his eyes when he peered into the stall and spied "this little, fat, black pony." At 15 hands, two inches, Podge looked like something out of a Saturday morning pony show for kids, and Todd, as tall a rider at 6'3" as the horse was short, smirked as he thought to himself that his legs might scrape the ground if he tried to ride Charisma. "I nearly turned round and left," Todd says. But he figured, What the hell, I've come this far. So he called for tack.
And then, out in the cold, in Todd's rein, there was an epiphany—"It clicked" is what Todd says. This was one of those rider-meets-horse/horse-meets-rider legends that we have celebrated ever since the beardless Alexander turned Bucephalus toward the sun so he wouldn't spook at his shadow, sprung up on him and then began conquering the world from the great beast's back. With Charisma, Todd had found his mount; with Todd, Podge had found his charisma.
Within two years Todd and Charisma had won the gold in Eventing at Los Angeles, and then, on Sept. 20 in Seoul, Charisma, now 16 years old. easily placed first in the dressage, the first element of the Three-Day. Todd patted his neck. "This is your last dressage," he told him. The next day, in the cross-country, Todd rode Charisma over hill and down dale in an exhibition of horsemanship so contained and flawless that it took away the breath of the most jaded experts. "This is your last cross-country," Todd told his little horse.
And last Thursday, in the show jumping, the only relatively dicey event for Charisma, he knocked down one rail but was so far ahead by then that it barely mattered. "This is your last jump," Todd told him. Then Todd, the gold draped around his neck, and the other two medalists took off in the exuberant gallop that makes the Eventing medal ceremony the most stirring of them all. The recipients of the silver and the bronze peeled off, and Todd and Charisma looped back to the center of the show ring, alone, one final, bittersweet time. Then they trotted away together. This was the last ride.
Charisma will retire now, to a farm in New Zealand. He and Todd are only the second horse and rider in history—and the first such pair in more than half a century—to win consecutive gold medals. My, what a dandy little steed he has been.
It's a pity more Americans aren't acquainted with Three-Day Eventing. Of course, the sport can be its own worst enemy, with its dreadfully dry and arcane name and patronizing upper-crust participants who too often do their best to turn off anyone who wasn't born with a silver bit in his mouth.
Take, for example, one Mark Phillips, a balding gentleman farmer from Gloucestershire who had the good fortune to share in the British team's silver medal despite having to withdraw from the competition. By chance, very possibly for the first time in the history of the Olympic Games, a winner's wife presented him with his medal. This happened because Phillips's wife, Anne, is HRH, the Princess Royal, and the president of the F�d�ration Equestre Internationale. Such a charming moment. What, someone at the ensuing press conference asked Phillips, did the Princess say to him as she draped the silver around his neck?
"That's for me to know and you to wonder," he snipped back.