Michael Page: It’s About the Ride

Photo courtesy of Michael Page

BY ANN JAMIESON

A sign in Michael Page’s tack room reads “It was never about the ribbon; it was about the ride and the horse that got me there.” 

The list of his accomplishments easily covers a page…in fine print. As a competitor, he placed in three Olympic Games (taking home two silvers and a bronze) and three Pan American Games (earning four golds, a silver and a bronze). As a coach, Michael led the Canadian Olympic three-day event team at the Montreal Olympics, and our three-day teams at two Olympic Games, two Pan American Games and two World Championships. He’s earned a Lifetime Achievement Award from the USHJA. 

Yet Michael sought none of these accolades. He simply loves to ride.

Like most of us, Michael was horse obsessed from a young age, in particular by Pony Express riders on TV that he longed to emulate. 

Unlike many of us, he had an ally. His father, Homer, was quick to observe his son’s passion for horses, passion that would make Michael get on his bicycle and ride 12 miles to Saddle Tree Farms, the nearest barn.

There, Michael would climb into the straight stalls, and hop from one horse’s back to the next, down the line. As this progressed to lessons, Michael’s passion touched a nerve in his father.

Years ago, as a young man himself, Homer had traveled to Europe to follow his dream of becoming a Shakespearean actor. While Homer had in time forgone his dream to “sensibly” return home to run the family business, he recognized the need in his son to follow his own dream.

Michael spent endless hours reading horse magazines. One day as he was looking through the latest edition of Light Horse, his father suggested he write to some of the barns advertising in the back of the publication. Did any of them provide a formal equestrian education?

Michael dug right in, and as a result, instead of attending camp that summer, he journeyed to England to pursue a classical riding education. Homer told his son that since he couldn’t do anything for him, Michael needed someone to guide him in his aspirations.

“You don’t have a passion for school,” Homer explained, “but you have a passion for riding so go where you get better at what you have a passion for.” 

Michael is eternally grateful to his father for his understanding. The fact that his father got it was, he says, “remarkable.” 

Spending the summer with dressage/event trainer Eddie Goldman, Michael learned flatwork including putting a horse on the bit, and riding correct figures.

When he returned home, a German immigrant named Herby Wiesenthal offered him the use of his horse Candlestick, an Army Remount, which he boarded at Saddle Tree. Despite Candlestick’s big feet and clunky build, Michael qualified for the Medal Finals at Madison Square Garden, hauling the horse to shows in a wooden trailer.

Three years later, he won the Finals and placed third in the Maclay. He was astonished. Later on in life he became friends with one of the judges, Ginny Moss. “How on earth,” he asked her, “did I win on a remount horse with a big brand on his neck?”

The time in England had paid off. “You were the only one with educated hands,” was her reply. 

Michael returned to Europe, enrolling in a two-week course for civilians at the world-renowned Saumur (the French Cavalry School), and in time making his way to Paul Stecken in Germany. One of the riders there was Reiner Klimke, only 21 and already a member of the German Olympic eventing team. 

“I was in awe of him,” Michael relates. “He was a student of history, of the classics. He revolutionized the sport. He focused on forward, straight, and balanced, riding through from seat and leg. 

If you learn dressage, it improves all of your riding. If you’re facing a 3’11” post and rail fence with a seven-foot drop on the other side, you need to ride through.”

Michael asked Reiner, “Isn’t it exciting you’re going to be on the German Olympic team for eventing?” The answer surprised him.

“No,” said Reiner, “I don’t want to be an event rider. I want to be the best dressage rider in the world.”

Michael says he has been incredibly fortunate in his riding, learning from some of the most influential trainers in the world. He realized, “I will become what I want to become because I’m going to have the experience no one else has.

“If you have an instructor you believe in, you think less and ride better, you trust the system. DeNemethy’s system, even if you ride poorly, the horses understand the system. So when I’m doing a clinic I’m always confident that if the riders don’t understand me, the horses do.”

A year later, Saumur made the decision to allow civilians to enroll in the non-commissioned officers’ course. Michael jumped on the opportunity. Riders rode six horses a day, with no stirrups. Yet it was his dream. The training instilled the “leg and seat” on a horse that would serve Michael brilliantly for a lifetime.

He also made the acquaintance of Lars Sederholm, a fellow student who would become a lifelong friend and a vital link in the education of one of Michael’s most difficult, yet talented, horses.

Michael did so well that the head of Saumur, Colonel Margot, promoted him to ride with the officers. In that instant, legendary Jack LeGoff became his trainer.

Michael now rode seven horses a day, and the French government paid for all his training. It was so intense that Michael landed in the infirmary several times so exhausted that all he could do was lie in bed for three days to recover. Then, he’d go back.

“You either learned it, or it broke you.”

Meanwhile, back in the U.S., Michael’s sponsor Herby Wiesenthal followed his career, and promoted him in The Chronicle of the Horse with snippets about Michael’s placings overseas. These snippets helped keep him in front of the USET.

In fact, they inspired a telegram from the USET, asking him if he could come to California to scope out some potential event horses.  The horses were John Galvin’s, who would become a strong promoter of eventing in the United States.

John also introduced Michael to his first Olympic horse: Grasshopper. A 15.1 hand TB/Connemara cross, Grasshopper had competed in the Stockholm Olympic Games in 1956. 

Michael’s passion for horses did not stem from a desire for competition. He saw in them the ability to create an opportunity to do something unique. And Grasshopper, his first Olympic horse, fulfilled that dream. 

Photo courtesy of Michael Page

Back then, eventing was an entirely different sport than today’s rendition. The “speed and endurance” portion was 22 miles long, and took an hour and 45 minutes to complete. First there was roads and tracks, next a steeplechase, followed by a second roads and tracks, and then the cross-country.

A horse had to be exceedingly tough, fast, and strong to survive that ordeal. And Grasshopper was all of that. He was also extremely opinionated, and didn’t care much for orders. He got his name from his penchant for “bucking like a grasshopper.”

Michael quickly realized that either he would get hurt, or Grasshopper would get hurt, if he took a conventional approach to training. 

“He was tougher than I was. And he didn’t suffer fools.”

As drugs for horses were not then an option, Michael decided he would wear Grasshopper out in order to promote a civilized conversation. Using the natural lay of the land at the Galvin ranch, Michael attacked a shale mountain at a flat out gallop, riding to the top of the mountain as the horse fought his way through the deep shale. It took three ascents to the top of the mountain before Grasshopper cried uncle.

It worked. He and Grasshopper took home a gold medal from the 1959 Pan American Games in Chicago.

Michael’s first Olympics, (Rome 1960), proved a disappointment. With two falls (which Michael says were not Grasshopper’s fault), they were eliminated.

Michael was then drafted into the army, which only furthered his riding career. “I rode for the Army, and was paid by the Army. I loved the military!” 

Michael and Grasshopper came back in style in the 1963 Pan American Games, winning both individual and team gold medals. In the Tokyo Olympics the following year they took team silver and finished fourth individually. Michael was the last rider from the army to compete for the USET. 

He gives much of the credit for his victories to others. “It’s not because I was smart. I got good advice from people I respect, and then I followed it. 

You do it because you can get better, and the horse knows you are better, and it gives him a step up.”

The following year Michael stopped riding…temporarily. With his father aging, Michael needed to help run the family business. 

Although he wasn’t riding, he was judging, and serving on the USET’s Selection Committee. Grasshopper retired, moving back to the Galvin’s ranch. 

Then the USET came calling again. They had a possible mount for Michael to return to competition. The horse was Foster, and Foster was being cared for by a beautiful young woman named Georgette. Of all the good luck Michael has been fortunate to have in his life, he is clear that meeting Georgette was the most significant of all. 

He and Georgette dated for seven years. But when Michael was invited by Queen Elizabeth to Princess Anne’s wedding, he received an invitation to Mr. and Mrs. Michael O. Page. Homer insisted that they couldn’t go if they weren’t married…so they tied the knot.

Georgette’s empathy for horses, and her knowledge of them, were crucial for Foster.  He would literally cower in the back of his stall in fear, and Georgette would spend hours with him, opening the door and encouraging him to come out. At first it was one step, then a few more. Thanks to her, Foster became braver and mentally stronger.

“I’ve been lucky to have someone who was that knowledgeable about horses my whole life, she kept me on the straight and narrow. She was a horse person; I was a rider,” Michael acknowledges.

Michael also received help from Lars Sederholm, who proved a genius at getting Foster over his penchant for stopping. Michael had his sights set on the 1967 Pan American Games, and the 1968 Mexico City Olympic Games so he prepped with Lars at his Waterstock Training Centre in England. He told Lars, “All I want is someone smarter than me, helping me figure out how to go.”

It was a resounding success. Foster and Michael took team gold and individual bronze in the Pan American Games, and team silver and individual bronze in the Olympic Games the following year. 

Photo courtesy of Michael Page

Years later Foster played another role in their lives. Georgette learned that, Foster, now 30, was retired in Vermont. Their son Matthew was seven. The family traveled north to visit Foster. Not only was Georgette thrilled to see the horse with whom she shared such a deep connection, but it was a delight to introduce him to Matthew as the horse that had started their family.

After the Mexico Olympics, Michael retired from eventing. But he didn’t stop riding. More than a decade later he was asked by the USEF to become chef d’equipe. 

He also ran Old Salem Farm for seven years, while continuing to commute into the city every day to run the family business!

Michael has chaired the Equitation Committee, was inducted into the US Eventing Association Hall of Fame in 2006, and has been resident trainer at Kent School in Connecticut for the past 26 years. He’s judged seven ASPCA Maclay Finals. His penchant for asking riders to dismount and mount, a rudimentary request, stirred controversy. 

Michael feels horse shows should be about how well you ride and not who you ride with or how much horse you can afford. And being able to mount is a fundamental of horsemanship many riders were lacking.

He can spot the riders who are there because of their passion. They grew up riding “shitty” ponies and learned through the process. 

“That’s what makes you a great rider. And there is the opportunity to go to the top because you have something more than the kids that started with a platform. And if you don’t have an opportunity you make your own because you have that passion.”

Photo courtesy of Michael Page

When he received his Lifetime Achievement Award from the USHJA, he gave a talk about realizing his dream of riding for the Pony Express. On Grasshopper in the Roads and Tracks, after 22 miles and two falls, “he still ran away with me at the end. My thoughts were ‘I did my Pony Express ride at the Olympics at 22 and I’m still alive!'”

The gold medals, the Olympics and the World Championships were never the goal. It was always for Michael, “about the ride.” 

Riding a horse across the verdant grass of the idyllic Kent School campus Michael wonders “How lucky am I?” 


About the Author: Ann Jamieson wanted to be a horse show judge since she was a child, and has now held her USEF “”r”” judge’s cards for over 30 years. She writes about both horses, and travel, (and particularly loves combining the two). Ann is the author of the “”For the Love of the Horse”” series, four volumes of amazing true stories about horses, and the proud mom of her Secretariat grandson, Fred Astaire (Tucker).
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