Farewell to Arms - Day 6 of the International Tent Pegging Championships
04 April 2007, 19h20 EDT (GMT-4)
Group Sword with Ground Targets
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I arose late for the final day of the International Tent Pegging Championships, having over-mastered the ability to sleep through the amplified wails from Muscat's minarets.
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.
But just wait until next year!