Plumb

Eight-time Olympian J. Michael Plumb enjoying the dedication of the Grob Complex named in his honor.

Horsemanship and courage are the essence of eventing, and qualities exemplified by one of the sport’s most legendary competitors.

It’s no coincidence that Mike Plumb himself chose them as he grasped for words before a crowd of a hundred local equestrians gathered to dedicate a new cross-country fixture at the Carolina Horse Park.

Some, preparing to compete at the next day’s horse trials, rode on horseback across Montrose Road from stabling. Most, though, showed up first thing on a Saturday morning just to celebrate the unveiling of the J. Michael Plumb Grob Complex.

Requiring horses to negotiate a downward slope and a ditch before heading uphill again and out of the complex over a simple log pile, the new grob made its debut at the War Horse schooling event on July 14.

A day before the show, as competitors prepared for a day of schooling, the horse park’s program director, Marc Donovan, said that installing a grob had been Plumb’s idea.

“We like to think, here at the horse park, that we keep things fresh, entertain new ideas, elevate standards and always encourage good horsemanship,” Donovan said.

The first grob was built nearly a century ago on an elite jumping derby course in Hamburg, Germany. In a bit of horse world apocrypha, its origin story suggests that the original designer failed to ride all the way through his creation three years in a row.

By way of encouragement to the Training level riders who would encounter the grob themselves in the next day’s competition, Plumb recalled his first run-in with a similar complex 50 years ago after he decided to install one at his training base in Maryland. It was a simple affair, dug with a front-end loader into a soy field and flanked by a pair of vertical fences.

“As you’ve been told, I had already been to three Olympic Games, I had a lot of horses and I thought, well, it’s no problem I’ll just jump right down through there,” he said. “I can’t tell you how many times I piled up in front of that ditch there, with the rails and no place to go, all by myself. Three Olympic Games. Big shot.”

Rails suspended above the ditch are optional in the horse park’s version, as is adding jumps into and out of the grob itself. Plumb surmised that some current upper-level riders might find the obstacle more problematic than it appears at first glance.

“It’s fair and square, and there will be some problems, but we can fix those problems with the horses and riders. It’s a horsemanship problem, it’s a courage problem,” he said.

While riders can spend hours walking cross-country courses on foot, their horses won’t see the course before heading through the start flags under a timer. While most horses will have seen most straightforward types of obstacle before, more novel complexes test horses’ faith in their riders’ judgment.

“It’s an arrangement that we all have to have with our horses,” said Plumb. “They are our partners. We can do this fancy stuff that we do so that it’s fun for them.”

With the blessing of the park’s directors and with Lynn McGugan in charge of fundraising, the park set about making the new obstacle a reality. But the finer points of building a grob — the degree of the slope, whether to use screws or bolts, and the extent of the landscaping — were harder than expected to hammer out.

Steadfast CHP volunteer Vicki Reynolds was the one who finally came up with sketches by a famous British course designer to guide the project.

Naming it for Plumb, though, was a much easier detail to agree upon.

“The question remains: How did we get lucky enough to have someone who is as talented and successful on horseback as J. Michael Plumb as part of our group, someone who can really show us what it means to work hard, to persevere, to produce results and to withstand the test of time?” Donovan said.

Lefreda Williams, one of the Carolina Horse Park’s founders, originally met Plumb in 1959 at the Pan-American Games in Chicago, where Plumb made the first of 14 career appearances on U.S. national teams.

In Tokyo, five years later, Plumb rode Williams’ horse Bold Minstrel in the Olympic Games and became the first person to ride in the Olympics on a horse he had never competed.

“He set a record then, that of course will never be broken, because you couldn’t do it in this day and age,” Williams said. “I’m saying to all of you kids who are his students: listen to him. You could not be luckier than to have a teacher like Mike.”

In seven appearances at the Olympic Games from 1960 to 1992, Plumb was on five gold- or silver-medal teams. His performance on Better and Better in 1976 earned him an individual silver and helped the United States to a team gold medal.

In 2002, the Chronicle of the Horse named Plumb one of the 50 most influential horsemen of the 20th century. He was named to the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame in 2008, and is still the only equestrian to be so honored.

Whether his decades-long career at the top of the sport is due to a truly perfectionistic streak or, as former U.S. team coach Jack Le Goff once said, because horses are Plumb’s only reason for being on this earth may be up for debate.

But Donovan, who used to live down the road from Ledyard Farm in Massachusetts when Plumb trained there, let on what the Olympic champion was up to the day after he returned from Barcelona.

“Nobody knows this except for me and probably his barn helpers, but on Monday morning at 7 a.m. I drove past Ledyard and there was Mike, cantering around in circles, practicing.”

Contact Mary Kate Murphy at (910) 693-2479 or mkmurphy@thepilot.com.

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