Tent Pegging, the 2 500 year old cavalry sport of equestrian skill-at-arms, is not a pursuit of the faint of heart. But only someone as soft of head as myself could find himself at the 2007 international championships. My blog articles below chart the path from the stables of Uxbridge, Ontario to the field of honour in Muscat, Oman.
Terry Fox, Jackie Robinson, and the Virtues of Sport
07 February 2007, 09h05 EST (GMT-5)
Terry Fox & Jackie Robinson Click image for respective foundation
As my childhood friends will all happily attest, I was never one of nature's athletes. Perhaps because of this, the two athletes I most admired were people who mastered not only the practice of sport, but also its virtues.
Terry Fox was more than a prolific runner and Jackie Robinson was more than an accomplished second baseman, because each man's character was equal to his physical prowess. Each man chose, therefore, to be as much a champion for the weak as he was the embodiment of the strong.
Now in my thirties, I have found myself in the spectacularly improbable role of representing Canada as an equestrian athlete at the international skill-at-arms championships, to be held in Oman this March. If anyone had predicted this as little as a year ago, I should have advised him to stop picking his own mushrooms.
We all reach towards our heroes, even when we recognise that they inhabit a sphere inaccessibly high above us. Accordingly, I hope to do some good in the world while I strive to do well at the championships, and I have donated my team's naming rights to UNICEF, to further the cause of children toiling in child labour.
Though I draw my inspiration from the vast works of two great men, I recognise that my own efforts represent a small gesture by an athlete of modest talent. Nevertheless, I hope passionately that when I compete in Oman, I will do so in a manner that will be worthy of the virtues of my country and of my sport.
Living by the Sword
25 February 2007, 09h30 EST (GMT-5)
Globe and Mail Article Click logo for full article
As if being a tent pegger is insufficiently absurd on its own, last week I found myself practising for the upcoming world championships in -30ºC weather, some 65ºC lower than the likely temperatures at the competition itself.
The best laid schemes o' mice an' men being what they are, I have found that my ability to post blog entries from Oman has been ploughed under by intermittent internet access, to say nothing of the daily exhaustion of the competition itself. As a result, there will be a delay between the events and my account of them.
The trip from Toronto to Muscat was a journey of the damned: an overnight flight from Toronto to London; a ten hour layover at Heathrow; another overnight flight from London to Dubai; and an early-morning commuter flight from Dubai to Muscat. I left Toronto on a Tuesday and arrived in Muscat on a Thursday, freighted with sleep deprivation and a nine time zone jet lag. The preliminaries for the championships would begin three hours later.
Muscat, Oman's capital city, is stunningly beautiful: a riot of irrigation-fed greenery erupting from the desert, garlanding monumental public buildings that blend modern materials with traditional forms. The city is clearly awash with oil revenue, and makes a civic virtue of displaying its opulence.
After taking two hours to decompress from my travels, I met the driver assigned to me for the games. Salim Albahri, a corporal on secondment from the Omani military police, tore up the hotel driveway in a navy blue Volvo, the dulcet strains of Eminem rattling the car's windows. "You and me, we are going to have fun," Salim enthused. Well, he was half right.
As we made our way to the field of competition, Salim explained that the licence plates on our car identified it as belonging to the Royal Court, making it essentially exempt from road traffic laws. To prove his point, he would floor the accelerator as we approached photo-radar cameras on the highway. An alarm would sound inside the car to let us know we were travelling at illegal speeds, Salim would drown out the sound by turning up the volume on his Eminem cassette, the radar camera would flash, and he would cry out triumphantly, "Another one!" Nevertheless, we arrived intact.
Each continent was represented by a single national team: Europe by Britain, whose team came from the Household Cavalry and the Royal Horse Artillery; the Middle East by Oman, whose team came from the Royal Cavalry; Asia by Pakistan, whose team was under the patronage of Prince Malik Ata of Fatehjang and the Awans; Africa by South Africa, whose team had been selected from national civilian trials; the New World by Canada (i.e. me); along with last year's champion, India, whose team came from multiple branches of their armed forces.
The championships pair riders with unfamiliar mounts through a lottery. Of the sixty horses on offer, I drew number sixty; not the most auspicious start, I thought.
My horse was a thoroughbred named Shomool, a giant by Omani standards, towering over his waif-like arabian paddock mates. I later learned that whereas most of the other competition horses came from Oman's cavalry and mounted police force, Shomool is out of the Sultan's personal stables (which is perhaps less rarefied than it sounds, as Sultan Qaboos has more than two-thousand horses milling about).
Each rider was allowed two practice runs on the course to take the measure of his horse. As Shomool and I waited our turn, his heart began pounding against my legs, perspiration foamed on his neck, and his back arched and trembled. The flag dropped, I touched my legs to his flank, and the world slipped away.
Shomool had shifted his weight backwards to his hind legs, as all athletic horses are trained to do. However, unlike any other horse I had ever ridden, he continued until his forelegs rose from the ground, and he then leapt diagonally into the air, squealing a blood-curdling war cry and leaving my heart in the dust behind us. We fell to earth at a full gallop, and hurtled down the course at speeds that I had scarcely believed possible.
Our second practice run progressed in much the same way.
As he drove me back to my hotel, Salim, who had observed the entire proceedings with detached amusement, suggested that some more Eminem would help put me in the right frame of mind.
The competition would begin the following day, and although tent pegging is not a sport for the faint of heart, I could not help but wonder if this was not, perhaps, a misadventure for the soft of head.
Words and Images - Photocasting the Championships
17 March 2007, 23h35 EDT (GMT-4)
Practice Run with the Lance Click thumbnail for full photograph
Throwing my Luddite tendencies to the winds, I have decided to try my hand at photocasting images from the International Tent Pegging Championships. Much as podcasting publishes audio files and videocasting publishes video files, photocasting publishes still images across the web.
You can automatically subscribe to my photocast by clicking the following links for the corresponding programs and web services:
The hotel lobby was a sartorial riot of anachronism and multiculturalism: riders from around the world; sporting breeches and polished spurs; variously adorned with circlets, gilt armbands, and theatric turbans; carrying swords, sabres, and lances. Well, Willow, I don't think we're in Parkdale anymore...
The first day was given over to individual competition with the lance. In the morning, each horse and rider pair would attempt to skewer a course of ground targets, which dwindled in width from 6cm to 3cm. In the afternoon, we would also attempt to thread our weapons through elevated targets, rings of 6cm diameters suspended at the height of a man's eye.
My horse Shomool fidgeted nervously at the starting line as we awaited each of our eight runs of the day. He clearly understood his role, and just as clearly had no intention of fulfilling it other than under extreme duress. At each drop of the starter's flag, he would pivot on his haunches and try to run away from the course. Long experience had clearly taught him that a rider managing a lance would have grave difficulty marshalling him back 180 degrees, and Shomool seemed intent on making me prove my worth before he would do my bidding.
To give him his due, in his attempts to evade the task at hand, Shomool achieved an astonishingly athletic series of manoeuvres that might almost have passed for sauts d'école, had he not been madly throwing his head and limbs about. He would leap into the air and kick out repeatedly with his hind legs, before landing on his forelegs to repeat the action; break into a lateral canter, scattering onlookers like gazelles before a lion; or spin alternately on the haunches and the forehand, first in one direction and then the other.
In summary, Shomool is completely bonkers, and to my astonishment, it appears that his trainers have intentionally cultivated his temperament. One groom explained his theory of "natural horsemanship" during a break.
Horses are prey animals, and in a state of nature, they are sleeplessly alert to the threat of becoming a predator's dinner. In Canada, the horse is trained to learn faith in his rider, and to therefore overcome his flight instinct, instead developing a calm and tractable disposition that leaves him willing and able to focus on understanding and performing the tasks set to him. Shomool, however, was trained under a system that seeks to work with the horse's flight instinct, in the belief that the horse is happiest and most effective if his natural tendencies are augmented and channelled, rather than thwarted. In essence, Shomool is constantly on a hair trigger, awash with adrenalin, and ready to bolt at the first opportunity; his rider's job is to cage the whirlwind and direct it in the requisite direction.
When I did finally face Shomool to the course, we would gallop hell for leather, foam flying from his sides and the world lost in a blur. The FEI rules require an average pace of at least 800 m/minute; Shomool was clocked at speeds above 1100 m/minute.
In the individual lance with ground targets, Shomool and I finished 28th: absolute last, with an unmistakable death rattle hanging about our performance. Although coming 28th against the finest equestrian skill-at-arms riders in the world is perhaps no great shame, I found it terribly dispiriting. In the individual lance with ground and elevated targets, Shomool and I managed a marginal improvement, placing 27th by edging out a professional rider from Britain's Royal Horse Artillery rider. Poor lad.
At the close of the day, I decided to avoid the insipid, placeless food served at the athletes' hotel, and I instead asked my driver Salim to suggest a local restaurant catering to Omanis. We drove through a Shiite neighbourhood draped in billowing black cloth for a recently assassinated paramilitary leader, and we came out the other end to find a small restaurant whose proprietor stood outside, keeping a worried watch on the nearby mourners.
There were no chairs, tables, or cutlery in the restaurant. We sat shoeless and cross-legged on the floor, scooping up handfuls of rice studded with chicken and unidentified comestibles. "You know, it could have been worse," Salim offered reassuringly. "There could have been three competitions instead of just two."
I returned to my hotel for an early night's rest. Tomorrow, after all, would bring the third and subsequent disciplines.
Groomed for the Sword - Day 3 of the Championships
21 March 2007, 16h45 EDT (GMT-4)
Individual Sword with Ground Targets Click thumbnail for full photograph
My third day at the international tent pegging championships began several hours before dawn, even before the Mullahs began their calls from the minarets surrounding the athletes' hotel. My driver Salim grumbled at my decision to proceed to the competition grounds in the unhallowed dark, but he cheered up as he floored the car down the empty highway.
I spent most of the morning trying to bring my horse Shomool into a calmer frame of mind before the day's games. It was not an easy task; he has been trained by riding masters who believe that battle frenzy should be cultivated in a cavalry horse. Nevertheless, Sarah's natural horsemanship advice came into its own, and Shomool and I were eventually galloping about the fields, occasionally seized with emotions other than grim terror.
The first rays of dawn drew out the phalanx of grooms, and I joined them to stretch out on cushions and broad carpets under billowing canvass pavilions. The previous day, they had seemed uneasy about one of the riders socialising with them, but by this morning, they greeted me unselfconsciously with an outstretched cup of tea.
Grooms perform perhaps the most important, and certainly the least pleasant, work in any equestrian establishment: feeding, watering, and washing down the horses; cleaning tack; mucking out stalls. From my first day at the competition, I was struck by the fact that while the grooms were never badly treated, they were somehow invisible to the athletes and dignitaries at the championships. People would look past them, as if the horses had been fed, shod, brushed, and saddled by the grace of the winds, rather than by the efforts of other human beings.
Most of the grooms spoke little to no English or French, and I speak absolutely no Arabic, but we managed halting conversation. They were initially taken aback when I asked for advice for the day's competition, but then it came flooding out, in words, gestures, and diagrams drawn in the sand with stray sticks. They are obviously people of humble circumstances, paid modestly to perform unglamorous work. Less obvious, until they pulled their light from under a bushel of self-effacement, is that they are far more insightful horsemen than most of the athletes at the championships. They even set up a practice run for me, with one groom showing enough confidence in his tuition to hold up a target for me to slash as I galloped past him.
Despite being the only athlete at the championships unaccompanied by a team coach, I have no doubt that I enjoyed the best support there.
Individual competition with the sword was the order of the day. In the morning, riders would gallop a course while attempting to carry off ground targets. In the afternoon, we would use sabre slashes to split apart lemons suspended overhead, and then plunge forward to skewer ground targets, again while our horses hurtled through the course at a gallop.
Shomool attacked the morning course in an intense but controlled rage, and we completed the discipline in 21st place, a substantial improvement over the previous day's showings that (just barely) pulled us ahead of the bottom quarter of competitors.
However, as we completed the final run of the morning, Shomool and I had a confrontation that would colour all that would follow.
At the end of the course lies a short deceleration lane, for riders to bring their mounts from a gallop to a walk, before returning to field of competition. The lane ends with a stone wall, with the return path at the left and a second path to the stables at the right.
The rider preceding me was a member of India's national team, the defending world champions. I cringed as I saw his horse gather momentum in the deceleration lane, swing to the right at the very end, flinging him bodily into the wall. The horse then galloped off to return to the food, water, and quiet of the stables, leaving the rider limp on the ground as the paramedics scrambled.
Shomool watched with cool interest.
We galloped the run, and Shomool predictably lengthened his stride in the deceleration lane, lowered his head, and prepared to add me to the body count. My instinct was to pull on the reins and force him to an immediate halt. But I hesitated.
Like many cavalry horses, Shomool wears an unforgiving bit, able to bring a runaway mount to heel at the cost of destructively severe pain, and I was reluctant to join the probable legions of riders who had governed him through the application of harm. So perhaps with an excess of sentimentality, I leaned back in the saddle, readied my body as best I could, tried to block any rightwards dash with the use of my right leg and the right rein, and gave him the cues to turn left and to slow down. My message to him was simple: I instruct you to slow down and to turn left, and you can do whatever you want in reply, but I will not allow you to turn right, and the wall will not allow you to continue forwards; the rest is up to you.
Shomool seemed to understand his options, and galloped faster still, straight for the wall, daring me (or so it seemed) to lose my nerve and haul him down. At the last possible moment, he came back on his haunches and pivoted to the left, pawing desperately at the earth with his forelegs to prevent us from being crushed as we skidded towards the wall. His rump brushed the stonework, and we flew down the return path, heading straight for a tree.
Again, he came back on his haunches, this time so forcefully that his forelegs rose off the ground, and we slid forward. We came to a halt precisely at the tree, Shomool's front hooves propped up on the tree trunk and his hind legs wedged under us, a sort of levade on arboreal training wheels.
The groom at the bottom of the course beheld us with a puzzled eye. "In Oman, our horses do not climb trees."
In the afternoon, Shomool was like a warhorse of old, proudly lifting his legs high into the air with each step, obedient to every instruction, unrelenting in his focus as we sped down the course, and calmly yielding as we came to the deceleration lane. We tied for 3rd place on points, only pushed out of the medal standings by time.
The grooms who had coached us in the morning formed a private cheering section as Shomool and I rode past. It had been an improbably good day, and the championships were only half over.
Flashing Some Skin - Day 4 of the Championships
31 March 2007, 14h10 EDT (GMT-4)
Ruins on the Outskirts of Muscat Click thumbnail for full photograph
After two full days of individual competition at the International Tent Pegging Championships, we were given a day off to relax, nurse any injuries, and take in the sights of Oman. This would my sole opportunity to experience the country beyond the manicured boundaries of the capital, and to have a less mediated view Omani culture.
Staff Sergeant Stuart Russell, a rider from the British team, joined my driver Salim and I, and we set out under a blazing and unforgiving sun, Salim's omnipresent Eminem tape thumping in the background.
It would be absurd to imagine that one could gain any real appreciation for an ancient civilisation from a single day's journey, and the outing yielded more a random pastiche of thoughts and impressions.
• Perhaps because Oman has served as a port of call on the Arabian Peninsula for millennia, villagers took no exceptional interest in the fact that Stuart and I were obviously from abroad, and regarded all three of us with a hospitable equanimity.
• The more I travel, the more I am persuaded that every person on the planet has a cousin in Scarborough. "You are from Canada? I have a relative who lives near something called the Dee-Vee-Pee."
• At the risk of beggaring the obvious, I should mention that Oman is a hot country. One villager asked me about the weather in Canada. When I told him that temperatures in Uxbridge had reached -20C before I departed, his expression suggested that I might just as well have cited the number iπ; the idea of ambient cold seemed unfathomable to him. "Surely that would cause instant death?"
• No one has truly lived until he has witnessed a man trying to pick up a woman in sartorial hijab. "Check it out!" Salim would occasionally cry as we drove past a pillar of black cloth, which revealed nothing more than a pair of eyes and, if the wind were billowing the fabric, might hint at the form of the person underneath. He would turn up the volume on his Eminem tape until the frame of the car trembled, roll down his window, and utter the Arabic equivalent of "hey baby". In most instances, the woman concerned would not even deign to acknowledge his existence. However, on one occasion, she giggled, looked about furtively, and flashed him some skin by momentarily raising the corner of her headscarf to reveal a few centimetres of forehead.
The day ended pleasantly, with a boat cruise along the coast hosted by the competition organisers. We all returned windswept to the athletes' hotel to rest before the start of the group tent pegging disciplines the following day.
Formation Stallion Rage - Day 5 of the Championships
02 April 2007, 20h45 EDT (GMT-4)
Group Lance with Ground Targets Click thumbnail for full photograph
The International Tent Pegging Championships resumed with group disciplines, in which sets of cavaliers riding abreast would gallop down a course, to simultaneously vie for targets lined-up within the space of a few metres. During my training in Canada, I had not had the luxury of fellow tent peggers with whom to practice, and so this would be an entirely new experience for me.
"You will all be riding very fast. Are you worried the others might stick you with their lances?" my driver Salim asked between mouthfuls of breakfast. Well, not until you raised it, actually.
The heat closed in on the competition grounds, and water trucks drove back and forth, spraying the course to suppress dust while the Royal Omani Mounted Police camels looked on with perplexed disdain.
As the luck of the draw would have it, I was matched with three riders from the Omani team: Khalil Ahmad Al Bloushi; Helal Abdullah Al Badri; and Zaid Bin Sued.
In the first discipline, we rode four abreast, wielding lances against ground targets. The stallion's instinct to bridle against the incursions of other males immediately rushed to my horse Shomool's head.
As the starter's flag dropped, Shomool made one last attempt to savage the horse to our nearside, before lurching forward with a speed that left the others far behind. I flounced my weight to and fro in the saddle, in an attempt to slow him back into the line. By the end of the requisite six runs, Shomool had calmed somewhat, and we placed sixth.
In the second discipline, Khalil and I rode shoulder-to-shoulder, he wielding his lance and I my sword, again against ground targets. The lance is the classic tent pegging weapon, but I have always found it to be improbable and awkward. By contrast, Khalil and most competitors eschew the sword, which they regard as demanding excessive acrobatics from the saddle.
Now wary of my efforts to restrain him at the starting point, Shomool instead tried to incapacitate Khalil's horse at the end of each run. With his most forceful lunge, Shomool still failed to escape me to reach the other horse, but he did manage to unseat me, leaving my pride dented but my body intact. We placed ninth, a respectable showing.
The South Africans continued their domination of the championships, managing to carry off medals in both disciplines of the day, despite a near disastrous collision involving one of their riders. The British, represented by four professionals riders from the Household Troops, fared surprisingly modestly, but did manage to keep their particularly unruly mounts in check.
"You did very good," offered Salim cheerfully, as he drove me back to the athletes' hotel. "You did not get stabbed or anything!" Then again, there was one more day left in the championships.
Farewell to Arms - Day 6 of the Championships
04 April 2007, 19h20 EDT (GMT-4)
Group Sword with Ground Targets Click thumbnail for full photograph
I rushed down to the hotel lobby, nearly tripping as my spurs struck each stair, to find my driver Salim waiting contentedly. "Do not worry," he said reassuringly. "I have saved you time by eating your breakfast."
We arrived at the field of competition as the starting order was being announced. Fortunately, the grooms had already saddled and prepared my horse Shomool for me. They threw me the reins as I hurdled over the partition, and I slipped boot into stirrup to vault rakishly into the saddle. Then I picked myself up off the ground and mounted properly.
The final day of competition would involve two group disciplines: in the first, riders would gallop the course four abreast, wielding swords to smite targets; in the second, riders would gallop the same course, but in groups of four riding in single-file, armed with lances.
I was matched with the same three Omani riders as in the previous day, and unfortunately, one night's rest had done nothing to still Shomool's antipathy towards their horses. He pawed, snorted, and snapped viciously in their direction whenever he could catch their eyes.
When the starter's flag dropped for our first run of the group sword discipline, Shomool exploded forward as was his wont, then suddenly leapt into the air and threw out a killing blow with his hind legs, just missing his intended victim. My Omani colleagues gave us a wide berth for the remainder of the day, and we placed sixth in the discipline.
For group lance, I felt I owed it to the other competitors to put Shomool at the rear of our file of four, where he could (I hoped) do little mischief. Unfortunately, this would leave me distracted as I restrained Shomool from overtaking the slower horses, and we would be pelted by mud and debris thrown up by the others' hooves.
As we galloped the course, Shomool seemed offended that I did not allow him to catch and maul any of the horses ahead of us. He sometimes looked back pleadingly in mid-stride, as if to say that I was being cruel by coming between the stallion and his wrath. We placed fifth, but I do not think this mollified Shomool in the least.
All the athletes, human and equine, gathered to receive congratulations from an assortment of princes, potentates, industrial patricians, and others with an alphabet soup of honorifics. However, from my perspective, being saluted by them paled next to the delight of meeting Paul and Joanne Harrison, a couple from Guelph, Ontario. The Harrisons had written to me by e-mail before I left Canada, when they had learned that the tent pegging championships would coincide with their visit to Muscat. It was a surprising bit of home so far from home.
There would be a "gala dinner" later that night, with the usual raft of speeches and presentations attendant upon any international event. The dinner would prove to be an enjoyable cap to the week, but there was a far more important goodbye on the field.
I was surprised by how much I regretted handing Shomool's reins to the grooms for the final time. Although I have no illusions that Shomool's thoughts were engaged with anything other than food, water, and the comforts of the Sultan's stables, I felt we had developed a surprisingly happy partnership during the competition.
Shomool is a living anachronism, a true warhorse in an age where the cavalry warrior is a relic of history and myth; he is, therefore, precisely the sort of creature that inhabits the imagination of the small boy inside every man. Shomool is also a terror on four legs, whose wayward instincts demonstrably run to slaughter; yet I am sure that by the end of the championships, he was trying his best for me, for no better reason than that it suited him to do so. No horse will ever displace Thunder from my heart, but I like to think that if they ever met, the best of both Thunder and Shomool would gleefully run riot together.
As Salim drove me back to the athletes' hotel, I realised that I had grown so accustomed to his driving that I no longer flinched as pedestrians scurried for safety. "You know," he said over the peals of his Eminem tape, "I think I really will miss you when you go." I suspected he meant he would regret my absence when I returned to Canada, though I should have settled for him meaning that he would not run me over when I stepped out of the car. He, and indeed everyone I met in Oman, was the very soul of hospitality, and I certainly miss them.
Since coming home, I have had time to nurse my strained muscles and frayed ligaments, and to reflect on my experiences at the championships.
There is no greater athletic privilege than representing our country in competition, and no greater virtue than to strive in a noble cause, even if both these efforts involve a sport as outlandish as mine. I believe it is fair to say that I exceeded expectations in my results at the International Tent Pegging Championships. Far more importantly, however, I hope I represented Canada with honour, and made howsoever modest a contribution to the cause of the world's children with UNICEF.
In a life blessed far beyond my deserts, competing for UNICEF Team Canada at the 2007 International Tent Pegging Championships will always rank amongst my most cherished memories.