I stumbled upon this story through a simple email to the United States Equestrian Foundation for some background about horse jumping in the 1940s. One woman mentioned they had a member from the last Army team who competed in the 1948 Olympics who might be willing to share some of his experiences.
How could I turn down that opportunity? What I found was more than I’d ever imagined.
Major General Jack Burton was indeed one of several riders who represented the United States at the first Olympics since Berlin in 1936. He’d served in the Pacific during World War II and trained horses for the army during and after the war years as well. But his story didn’t end there.
There was so much more to Jack Burton than could fit into one email between the USEF and myself.
The U.S. Army and Equestrian Olympics
From the birth of equestrian events within the Olympics in 1900 to 1948, the United States Army had been in charge of the team to compete. This was a time when all military officers rode and competed in such equestrian sports like polo, jumping, steeplechase, and fox hunting.
Jack Burton enrolled in Michigan State and their horse calvary ROTC program. He learned to jump and play polo with the best trainers the army had to offer. Upon graduating, he entered the army at Fort Riley, Kansas, which was the headquarters of the Calvary School.
The 1st Calvary was sent (sans equestrian companions) to help the British Infantry in Australia and soon they were moving from island to island in the Pacific from New Guinea to the Philippines to Manila. Burton’s division was brushing up on their amphibious landings, preparing to invade Japan’s mainland when word came that the war had ended.
Burton returned to Fort Riley and the horses he loved. He coached equitation classes to other officers, which he says he thoroughly enjoyed.
“In those days, riding was very active,” he says. “We had plenty of horses, horse shows, polo games, steeple chases and fox hunts.”
“No longer in the horse show business.”
The equestrian programs of the army ended after World War II.
“Eisenhower said we were no longer in the horse show business,” Burton says.
But before it all came to a close, the US Army sent a final Olympic team to the 1948 London games, and Burton was a part of it. He was sent alongside other distinguished riders from previous games, including John Russell and Earl Thompson, who’d received a silver medal in individual eventing in Berlin.
The team traveled throughout Europe and competed in international shows in Dublin, Holland, London in addition to the Olympic games. Burton’s horse was lame for the Olympics, sidelining Burton for that competition, but he still remembers those times fondly.
“I was proud to be on the equestrian team representing the United States in the Olympics and international shows,” he says. He says that was the climax of his career. “I was in three wars, but that’s not as nice as the equestrian events.”
After the Olympics, Burton continued his career with the Army but also worked to help form the United States Equestrian Team, which would now be responsible for sending teams to the Olympics. For the first time, civilians would be able to represent on the equestrian front.
Burton returned to the Olympic roster for the 1956 Melbourne games. (Due to Australia’s required quarantine of horses from outside of the country, the equestrian games were held in Stockholm.)
He rode in the eventing and ended up in the hospital along with six other competitors due to the soggy course. Burton says as he took the last fence of the course, which included an 11-foot drop, his horse went down and knocked him out cold. A friend threw him up on another horse to complete the course. It was at the finish line they realized Burton was unconscious and took him to a hospital.
Korea, Vietnam, USEF
Burton’s career extended far beyond the Olympics. He’d serve with the Calvary in Korea and Vietnam and learn to fly a helicopter for as the Calvary became air mobile.
Burton retired as a major general after 33 years in the Army.
Burton also served as an international judge and a steward for dressage, eventing and jumping. He helped pioneer youth competitions and was recognized in the United States Dressage Foundation Hall of Fame in 2007.
Now 91 and living in sunny Arizona, Burton has seen the equestrian competition world change drastically.
“It’s expanded,” he says. “International competition used to be open to the army, but now it is open to everyone. It grew and where it is now is the ideal situation—open to everyone with lots of competitions.”
Sources: Olympic Equestrian: A Century of International Horse Sport by Jennifer O Bryant
A huge thank you to General Burton for taking the time to share his experiences and to Sally Ike, Managing Director, Show Jumping Programs at the USEF for connecting us!