American Dressage Legends: Major Robert Borg

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Reprinted from the July/August 2016 USDF Connection magazine.

Written by Kim Sodt

Born in the Philippines in 1913, Robert Borg started life on a plantation. His father, the plantation manager, served in the Spanish cavalry.

When Borg was a young boy, his family moved to the US, settling on a ranch in Oregon. There he played real-life games of “cowboys and Indians,” rounding up wild horses aided by residents of the nearby Warm Springs Indian Reservation. The boy’s interest in horses was kindled, and soon he began breaking and training.

Unable to purchase a ticket to the 1932 Olympic dressage competition in Los Angeles, Borg, now 19, watched team and individual bronze medalist Col. Hiram Tuttle and the other riders warm up their mounts. Afterward he began searching out books on dressage and teaching his own horse the movements.

Eight years later, Tuttle gave a Grand Prix-level dressage exhibition in Oregon as part of a tour. Borg was in the audience and approached the Olympian after the show, inviting him to visit his family’s farm to evaluate his horse and his riding. Tuttle accepted and was reportedly surprised at the pair’s advanced level. The two men became friends, and Tuttle encouraged Borg to pursue his dream of becoming a cavalry equitation instructor.

When World War II broke out, Borg enlisted in the Army. He holds the distinction of being the last enlisted man ever assigned to the mounted US cavalry. In 1943, he was assigned to Fort Riley in Kansas as a horsemanship instructor. He went on to serve in New Guinea and to command the last active horse troop in the European theater, patrolling the Russian border.

Borg with President Truman

After the war, then-Lieutenant Borg was assigned to train horses and riders for the 1948 Olympics in London. The US team captured our nation’s first-ever Olympic silver medal in dressage, and Borg himself placed fourth individually riding his chestnut, Klingsor. The 1948 squad was the last US Army Olympic team, and its silver medal remains the highest-ever placing of a US Olympic dressage team.

Two years later, Borg, now a major, was back at Fort Riley, training dressage and eventing horses and riders for the newly formed United States Equestrian Team. He coached the US competitors at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics and again competed himself, placing sixth individually with his horse Bill Biddle, who was later named to The Chronicle of the Horse’s Equine Hall of Fame. The US three-day eventing team won bronze at that Games.

Maj. Robert Borg and the US Army Olympic team mount Reno Overdo show off their extended trot in an undated photo

At the 1955 Pan American Games, Borg rode Bill Biddle to an individual dressage silver medal and coached student Walter Staley to an individual gold medal in eventing. At the 1956 Olympic Games in Stockholm, Borg once again coached the US team and rode Bill Biddle in the dressage competition. He remains perhaps the only equestrian in history who has both coached and ridden on the same Olympic team.

Besides Tuttle, Borg cited the German master Otto Loerke—trainer of Kronos, the 1936 Olympic dressage gold medalist—as his other major influence in dressage. As he recounted in the February 1973 Dressage & CT interview “Inside the Black Top Hat,” he met Loerke in 1948 during a pre-Olympic Games training trip. At the famed Westfalen breeding farm Gestüt Vornholz, “I had the good fortune to meet and work with a man whom I considered to be a very good, strong, and capable trainer—probably one of the very best.”

Borg called Loerke “not exactly the most popular man. He was very serious and severe in his training methods; that is, he did not have a lot of patience with the rider. Naturally, Loerke did not have very many pupils. But that wasn’t his objective. His objective was to train horses, and that he did very, very well.” But “he was very kind and nice to me, and he helped me a great deal. We enjoyed our relationship fully.”

Determined to continue training horses even after an accident left him without the use of his legs, Borh devised a rotating platform he called his “round table.” He demonstrated in-hand work for a 1973 Dressage & CT article

After a riding accident in 1959 that left him without the use of his legs, Borg was told that he would not ride again. Undeterred, he returned to his Red Bob Farm in Oxford, MI, where he devised a platform with rails that enabled him to swing onto a horse’s back using his upper-body strength.

When riding was no longer possible, Borg once again set out to devise a way to continue to train horses. He designed a rotating circular platform from which he could work horses in hand. Installed in his “round table,” Borg went on to train more than 600 horses at Red Bob Farm. He continued to teach and train until his death in 2005 at the age of 91.

In 1999, Major Borg was one of the inaugural recipients of the American Horse Shows Association’s (now USEF) Pegasus Medal of Honor. He was inducted into the Roemer Foundation/USDF Hall of Fame in 2003.

Editor’s note: This is a slightly adapted version of an article that originally appeared in the December 2006 issue of USDF Connection.

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