A Military Steeplechase
by Captain R. Bird Thompson
We were quartered in a very sporting part of the country, where the
hunting season was always wound up by a couple of days'
steeple-chasing. The regiment stationed here had usually given a cup
for a military steeple-chase, and when we determined to give one for an
open military handicap chase, the excitement was very great as to our
chances of winning the cup we had given. As there were some very good
horses and riders in the regiment, it appeared a fair one, eight
nominations having been taken by us. There were also about the same
number taken by regiments in the district. Our Major, who was a
first-rate horseman, entered his well-known horse Jerry; I and others
nominated one each, but one sub., a very celebrated character amongst
us, took two. This man's father had made a very large fortune by
nursery gardens, and put his son into the army, where, of course, he
was instantly dubbed "The Gardener." He was by no means a bad sort of
fellow, but he never could ride. The riding-master almost cried as he
said he never could make "The Gardener" even look like riding; not that
he was destitute of pluck, but he was utterly unable to stick on the
horse. He had a large stud of hunters, but when out he almost
invariably tumbled off at each fence.
Amongst those who nominated horses was the celebrated Captain Lane, of
the Hussars, who was said to be so good a jockey that the professionals
grumbled greatly at having to give him amateurs' allowance. No one was
better at imperceptibly boring a competitor out of the course; and at
causing false starts and balking at fences he was without a rival. The
way he would seem to be hard on his horse with his whip, when only
striking his own leg, was quite a master-piece. Report declared that he
trained all his own horses to these dodges, and I believe it was quite
true, as his were quite quiet and cool under the performances when the
rest were almost fretted out of their lives.
When the handicap came out I found, to my great disgust, that such a
crusher had been put on my horse that I at once put the pen through his
name—not caring to run him on the off-chance of his standing up and
the rest coming to grief, or with the probability, anyhow, of a
punishing finish. However, the next night after mess, the Major called
me up to him in the ante-room, and said: "I hear you have scratched
your horse, and quite right, too. I have accepted, and if you like to
have the mount, you are quite welcome." Of course, I was greatly
delighted, but told him that I had never ridden in steeple-chase
before. "But I have," growled the Major, "and am not going to waste
over this tin-pot," as he irreverently called the cup, "so I can show
you the ropes. Come to my quarters after breakfast to-morrow, and we
will try the horse."
The next day I went there, and found the Major mounted, awaiting me,
and Jerry—a very fine brown horse, with black points. I soon
discovered that he had one decided peculiarity—viz., at his first
fence, and sometimes the second, instead of going up and taking it
straight, he would whip round suddenly and refuse. On thinking what
could be the cause of this trick, I came to the conclusion that his
mouth must have been severely punished by the curb when he was first
taught jumping; and on telling the Major my idea, he allowed me to ride
him as I pleased, so instead of an ordinary double bridle, I put one
with a couple of snaffles in his mouth, and very soon found that this
had the desired effect. Indeed, after a few days, he took his first
fence all right, unless flurried, and before the day seemed quite
When we got back after our first day's ride, the Major told me, rather
to my amusement, that I must go into training as well as the
horse,—adding, what was quite true, that he had seen more amateur
races lost through the rider being beat before the horse than by any
other means; so when I had given Jerry his gallops in the morning, I
had to start a mile run in the afternoon in flannels or sweaters.
The course was entirely a natural one, about three miles and a half
round, and only two ugly places in it, chiefly grass, with one piece of
light plough and some seeds. The first two fences were wattles on a
bank, with a small ditch, then an ordinary quickset hedge, followed by
an old and stiff bullfinch. After this a post and rails, a bank with a
double ditch, and merely ordinary fences till we came to a descent of
about a quarter of a mile, with a stream about twelve feet wide, and a
bank on the taking-off side. Next came some grass meadows, with a very
nasty trappy ditch, not more than four feet wide, but with not the
slightest bank or anything of the kind on either side,—just the thing
for a careless or tired horse to gallop into. The last fence, which was
the worst of all, was, I fancy, the boundary of some estate or parish,
and consisted of a high bank, with a good ditch on each side—on the
top a young, quick-set hedge, and, to prevent horses or cattle injuring
it, two wattle fences, one on each side, slanting outwards. After this,
there was a slight ascent of about 300 yards; then there was dead level
of about a quarter of a mile up to the winning-post.
On the evening before the chase, we had a grand guest night, to which,
of course, all the officers of other regiments who had entered horses
were invited. We youngsters were anxious to see Captain Lane, of whom
we had heard so much.
On his arrival, after the usual salutations, he enquired of the Major
whether he was going to ride, and, on receiving a negative, asked who
was; and on having the intending jockeys pointed out to him, just
favoured us with a kind of contemptuous glance, never taking any
further notice of us.
The celebrated Captain was a slight man, about five feet eight inches,
with not a particularly pleasant look about his eyes, and looking far
more the jock than the soldier. The steeple-chases were fixed for the
next day at 2.30 P.M., but, as a matter of fact, all the
riders were on the ground long before that for the purpose of examining
the ground and the fences.
The Major came to see me duly weighed out, and gave me instructions as
to riding—that I was not on any account to race with everyone who came
alongside me, nor to make the running at first, unless the pace was
very slow and muddling, of which there was little danger, for quite
half the jocks, he said, would go off as if they were in for a five
furlong spin, and not for a four mile steeple-chase.
I was to lie behind, though handy, until we came to the descent to the
stream and then make the pace down and home as hot as I could,—to find
out the "dicky forelegs," he said, knowing that Jerry's were like
We all got down to the post pretty punctually, and, of course, in a
race of this description, the starter had no difficulty in dropping his
flag at the first attempt.
I gave Jerry his head, and to my joy he took the first fence as
straight and quietly as possible, so taking a pull at him, I was at
once passed by some half dozen men (the gallant "Gardener" amongst
them) going as hard as they could tear. It was lucky for them that the
fences were light and old, as most of the horses rushed through them.
When they got to the bullfinch, one horse refused, and another
attempting to, slipped up and lay in a very awkward looking lump, jock
and all close under it. The rest having been a little steadied took it
fairly enough. Jerry jumped it as coolly as possible, like the regular
old stager that he was, in spite of Captain Lane coming up at the time
with a great rush, evidently hoping to make him refuse.
When we landed on the other side a ludicrous spectacle presented
itself, the gallant "Gardener" being right on his horse's neck, making
frantic attempts to get back into his saddle, which were quite
unsuccessful, and the horse coming to the next fence, a post and rail,
quietly took it standing, then putting down his head slipped his rider
off and galloped on without him.
The field now began to come back to us very quickly, and soon the
leading lot were Vincent of ours, a splendid rider, as I thought, and
as it turned out, my most dangerous opponent, with a Carabinier in
close attendance; then myself, with Captain Lane waiting on me, and
watching the pair of us most attentively, so that it seemed almost
impossible that I should have any chance of slipping him. However, an
opportunity did present itself at length, which I took advantage
of—hearing a horse coming up a tremendous "rattle" on my right.
I looked round to see who and what it was. Lane, noticing what I was
doing, looked round too. Seeing this I loosed Jerry's head, and giving
him at the same time a slight touch with the spur, he shot out
completely—slipping the Captain, passing the Carabinier, and getting
head and head with Vincent. Down the hill we went as hard as we could,
clearing the water side by side. At the grip in the fields beyond I
gained slightly by not taking a steadier at Jerry, trusting to his
eyesight and cleverness to avoid grief.
As we got to the best fence, the ugly boundary one, I did take a pull,
the jump looking as nasty a one as could well be picked out; however,
the old horse did it safely, and Vincent and myself landed side by side
in the winning field, amidst most tremendous shouting and cheering from
our men, who were standing as thick as thick could be on each side of
The excitement was terrific as we came up, apparently tied together,
but giving Jerry a couple of sharp cuts with the whip, I found my leg
gradually passing Vincent's, until at length I was nearly opposite his
horse's head, and thus we passed the winning post, to my great relief.
I did not know how much my opponent's horse had left in him, and
expected him to come up with a rush at the last, in which case I
doubted whether I should be able to get anything more out of Jerry in
time, as he was rather a lazy horse, though possessing enormous
I had scarcely pulled up and turned round to go to the scales, before I
met the Major, who told me I was "not to make a fool of myself and
dismount," before the clerk of the scales told me to, and then he
pitched into me for riding at the "Grip," as I did, apprising me at the
same time that he did not care how I risked my neck, but "I might have
hurt the horse," adding, after a pause, and with a grunt, "but you
The delight of our men was so great at two of their officers being
first and second, that it was all that Vincent and myself could do to
avoid being carried about on their shoulders after we had weighed in.
The gallant captain was most awfully disgusted at being beaten by "a
couple of boys," and went off immediately—resisting all invitations to
stop and dine at mess. I subsequently found out that when I slipped him
(at which he was particularly angry) he gave his horse a sharp cut with
his whip, which seemed quite to upset it.
On coming down to the water the horse jumped short—dropping his hind
legs in, and at the "Grip," nearly got in, only saving itself by
bucking over it, and at the big boundary absolutely came down on
landing, though his rider managed to keep his seat.
As for myself, I need not say how delighted I was at winning my first
steeplechase, though the Major did tell me that a monkey would have
ridden as well, and helped the horse as much as I did. "But I
won" was always my reply.