The Year That Was: 1956

By Joan Gilbert
Saddle and Bridle Magazine Equine Articles

Crane logo A beloved series published by Saddle & Bridle magazine describing issues of the past, written by Joan Gilbert. © copyrighted horse article.
February, 1956, 50 years ago; here is some of what was going on in the big world: Americans still were living tensely in a standoff with the USSR that was known as The Cold War, and racial segregation of schools, even though it had been ruled unconstitutional, was still an explosive issue. Elvis Presley and a scandalously sexy novel called Peyton Place each were ascending to immortality, amidst bitter controversy. Adlai E. Stevenson, a gentle but eloquent liberal, was chosen by the Democratic Party to challenge President Dwight D. Eisenhower for the nation's highest office. Rocky Marciano retired, undefeated, as heavyweight champion of the world, leaving that title to Floyd Patterson. And an American actress named Grace Kelley, married Prince Rainier of Monaco. The apparent collision of two airliners over the Grand Canyon caused the deaths of 128 people, a record-setter for air travel.

And what was going on in the horse world meanwhile? Saddle & Bridle for February of that year gave us a cover featuring Ridgefield's Denmark 30057, a young stallion who belonged to Mr. and Mrs. Jacob Bunn, Jr., of Springfield, Ill., and who was among the top 25 on the 1955 Sire Ratings. Posed in front of a white fence, under large old trees; he had a remarkably big, sweet, eye and he radiated quiet confidence. The inside data about him said he was considered one of the most handsome stallions of the day. He was by Anacacho Denmark by Edna May's King and his dam, Reverie's Desdemona, had given him blood from King's Genius, Rex Peavine and Kentucky Choice. With a stud fee of $300, he was standing at Fairview Farms, "a showplace of the Middle West." Marion Brown was in charge.

Top five stallions in the Rating's General Division Living Sires for the year just past were Anacacho Shamrock, Anacacho Denmark, Sparkling Waters, King Coe and Society Rex. Anacacho Shamrock, leading sire in national ratings for the previous three years, starred in a two page spread with 16 of his most illustrious get. These were Wing Commander, Royal Affair, Dream Waltz, Shannondale, Rita's Dream, Private Contract, The Sabre, Meadow Dew, Meadow Clover, King Of Harmony, Lover's Lane, Command Decision, Irish Star, Hyland Shamrock, Mark Of Success, and Lively Talk. Wing Commander and three of the other stallions shown in the ad - in addition to Anacacho Shamrock, himself - belonged to Dodge Stables, possession of Mr. and Mrs. F.L. Van Lennep.

It is always so moving, when listing those who were outstanding in the show world, to realize that the animals and most of the humans have left us. It is sad to think of how earnestly and honestly most of them strove for whatever they achieved, and how few of their names are remembered for 50 years. Perhaps it behooves us to dwell for a few moments with gratitude and reverence on the names that do remain, hoping that some of our feeling may spill over to the many whose equal efforts never brought them even a scrap of recognition.

But to be more cheerful: in 1956, as now, S&B offered feature stories each month and 50 years ago the spotlight was on The Spanish Riding School. This famous group was scheduled to visit the USA in 1957, its first tour since the war. S&B reviewed for us the story of how WWII threatened and disrupted the legendary Lipizzaners. Included were the actions of General George Patton, who arranged protection for the highly trained horses and brought the exiled stud out of harm's way as the war wound down.

Mrs. V.D.S. Williams, writing for the official journal of The British Horse Society in London, shared these details of training: each pupil begins with the most menial work necessary for horse-keeping and must earn the right to be trained. When this happens, it will be one-on-one by the same person who has trained the horse assigned to that pupil. And the days of Col. Podhajsky, Chief of the Riding School, were thus described by Mrs. Williams: on a horse 7 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. each day; then, after spending the afternoon with administrative work, a visit to the stud, lasting from 5 p.m. to whenever he could leave. The writer regretted that most of the training traditions at The Spanish Riding School was word-of mouth and said she hoped Podhajsky would someday write a book setting it all forth. From our own time we could reassure her; he wrote more than one book and many other people relayed to us the Lipizzaners history and training practices.

Issues addressed on S&B's editorial page in February, 1956, included one problem that has not gone away in 50 years, declining attendance and participation in shows. It is fascinating to see that one much-proposed solution then was the same as in our own time: a supplement for show programs to help educate the public as to exactly what is going on in the ring. This would be certain, the writer declared, to enhance spectator enjoyment of shows and to deepen appreciation for the talents of show horses and of the people who produce and exhibit them. A comprehensive, attractive booklet of this nature would surely encourage people to buy and show horses.

The big catch, of course, was money. The writer of the piece conceded that the cost of such a thing, in the quantity needed for national distribution, would be at least $250,000, a huge sum for the time, and unlikely to be realized from any foreseeable donations and paid ads. Supplements have been tried since then, at least in individual shows and areas. Have there ever been any on a large enough scale to prove anything?

In reviews of old issues of S&B, the most memorable portion is usually the human interest data from columnists. Marilyn C. Childs was doing two columns for S&B in 1956 and in one titled "Curb Bits from the Nor'East," she relayed tragedy. A well-known horse dentist, John Heffner of Roxboro, Penn., had lost most of his family to fire. One daughter, being already gone to school, escaped, but Heffner's wife, Charlotte, died trying to save the couple's three other children, ages 23 months to five years. Blessings on Charlotte, from our time to hers.

To avoid ending on a sad note, we will repeat what Childs said in another column, "Morgan Musings." Ted Davis, president of the national Morgan Horse Club, had set forth from Vermont to visit western states and all between, hoping to meet with many organizations and breeders. He was taking with him a film of the 1955 National Morgan Show, so that as many people as possible could see it. Here is demonstrated what our grandparents regarded as high luxury, to be able to see a show one could not attend, or, if one had been there, to see oneself and ones horse in action. Only the extremely wealthy, at that time, could afford a projector and screen of their own.

What would people viewing Davis' film have said if they were told, "In much less than 50 years your descendants will be viewing, in their own homes and repeatedly, at their leisure, any show they saw or rode in, any lesson they took, or any training session their horses had. These will be taken-for-granted aids to better performance."

And what would Leonard Hook have thought when, as a child, he sat in on his father and the barn staff carefully reliving after shows, every improvable detail they could recall about their own performance and those of others, human and equine? He described this to me with something like pride, and said that they felt that critiquing, though they didn't call it that, or even give it a name, was an important factor in their being top achievers of their time.

So goodbye to another vintage issue of S&B which, like all its companions, leaves us with limitless food for deep and fascinating thought.

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