Riders and sports fans all around the globe are pining for the cut-and-thrust of FEI Jumping Nations Cup™ this year. Since it was first staged back in 1909, war is the only thing that has ever stopped this great annual tournament in its tracks, and it is another kind of war that is getting in the way of the 2020 Longines sponsored series as the world currently grapples with the Coronavirus pandemic.
Only two of the 11 qualifying events were completed this season, in Wellington (USA) where the hosts wrestled victory from Great Britain in a thrilling jump-off and in Abu Dhabi (UAE), also in February, where New Zealand posted an historic back-to-back double.
However the resilience of this particular branch of equestrian sport, so often described as the “jewel in the crown of the FEI”, is second to none. It emerged from epic sporting battles between military men, and it still stirs the blood in spectators today as they roar on their own national teams, which now of course also include female athletes, at many of the most prestigious horse shows around the globe.
It’s the unique sense of national pride that gives it the edge, with riders often talking about how their horses are “fighting” for them as they tackle the tough courses set by world-class designers. A steed with great courage was what was needed by cavalrymen of old. And in the story of two war horses from very different periods of military history, there’s a reminder of the fighting spirit that continues to set the best apart from the rest to this day.
In the grounds of the Royal Hospital in Kilmainham, Dublin (IRL), built in the 1680s for retired soldiers but now home to the Irish Museum of Modern Art, there is a gravestone that marks the final resting place of Vonolel, a brave and special horse.
He was the charger of the decorated Anglo-Irish Field Marshal Frederick Sleigh Roberts, a Victorian era general who became one of the most successful British military commanders of his time. Lord Roberts, aka “Bobs”, was only 160cm tall so was a perfect match for the beautifully-bred Arab horse who stood at just 148cm.
Named after a great Lushai chief, the little grey was bought in Bombay (now Mumbai, IND) as a five-year-old and served Roberts for the next 23 years. Vonolel played a pivotal role in the relief of the Siege of Kandahar (AFG), and also saw action in India, Burma, and South Africa. The horse was a legend in his day and was repeatedly decorated by Queen Victoria, receiving amongst others the Kabul medal and the Kandahar Star for bravery in battle, both of which he wore around his neck on ceremonial occasions.
He travelled about 50,000 miles during his career without ever taking a lame step, and when he passed away at the Royal Hospital in June 1899 Roberts was said to be heartbroken. Vonolel was buried in the rose gardens of the Royal Hospital with full military honours, and there is a painting of him, with “Bobs” on board, in London’s Tate Gallery.
It’s that tradition of horses and riders battling as part of a team on behalf of their country, albeit in peace time and in a spirit of healthy competition rather than antagonism, that underpins the FEI Jumping Nations Cup™ series to this day.
Honduras and Nipper
Vonolel’s glorious send-off was in stark contrast to that of a black 160cm gelding of unknown breeding who is no less deserving of an honorable mention in despatches. His name was Honduras when he clinched the coveted King George V Gold Cup for Capt Xavier Bizard in London in 1937. The rider from the French Cavalry School at Saumur was a showjumping star of the 1920s and 30s with a formidable record of success on Nations Cup teams riding a variety of horses.
Bizard was on the winning French sides at Nice (FRA) in 1924, New York (USA) in 1925, and Lucerne (SUI) and Rome (ITA) in 1927. He was back in Rome in 1928 for another victory and the following year helped post two more Nations Cup top spots in Naples (ITA) and Dublin (IRL). In the 1930s he was on three winning teams in London as well as in Nice, Lucerne, Vienna (AUT), Rome and Riga (LAT). It was partnering Apollan that he won the Nations Cup in the Latvian capital in 1937, and that same year he scooped the King George V title in London with Honduras.
It seems that the ride on Honduras was then handed over to Amador des Busnel who won the Grand Prix with him in Brussels (BEL) in 1939, before the onset of World War ll brought everything to a shuddering halt.
What is intriguing about this horse is not his success-rate, but the fact that he was captured during the German occupation of France, and then re-appeared after the war on the US Army showjumping teams that won the Nations Cups in both London and Dublin in 1948, now competing under the name “Nipper” and ridden by Lt Col Charles (Chuck) Symroski. (Honduras aka Nipper)
He was well-travelled at this stage of his life because, after being captured along with the rest of the German team horses near the town of Beyreuth in Bavaria (GER) in 1945, he was shipped to the United States in August of 1946. He competed across America and Canada that year, and again in 1947 before returning to Europe in the spring of 1948 to compete at a number of shows in the lead-up to the London Olympic Games for which he was selected as the reserve horse.
The Nations Cup win in Dublin in 1948 was historic, as it was the first time for a US side to lift the Aga Khan Cup, the first time for non-Europeans to take the title, and the last time an official US army team would line out at the Royal Dublin Society showgrounds. Nipper and Lt Col Symroski were joined by Capt JW Russell riding Airmail, Col JF Wing with Democrat and Lt Col CH Anderson with Riem when New York-born Eamon De Valera, then Taoiseach (Prime Minister) and later President of Ireland, presented the coveted Aga Khan trophy.
One more time
And Honduras/Nipper would get to meet his old friend, Capt Bizard, one more time. Their encounter took place in London, but whether it was following their Nations Cup win or during the Olympic Games in the English capital that summer is unclear, as it has been separately reported at both venues. Wherever it happened it was an emotional reunion when the Frenchman accidentally came across his former mount who he had thought was long dead.
The story goes that when Capt Bizard told the Americans how old the horse was they were really surprised. However the 19-year-old gelding wasn’t called into action for the one-round Olympic contest which proved to be a marathon, defeating all but three of the 14 participating teams. Mexico, Spain and Great Britain clinched gold, silver and bronze while the USA was amongst the 11 countries eliminated.
Following the Games the US army team was disbanded and replaced by a civilian side. Although unconfirmed, it is believed that Honduras/Nipper returned to America to live out his days on the family farm of three-time Olympian Jimmy Wofford near Fort Riley in Kansas (USA) whose parents accepted all the remaining remounts for retirement following the mechanisation of the cavalry.
This horse’s life wasn’t celebrated with the pomp and ceremony that marked the passing of Vonolel a half-century earlier, but his story lives on as another symbol of survival in the face of destructive world conflict. And the FEI Jumping Nations Cup™ is also a survivor, just waiting in the wings for a return to centre stage as soon as the current pandemic crisis is sufficiently resolved.
Hopes are still high that a revised version of the Longines FEI Jumping Nations Cup™ Final will take place in October this year, but one way or another nothing will stand in the way of a renewal of the series that has been engaging and delighting spectators for well over a century and which remains the best-loved brand ambassador for equestrian sport.
And as for the once much-loved Vonolel and Honduras aka Nipper, they will not be forgotten. We’ll leave them with the words carved into that gravestone in Dublin which reads…..
“There are men both good and wise
Who hold that in a future state
Dumb creatures we have cherished here below
Shall give us joyous greeting when
We pass the golden gate
Is it folly that I hope it may be so?”
With special thanks to:
Olympian and coach Jimmy Wofford
Jane Garland, artist