Jim Tapp, Top Horse Trainer of His Day

By Joan Gilbert
Saddle and Bridle Magazine Equine Articles

Crane logo Stars of today, gone tomorrow! Written for Saddle & Bridle magazine by Joan Gilbert.
© copyrighted horse article.
It's probably the same for all equine journalists: we continually see pictures of horses and riders in their prime, creatures of great achievement all, performing with confidence and no thought of ever leaving the scene they love. These sights inspire sad thoughts of beauty lost, of great effort earnestly expended for reputations no longer remembered by anyone.

Several times aging trainers have remarked to me about equine and human colleagues whom they saw work hard and achieve greatly, whose names-once household words-now are unknown. One writer who tried to remedy this was Leola Swaney, wife of Lester Swaney who was for decades in charge of Faustiana Farms in Maryville, Mo. Swaney's mentor and predecessor was Jim Tapp. Tapp's final barn, called Pastimes, was near that of Mr. and Mrs. F.W. Townsend, his best customers and owners of the larger farm, Faustiana.

Though he was very well known in his life, and highly respected, Tapp was not often immortalized in horse publications. For some reason, one does not see many pictures of him, or many comments about him in the old magazines apart from show results. "He was a very reserved person," Lester Swaney remarks today. Possibly Tapp, born, it's thought, in 1880, reflected an earlier era in which self-promotion, even for business reasons, was considered bad taste.

Mrs. Swaney in an article published in American Horseman in May of 1947, tells us that this beloved figure was respectfully called "Colonel Tapp" by many of his contemporaries, and "Dean of American Horse Trainers" by Susanne whenever she wrote of him. Many people best acquainted with Tapp fondly called him "Gentleman Jim" or "Uncle Jim."

John T. Hook, in an interview with J.H.Ransom, termed Tapp "A great old man that I hope lives to be 100." Elsewhere he described with admiration the older man's showmanship and how he stood out in the "Gentlemen's Class", in which the very best riders competed, prime criteria being maintenance of elegant refinement as well as correctness in every gait.

Lester Swaney showed his respect by being very anxious, when he learned that this column was contemplated, to help us find a picture that he felt showed Tapp to best advantage. Unfortunately we were unsuccessful. Apparently few pictures of Tapp exist and this is puzzling. Swaney emphasizes the older man's unusually wide skill with everything horse related. He even was an exceptional farrier, adept at seeing how to balance saddle horses that others considered hopeless. "Nobody knew more about it than he did," Swaney says. "His opinion was much sought."

Other articles stress Tapp's ability, early in his career, as a race driver and mention that he always had a good high school horse in his barn, that he made a crusade of promoting the stallions of Northwest Missouri, particularly Rex Chief A.

Mrs. Swaney tells us Jim Tapp was born and bred in Kentucky, but came to Missouri early in life and lived in Platte City. The senior Tapp and one brother were professional horsemen and Jim's talent soon was recognized too. At age l7, he made his first significant show and soon had a promising career in progress. His first establishment, livery and training, was in Kearney, Mo.

As an aging man, he often shared memories from that time and place. He told of taking sightseers to the James family farm to view Jesse's grave. They eagerly bought pebbles (which legend tells us Mrs. Samuel regularly replenished from a nearby creek) off its surface, and even bought leaves from trees shading the grave. Mrs. Samuel sometimes came out to talk with the visitors about her sons and Tapp gave his listeners a detail that will be new to many James researchers: the mother had been known to sell locks of her hair. Tapp said that Frank James, as a retiree, often visited the Kearney stable, taking care, always, to keep his back against a wall. Another of Tapp's favorite stories from livery stable days was of a hearse team that was a little too spirited; they bounded uphill so fast that the coffin inside rolled back and hit the doors hard enough to open them and allow its sliding out and down the hill.

Susanne cited Tapp about Palomino Saddle Horses in a column written in 1943, when an Association for Golden Saddlebreds had just been formed. Tapp was her authority on the stallion named Pat Cleburne, source of many "highly colored" foals who grew up to be of some unusual shade, if not yellow, and to have white or flaxen manes. Attaining dependably white trim was one of the association's objectives. Tapp told Mrs. Swaney that there always were lines of "yallers" and "creams" among the breed that became designated as Saddlebreds. He said these were often called "Sunday Horses" because they were not used for routine work. People fortunate enough to own one, treated it as they did their best clothes, reserved for special occasions.

Tapp told Mrs. Swaney, too, of once being commissioned by the former governor of Mexico to secure for the government of that country seven matched teams of golden horses. They were desired for state use, when officials had to make public appearances or travel about the country. We can only imagine the spectacle of several such teams together and their effect on observers.

Tapp's work also included securing many horses for the U.S. government in WWI, and he helped supply the horse markets in Kansas City, Omaha and Denver. But Tapp's skill in training is what was most discussed in his time. Swaney remembers when he accompanied Tapp, as employee, to get horses named Lady Virginia and King Dorsey. Both of these, developed by Tapp, became famous in their time. So did Streamline, and Front Page and many others Swaney remembered well by personality or appearance, not always by name. Many of these had several name changes during their careers.

Working without deadline, a researcher could probably ferret out a much better dossier on Tapp by skimming all the horse world magazines for spring of 1947. That's when he retired, and Tapp surely then was the subject of numerous articles comprehensive of his life. Will some writer in the future become intrigued enough by an unassuming trainer named Jim Tapp to find and transfer to the internet all that could today be found about him? Probably not, and probably in the coming generation, anyone who cannot be found "on line" will be lost to posterity. Pity.

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