Bill Cunningham Remembered

By Joan Gilbert
Saddle and Bridle Magazine Equine Articles

Crane logo A short history of the famous, well-respected and beloved Bill Cunningham, written for Saddle & Bridle magazine by Joan Gilbert. © copyrighted horse article.
It's a familiar feeling: "No way can justice be done to this subject in this space." The Bill Cunningham folder contains three long and comprehensive tear sheets about his career, two published during his lifetime, one at this death. It also contains several short clippings and several comments from people who urged his appearance here as well as these notes: "Cunningham, page 203 of Ransom, Vol. VII," and "interview in old Ledger in Simmons folder" and "see Trish Marx folder for comments from someone who was very fond of him." With so much to cover, there seems no approach but Q and A.

Why is Cunningham important in Saddlebred history?
For decades he held a top reputation as judge, trainer, talent finder and as establisher and manager of important sales. He was probably the most revered judge of his time and of all SB history, judging in every state in the union and in Canada. The biggest shows in the country - Louisville, Lexington, The American Royal as examples - invited him back repeatedly. One article says that about 50 bids to judge came per season; Cunningham was able to accept 10 to 20. He was one of only a very few in the country who was qualified to judge any class in a show.

Wherever he lived, Cunningham actively helped to maintain and enhance the structure that must underlie the productive collective breeding and showing of Saddlebreds. He held offices several times, including being Missouri representative to the American Saddle Horse Breeders Association. Even after his death he continued to benefit the industry; Cunningham's family requested that memorial donations go to the Saddle Horse Museum of the Audrain Historical Society of Mexico, Mo. The museum still maintains a small display area devoted to Cunningham.

Among the important dispersal sales Cunningham managed were that of Senator T.N. Wood of Pennsylvania (touted at the time as the largest in history), the Brandeis-Almarel Stable Sale. There were many others of similar importance and size. More familiar to more people were Cunningham's own sales, held twice yearly for decades, attracting buyers from all over the U.S. and beyond.

Cunningham served a one-to-one function that does not come to all trainers; he was constantly sought out as counselor for people less experienced in the horse world. People who were thinking of going into one business or another that relates to the ASB came to him, as did people who wanted advice on training problems. Cunningham seldom charged anything, unless he became an agent in sales.

What did Cunningham win? What horses did he have?
Cunningham did not personally exhibit; his forte was finding talented horses and developing them in the best way for others. Employees trained and exhibited under his direction, the most long-term individual being Abbott Wilson, now of Hawkewood Farm, Floral City, Fla. Wilson came as a very young man and remained until Cunningham died in August, 1967.

As to achievements of horses associated with Cunningham: he lived in the era when owners freely changed the names of their purchases, often with each change of hand. Trainers tended to lose track of the animals they'd had unless they physically came upon them in new identities. Cunningham always had a band of broodmares - sometimes as many as 20 - and at least one fine stallion standing at his barn. Two of the latter that he particularly cherished were Reverie's Bourbon Genius, a stunning bay, and Beau Yount, whom George Ford Morris immortalized in oil. Two of Cunningham's most notable associates were the mare, Lily Merrill, and her sire, Indiana Peavine, who sold for the record prices of $45,000 each in Lexington in Senator Wood's dispersal. Cunningham had bought the stallion as a yearling and had developed him for Senator Wood; it couldn't have hurt the stud's sale attractions that Cunningham, called him "the prettiest saddle horse ever foaled."

Some of the best known horses Cunningham helped to their best successes were - for only two examples - Enchanted Hour, with Lee Roby and Legal Tender, forever linked with Helen Crabtree and Randi Stuart Wightman. Crabtree gives this animal a very long chapter in her 1997 book, Hold Your Horses.

How was Cunningham unique?
Ireland born, he retained for life the fascinating accent of his childhood homeland. His first horse job was at Longview Farms near Lee's Summit, Mo. Fifteen at that time, he worked under direction of that farm's famous Saddle Horse manager and trainer, the revered John T. Hook. Cunningham later served in World War I and returned in 1920 to establish his own barn. He was one of several outstanding trainers who worked from what became the Art Simmons barn, after it had served a series of experts that hardly need to be mentioned again. Cunningham bought the barn in 1948, from R.G. Stewart, and occupied it for several years, then built his own complex, north of Mexico and moved there. His horses joined a long list of show immortals who have made people say of what is now, still, the Simmons barn, "More champions have walked through these doors than any in the country."

Cunningham had one historical niche that few could compete with: during WWI, he was standard bearer to General John Pershing. He rode at the famous commander's side or just behind him, carrying whatever flag was appropriate to the occasion, that of the US or Pershing's own. His duties also included organizing transportation, grooming, and training of all the ceremonial horses and coaching their riders. A classic picture shows Cunningham with Pershing passing the Arc de Triomphe in Paris at the end of the war. The fact that he was chosen for this honor and this duty, tells us that he had a remarkable presence on a horse and that he was even then recognized as expert in equine care and training and in managing a group of riders who had to be a credit to their general and their country.

Another part of Cunningham's duty with Pershing was providing escort at times for visiting European royalty, public relations, in other words. He told of how the Queen of Belgium spent an hour in their barn looking at the horses and how the Prince of Wales sat on a straw bale for most of an afternoon as the nicest horses were paraded around for his pleasure.

What was Cunningham like as a person?
Here we run into trouble; we're getting beyond our word limits. Once we began talking to Abbott Wilson, it was obvious that this had to be a two-parter. But here's a sample of what others said of him: "He was a truly kind man," Alice Thompson, Columbia, Mo., says. "He loved his horses very much and respected them; he buried them on his own property." This custom began with Cunningham in days when it was routine with most horse people to send the bodies of even the most beautiful and accomplished equines off for undignified disposal. Wilson confirms this, remarking that Cunningham was fussy about maintenance of the graves.

"He was unfailingly gracious," says Trish Marx of Berlin, Wisc., who visited Cunningham's barn often when she was a student at Christian and Lindenwood Colleges in Missouri. "Some barns made it clear that horse-struck young people were a nuisance standing around watching the work," she says, "but Bill Cunningham treated me like an honored guest and never tried to sell me a horse."

One newspaper story dwelt on Bill Cunningham's honesty pointing out that in selling horses he always considered what a customer really needed, what they could work with satisfactorily. Wilson says it was not at all unusual for him to say of an animal someone was much taken with and which would have brought a nice profit, "I don't think this one would be the best for you. Let's look at some others."

Many have spoken of Cunningham's charm as the typical witty, handsome Irishman. Abbott Wilson has a great deal to say about Cunningham's philosophy, humor and standards. He can pass along a few of the famous trainer's secrets, so stay tuned. Until next time, here's a sample of what was said by an extraordinarily loved and respected man: In 1950, a Saddle & Bridle writer repeated what Cunningham expressed to him: "everything good that I've had came by way of horses" And "it's a great blessing to be privileged to live and prosper in an occupation that gives a person nothing but enjoyment." Cunningham said he was grateful to God for letting him be in that category.

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