In the rarefied atmosphere of championship sports, few contests are more exacting or more dramatic than that classic of classics in the pageantry of the horse-show world, the international jumping competition. Framed in the ornate trappings of tradition, demanding the precision of a ballerina and the power of a pole vaulter, it is a trial which combines artistry and athletics in their highest degree, a field reserved by stern selection for a heroic few. Twice yearly, in Harrisburg, Pa. this week and in New York's Madison Square Garden from November 5 to 12, the U.S. plays host to those who have attained this perfection—and always present is the man who in 20 years of jumping has made himself the dean of competitors in this small elite, Brigadier General Humberto Mariles of Mexico. On the opening day at Harrisburg, when the teams from Canada, Ireland, England, Chile, Argentina, Mexico and the U.S. lined up in formal parade, Mariles was again there, resplendent in white jacket and gold braid, a fiery-tempered, stocky, shaven-pated bullet of a man, who rides like a lightning-crowned Jove.
The crowds know Mariles and love him. They know him from countless victories at Harrisburg and in the Garden, as well as from some spectacular defeats. They know him as an Olympic champion in 1948 and as a gallant loser four years later when a possible victory at Helsinki escaped him by an agonizing quarter of a point. They know him for his enthusiasm, his color, his blunt and forceful speech, which more than once has got him into political trouble at home. But most of all they know him as the indomitable competitor—the man who rode here in 1955 despite the crippling pain of a fractured vertebra at the base of his spine, the man who, win or lose, has always ridden out his course until the final obstacle is cleared.
This is the Mariles of legend, who has made the horse-show ring his world. Few know him out of it, or can even imagine what his life is like out of the saddle, on foot, in his office or at home. Yet his is a rich life too, a life of children, horses, dogs, a wife as energetic as himself, a large and lively equestrian domain outside Mexico City, a life of teaching pupils old and young, of crises large and small, of strenuous activity and ebullient relaxation—the life of a dedicated and forceful man. In the course of a recent visit to Mexico, I spent a fortnight following the general on his daily rounds. It is a strenuous life—not only the general, but his wife and his children spend most of their time on horseback—but it is an experience, an experience in living.
The life of General Mariles is centered in the western outskirts of Mexico City. Here, where the crowded dual lanes of Highway 15 lead out from Chapultepec Park toward Toluca and distant Guadalajara, are the sprawling grounds of the National Equestrian Association, a sort of super riding club which the general oversees. Behind an ancient, high wall beside the highway are 300 unpretentious stalls for nearly as many horses. Across the road, in buildings considerably more imposing, are a dormitory for foreign visitors and students (it used to house the general's crack cavalry officers) and a casino complete with restaurant, bar, lounge, billiard and ping-pong rooms. Near the gateway to the road is the general's office, a small building where formerly he presided as an officer over cavalry affairs, now as a civilian over a civilian school.
But the most imposing part of the equestrian plant is its most important section: a huge ring forming a polo field, containing almost every conceivable type of obstacle that a horse could encounter in a show ring. It is complete with a grandstand and lights for night riding. On its outside perimeter are solid fences of all sorts and sizes, and beyond them still another outside course runs over rough terrain. A smaller ring, also well equipped with solid fences, rounds out an establishment that would set any horseman's heart to skipping.
Some 10 minutes away, in the suburb of Chapultepec, is the general's home, a modern, one-story house and garden. Workmen were busy on it when we arrived near noon of a hot and sunny day, putting up a new roof, adding a wing. Already the general had put in the equivalent of a full day's work for any average man—a couple of hours of methodical schooling of his horses over varied courses in the early morning, a brisk but thorough inspection tour of other horses in the stalls, a fast 45 minutes in his office dealing with correspondence, visitors, accounts and future schedules, a quick trip back to the course for more schooling with Chihuahua II, his current favorite mount. Now he was relaxing before lunch, thrown back in his chair, feet spread before him, oblivious to workmen, children, servants and all the other tumult of his lively home.
"When you are young," he said, "as I was when I first came to the U.S., you ride with your heart. Then around 30 you start riding with your intellect. I am 43, almost 44. I have been riding for 30 years. Perhaps soon I should retire. The French have a saying." He paused, searching for the translation. "It goes something like this: 'A man only begins to understand riding when it is time for him to stop.' That is true—but," he continued, "I am also sure that once a horseman stops competing, he stops learning. It is the end of the book."
For Mariles, the book began when he was 12—and its first page was a story of rebellion. The son of an army colonel, he joined some students in his native state of Chihuahua in a strike against the government which had closed the schools preparatory to a reorganization of the nation's school system. Mariles' padre found his son's protest against organized authority not only contrary to his own beliefs but downright dangerous in those revolutionary times, and he hustled young Humberto off to the army for discipline and security.
"At first," the general recalled, "I hated it. I had never before been away from my mother and every night I cried. Then I started working with the horses. When my father, thinking I had probably learned my lesson, came to take me home, I wouldn't leave. I knew by then that I wanted to stay with the army and be with horses for the rest of my life."
The general paused and glanced at the trophies that ranged the walls from floor to ceiling. "Things were very different then," he continued. "There was little formal instruction. Then, in 1926, in my first year with the army, General Amaro, the war secretary, decided that the standards of the cavalry should be improved. He sent officers to Europe to study for a year or two in all the well-known centers of riding- Italy, France, Spain, Germany." He waved his hand at the trophies from all these countries on the walls around. "The heart of General Amaro was in the right place, but, naturally, each officer came back with a different set of ideas. Wherever I went in the next few years I was told something different—it was an equestrian Tower of Babel!