Yesterday's Horse Shows

By Joan Gilbert
Saddle and Bridle Magazine Equine Articles

Crane logo A nostalgic look at yesterday's horse shows, written by Joan Gilbert. © copyrighted horse article.
As the show season accelerates toward its bittersweet end for another year, we inevitably begin to feel nostalgia for its beginning, and last year's season and others before that. What if our memory was not limited to a few decades, but went back to shows of the early 1900s, as reported by now defunct publications that were beloved and authoritative in their day?

Here are a few of the memories we might have:

The New York show was 29 years old in 1912, so its report in Saddle and Show Horse Chronicle reminded attendees of what they had seen or missed in earlier years. In 1885, there had been for the first time, said Chronicle, classes for children, both riding and driving. In '91, Mambrino was defeated for the first time, but in '96 returned to the winner's role after a few years of not appearing at all, and in a class with four of his offspring. Also in 1891 Miss Elsie Cascott was the first woman to drive a tandem team at the show. 1892 marked the last appearance of Leopold, the Arab stallion presented to General U.S. Grant by the sultan of Turkey. In '93, high-steppers Lady Edwina and Bismarck collided in the ring and smashed their carts. In '05, '06 and '09 Poetry Of Motion was a big winner. In 1910, the first classes for Morgan horses were offered.

In 1912, Chronicle editor Herbert J. Krum was angry about New York, saying it was no longer a national show because so many imported horses were there, "as if American blood is not good enough." Krum felt that foreign judges were out of place at a national show, "since the U.S. always has plenty of men who were are best qualified to judge America's horses as they are used here." For instance, he said, some foreign judges seemed to feel the speed and smoothness with which a horse changed gaits was more important than how it did the gaits. And Krum found something objectionable about Nickel Plate's performance. It is always fascinating to try to figure out what Krum really meant. This time he didn't like it that the famous gelding seemed to win so much on hock action. And he said Nickel Plate had proved once again that he was not suitable for a woman's use and should not be exhibited by a woman. Krum said one of the most beautiful things in the world is to see a talented animal restraining its performance to the limited skill of its driver, but that no horse should be compelled to do that. But everything else aside, Krum felt, it was inappropriate for any woman to drive a gray horse. Why not? Too flashy? Krum's crowning outrage was that the new judging of "appointments for women" had led to something "ludicrous and vulgar." Women must "submit to having a judge lift their skirts" slightly, to make sure their boots were correct.

But moving on to other early shows: At Bryn Mawr in 1913, so much rain fell that judges and other officials, exhibitors and the horses, themselves, all were attired in mackintoshes. A Bit & Spur picture immortalized the memorable lineup scene. Mud figured that day in two falls for one young boy and three for an 11-year-old girl. Her mount was described as "her favorite, Tommy"; one wonders how Tommy rated with her at the end of that day! This show had been advertised as promising beautiful weather and "guaranteed danger" with many jumping classes.

In June of 1913 a story datelined London, May 17, said that Judge William Moore had 40 stalls at Olympia show and a ten- year-old Canadian girl, Mona Dunn, had 35. Walter Winans, Alfred Vanderbilt, Edward McLean and Sumner Draper were the only other North Americans showing horses there, apparently. Imagine the expense of taking 40 horses to London! But maybe this only means that Moore had a number of horses in training in England or perhaps kept a couple of teams there for use when he was abroad. He was one of Vanderbilt's chief rivals at six-in-hand coaching.

Closer to us in time and space is The 1953 Premium List for Boone County Missouri Fair and Horse Show, gift of a reader. Though it is 128 pages thick (dealing with all categories of entries, food, livestock, etc.), this booklet looks pitifully plain in comparison to today's publications; it has few illustrations and those are conventional little line drawings. Of the 42 show classes, 28 were for gaited horses, and five for walking horses. The five-gaited stakes were $500 (John T. Hook for juniors) and $1,000 (Dean E.A. Trowbridge Memorial,) and $750 for the three gaited. Six classes were for children and ponies, one each for local pleasure horses, parade, and open-stock. The Little Dixie Boots & Saddle Club of Centralia, 40 members strong, planned to present a free show in the arena following an afternoon session that featured the ponies and local horses. Their club's offerings would include square dancing on horses, express wagon races, musical chair rides and potato race.

Getting closer to our own time: the nostalgia column in a recent issue of the Mexico (M0) Ledger, reviewed an exclusive sight that Mexicoans were privy to each night after the 1956 hometown show: a dozen or more high-stepping blanketed horses being led in procession up the Boulevard, going home to the Simmons barn. A little later came an entry about Art Simmons' wins with a horse named Shamrock's Cheer Leader. The reporter told us proudly that the four-day fair had been attended by 32,000 persons and had inspired just two fights, both about race horses. The only injury of any significance was a stable hand whose split lip required a doctor's stitches. There had been no arrests. The Mexico show, long one of the most popular in the region, ended in the early 1970s when fire destroyed most of its buildings.

Still closer to our own time is the Illinois State Fair program for 1970. It contained these heartbreaking stats: A season ticket cost $5. Stall fees were $2.50 per day ($1.25 for ponies) with no extra charge for tail boards, but one had to specify this need before the show. One condition of entry was the acceptance of stringent penalties for any act of discourtesy or disrespect to judges or officials or people working for them. The extreme penalty would be exclusion from further competition and expulsion from the grounds. Many superlatives were listed for this fair. It offered the richest harness race in the world, prizes for 1970 totaling more than $535,000.

The fair's track was one of the fastest in the nation and many records had been set on it. The separate three-day All Western Horse Show was the largest of its kind in the U.S. and considered the best, offering several large purses, at least one for $1,000. As for The Light Horse Show, it had topped all others in the U.S, for 1969, with 1,200 animals entered. It offered several $1,000 stakes and the further incentive of the Governor's $10,000 Championship Five-Gaited Stake. A televised parade of Saddle Horse stallions would be staged on Saturday night.

Springfield, Ill., in 1970: only 36 years ago: a great many people who watched or participated in that show are still among us, so it's entirely possible that a few of them will get in touch, saying "Yes! I remember it well, and you don't have it quite right!" Will the same response come to nostalgia writers of a future century who reprise this year's shows? Current reports of what we can hope for in health preservation and life extension in the near future make it seem possible. So let it be!

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