Profiles

In Conversation with Jimmy Elder

Lindsay Day talks to Canadian equestrian Olympian Jimmy Day about his how equestrian sport in Canada started, his horses, and giving back.

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By: Lindsay Day |

The Beginning: The Canadian Equestrian Team, circa 1950s

I started on the show jumping team in 1950 when I was 16. Before 1950 you had to be in the military to be on the team, so I didn’t have to do that, but I did have to lie about my age, because you were supposed to be 17, and I’d just turned 16.

I jumped with the team through the 50s, but then we moved to the three-day event because we never had the jumpers with the scope that could jump the big outdoor stadium fences. Where the Europeans had big strong jumpers, ours were a different kind of horse. They were good jumpers and we always jumped high, because back then in the classes you kept jumping until a winner was declared. If you went clean, you came back and they put the jumps higher, and so on. So we got a lot of jumping in, but we didn’t jump the combinations here that you need a big, galloping horse for. So with the team they said, ‘If you boys want to go to the Olympics, you’ve got to find a way to do it.’

In the three-day event, all you needed then was a good all-round horse. You only had to jump four feet. And you needed a fit horse, because you had to go 21 miles. And you had to do the dressage; well, my first dressage competition that I’d ever been to was the Olympics – 1956 Olympics, Stockholm, Sweden. I remember when we walked the cross-country course the first time. We were staying all together in the former palace of the Swedish king, and all the other teams were there, and we had fun. We went to supper after we’d walked the cross-country course; it was so quiet you could hear a pin drop. Everybody was heads down, thinking, ‘Oh geez, how are we going to get around it?’

Of course, for us, this was the first three-day event that we’d been in. The jumps weren’t like what they are now – everything was solid and the ditches were dug four or five feet down and square, so if you missed you went right in. They had soldiers there – 20 soldiers at each jump with ropes – and if the horse got down in the ditch, they’d pull them out.

John Rumble and I, after dressage the night before cross-country, ran around the course on foot one more time and we started thinking that it might not be so bad after all. We started thinking that we might be able to get around it. The next day we were the only team that didn’t have a fall on cross-country, and that’s what got us the bronze. But we all used to ride cross-country and hunted growing up, so I think that really helped us.

In Sweden, riding has always been one of the major sports, next to soccer, so when we rode out into the streets after, there were people everywhere. They all crowded around us to congratulate Canada. Actually, one of the big standout moments for me was when we walked into the dining hall at the palace that night; the Russians stood up and saluted to say bravo Canada, and they came over and shook our hands. That’s actually one of the great things about equestrian sport. With horse language, you can sit around and make gestures and you know what each other are talking about. It was a great community, especially when the cold war was on. The sport back then was the only thing that I think helped people keep their sanity, because everybody was so hyper about everybody. But when you’re in competition in sport and you have a common interest in horses, it’s a great unifier.

Building up Show Jumping in Canada

After the 1960 Olympics, Tommy (Gayford) and I went to General Danny Whitaker, who had taken over as the chairman of our team, and we said, “Listen, we really want to go on the jumping team to the Olympics.” We’d jumped at the big international horse shows – in North America it was Harrisburg, Washington, New York, and Toronto. And he said, “You know what, Tokyo’s too far, but if you do well in the ’67 Pan Am Games, then I’ll make sure that we go to the ’68 Olympics in Mexico.” So we had a mission.

At that time, at my old farm, I had a jumping course on grass; it was an old golf course surrounded by hills. That’s when we started a jumping series with European-style jumps, because when I was over there for the Olympics we took photographs. Every year, I used to take out a book of past Olympics and we would set it up on a modified scale and we built it up higher and higher each year.

We were also trying to introduce the sport to the press, because we got tired of just being on the social pages, next to the comics, or on the obituary page. So we would hold a press conference and invite them out and explain to them, “This is an Olympic sport and this is what we are trying to do.”

We got it in the papers – on the sports pages – and that’s what attracted people. We would end up with two or three thousand people sitting on the hills at my place. We’d set up different jumps – a picnic table with a pole over it, with dummies and plates on it and everything. I borrowed a little MG [sports car] and put it under an oxer one year. Another time, I hung a canoe from our big willow tree that you had to jump over. So for the people watching it was, “Holy cow, will they get around those fences?”

Hard Work Pays Off

When we went to the ’68 Olympics in Mexico City we didn’t say we were going to win, but we all gave each other confidence. Jimmy Day was a super young rider; he was one of the best riders we’ve ever produced. And Tom was so focused on everything: Just get it done. His mare colicked three days before, and he couldn’t go in the individual, but he resurrected her from the dead. We thought we were going to lose her three days before the Olympics, and he got her around the course and made us win the gold medal.

When we won, then we were really legit. The Europeans were saying, “Oh you guys, first time lucky.” But two years later in 1970, it was our first World Championships in La Baule, France, and we won the gold medal there. We were right in the heart of the Europeans and we beat the French in the jump-off after about six hours of jumping. We won the Olympics, we won the World Championships, and then at the Pan Am Games in ’71 we won the gold medal, too. I’ve never been on a team from any of the World Championships, Olympics, or Pan Am Games that’s ever been worse than fifth.

The Horses

I’ve had a lot of horses, ridden thousands of horses, and I liked them all. They might not have all been super horses and they might have been difficult horses, but they all have their own personalities and I’ve been very fortunate.

There was Johnny Canuck; he was only about 15.1, and part hackney. He was on the Canadian team in ’62 and ’63. When the wall would go up and up, I’d come down the ring and the people at the end of the stands would say he’d disappear and then all of a sudden two little ears would come up and he’d pop over it. He always had his ears up. He was a great little horse. I jumped him at one show and it was getting a little dark; people used to put their headlights from the cars around the ring on the jumps. This little horse kicked up so high over the jump that he kicked himself right over. I could feel him as we landed, his hind end kept going and I bailed out one way and he flipped over the other way. He was a little trier.

Immigrant was the horse I had at the ’68 Olympics. A year or so before, he was at a riding school down in Connecticut. He used to jump and buck around the course. I used to try and stop him, but I realized that the harder he bucked, the better he jumped.

Then there was one horse of Terry Leibelís named Wow. He was a draft cross, and I couldn’t hold him with a bit; he’d just run away. The only way I could hold him was with a hackamore. You couldn’t warm him up, because he would just get so wound up and strong, so we just used to lunge him. We went in for our first round [of the Nations Cup at Hickstead, England], and got around that. The next round, we got over the first fence and then I pulled, and the reins just came right back – the leather had got wet and stretched from the sweat. So I just sat there the whole way around, as still as I could. I got over the last fence and he started picking up speed. He was running hard and heading into the stands. As I went by the in-gate I put two hands on one rein and gave him a good yank and got his head so he saw where the in-gate was. Our groom was standing there and as we flew out I yelled, “Jill grab him!” She grabbed him and slowed him down a bit and I jumped off. But he could jump a mountain that horse. He was tough.

The Key to Success

First, you have to have a passion for the sport and like what you are doing. We worked [day-jobs] five days a week – that’s what you had to do to support your horses and your family. The key was perseverance. Getting up early, fitting things in, getting to the shows, developing the horses. Back then nobody had the money to go out and buy a $10,000 or $15,000 jumper. Tom and I didn’t, anyway. So we had to develop our horses and that probably made us better overall horsemen.

When we rode as a team, we were a team. If you’ve got good camaraderie and you’re helping one another, it never fails. I’m not saying you always win everything, but you can’t help but raise your standards to do well.

We were lucky to grow up with riding and doing a variety of sports, not just one. I think that makes you a better rider. My grandson, Jake, started playing polo last year and it’s really helped his balance over the jumps. Steeplechasing helped me for the speed classes. I had a lot of falls. I broke my back. But if you like it and have the passion for it, you come back.

I learned a lot from watching and talking to other people, too. I was on the team when I was 16, and boy, that was an eye-opener. Being on the team and going to the Olympics, you saw how to really train a horse and get them going like an athlete. I was really lucky to see all that.

In competition another thing I used to do – and everybody used to laugh at me – before going into the stadium is go and run as hard as I could. If it was the Olympics or something they would usually have a track close by, or I’d run down the hall of the stadium – just run like hell until I was out of wind. I’d be running in my boots and people would say, “Geez, what the hell are you doing, Jim?” But then I’d be nice and relaxed when I got on the horse. If you’re tense, the horse can feel that and what happens is you see some guys get halfway around and they start struggling because they’ve been so tense, they’re struggling to breathe. That was my sports psychology. Nowadays, they have sports psychologists to tell you to do this and do that but that’s what I used to do.

Giving Back

I used to teach the Pony Club for years, and had it out at our place. We did it to put something back into the sport, and that’s because people helped me along the way. And I’ve been involved with CARD and CanTRA riding for the disabled, and Big Brothers. I’ve been very lucky, and when you do things for people, and for the sport, it comes back ten-fold. The sport has done one heck of a lot for me. I’ve met so many people, and I’ve been to so many places. And it’s all because of the horse.