Tobi Taylor's Journal

News > Tuesday, November-30-2010

General Burton Rides Again!

The day after Thanksgiving, last year, I was riding my little mare Rosie in the arena at the front of the property when our local Olympian, General Jonathan R. Burton, came pedaling over his bicycle, along with his daughter Judy and son-in-law Don (read more about the General here). Rosie marched over to the fence so that her friend the General could rub her face, and we all compared notes on our respective Thanksgiving dinners. Then Judy looked down at Rosie and up at me, and said, "Dad hasn't ridden for years, but he wants to ride a horse."


I had visions of lightning-quick Rosie becoming famous for doing a double-axle and breaking the General's 90-year-old hip -- or worse. There would be headlines about it in the Chronicle of the Horse, the USCTA News, and Dressage Today. Rosie and I would have to change our names and move to an undisclosed location to avoid angry mobs. I shook my head. "I don't think this is the horse for you," I told him. "But my chestnut mare is a retired FEI horse, and I think she'll suit you just fine."


"Great," said Judy. "How's tomorrow morning sound, about 10 a.m.?"


"I'll have her all saddled up," I answered.


I spent the rest of the day cleaning tack and tidying up the General's mount, Brusally Panatela. Retired from showing since 2005, she was a 24-year-old Arabian/Trakehner mare, bred, raised, and started under saddle by my friend and mentor Shelley Groom Trevor. Panatela's sire, Brusally Orzetyn, had been one of a handful of horses in the 1980s in Arizona competing at Prix St. Georges. Her dam, Korona, a Polish Trakehner, was one of the first imported warmbloods in the state. Panatela herself competed successfully to Fourth Level, and could many of the FEI movements -- but in order to compete at that level, she needed to wear a double bridle, and she'd never met a curb/snaffle combination that suited her. That was irrelevant for the General's ride; she would go well enough for him in a snaffle, though she was a little creaky these days. I gave her a dose of Bute to make the upcoming ride easier on her.


The next morning, I fed horses, mucked stalls, and counted the minutes until I could tack up Panatela. As I worked, I remembered the first time I sat on her, in 1989, when she was four years old. I recalled when she was sold to her longtime owner Carla Ferrara, and how delighted I was to buy Panatela from Carla in 2000. Panatela had been ridden by four FEI riders, and now she was going to be ridden by an Olympian. I hoped she'd go well for the General, that he'd enjoy himself and be safe.


A little before the appointed time, the General and his daughter arrived. Camera in hand, my husband Alan came out to join in the fun. The General was attired in vintage riding gear, including a hard hat that I felt sure wouldn't pass the ASTM safety standards, and distressed brown leather boots that fastened on the sides, like half-chaps, and resembled some expensive footwear that Ralph Lauren had offered a few seasons before. And he was smiling more than I'd ever seen him -- this despite not even having mounted Panatela.


I led Panatela up to the mounting block, telling her under my breath how important it was to "be a good girl today, and don't get anybody hurt."  Alan stood on Panatela's off side, pressing down on the stirrup, and Judy helped her father get aboard. It took him a minute to get organized, and then we all stepped back to watch.


Panatela has some arthritis in her hocks, and at the walk, her left hind leg takes a shorter step than her right. I was curious to see how many strides it would take the General to get her striding close to evenly behind. Answer: two strides -- and then, not only were her strides evenly matched, they became longer. As the minutes went by, the 90-year-old rider and his 24-year-old mount were showing us the training scale in action: rhythm, suppleness, connection, impulsion, straightness, and collection.


Alan and I looked at each other, across the span of the arena; over the years, we've gone to some pretty high-level dressage shows, including the World Cup. He's not an aficionado or a zealot, like his wife, but I could tell that he knew he was seeing something out of the ordinary. The General's position and technique were straight out of a textbook, and his suppleness surprised me. Like the horsemen at the Spanish Riding School, he looked like he was doing nothing -- and yet, paradoxically, his body was doing innumerable subtle, minute corrections with each stride that Panatela took. Soon he asked her for some slow sitting trot. When that was going well, he used his dressage whip just slightly to transition to a more stately, cadenced trot, known as a passage.  Because passage is relatively difficult, especially for an older horse with hock issues, he halted her after a few minutes, and patted her neck. Then he said to his daughter, "Okay, I'm done. And I didn't fall off!" We helped him dismount, he fed Panatela a piece of carrot, and then I led her back to the barn.


General Burton had simply asked to ride a horse again, but in so doing, he gave those of us who were present -- including, if not especially, Panatela -- an enormous gift: an expression of artistry, kindness, and joy. Often, when I am in my barn cleaning stalls, I'll see him, now age 91, riding his bike down the street. When he gets to our driveway, he slows down to see if there are horses in the arena (there usually are.) Then he rides over to the fence, and they soon come up to greet him, this man who loves all horses.

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