I’m not sure what arcane quirk attracts young girls to horses. Certainly I was not immune, and a few years ago the equine virus also infected my fourteen-year-old daughter, Lisa. As a child, I neglected my dolls for the stuffed horses that lived in my bed, and I galloped through our house wearing string reins tied into a pencil bit I clenched between my teeth. My parents indulged my passion, up to a point. Twice a week in the mid-fifties my mother drove me out to Memorial Drive in Houston to Edge Park Stables. There I learned to hang on while my favorite stable horse, Bouncing Boy, sailed over the jump—without, I have to admit, much help from me.
My parents refused all my entreaties that they buy me a horse, so I grew up watching most horse shows from behind the rails of the ring. The most glamorous, of course, was the Houston Pin Oak Show. I remember Jan Garber’s orchestra playing tea-dance music in a white gazebo at the center of the ring while men in white coats and women in silk dresses sipped cocktails in the Sponsor’s Club, near the grandstand. These evening performances had an aura of intimate gaiety. One rider described the affair as a garden party where several guests just happened to bring horses.
But it was more than nostalgia that brought me back to Pin Oak last year. I was making the rounds of the Texas shows because of Lisa. When she took up riding, I wasn’t about to be left behind, so I am again smelling salty horse odors and hearing the cadence of galloping hooves. I am also getting saddle sores. Lisa and I ride the same horse, No Complaints (a.k.a. Junior), a twelve-year-old quarter horse we bought through our riding instructor. I am still pretty wobbly in the saddle, but my daughter has started taking the mare to shows on the Texas circuit. These shows are divided into hunter and jumper events, which are further broken into classes for young and adult riders: Lisa enters the junior hunter events.
The terms “hunter” and “jumper” don’t denote breeds of horses; instead they indicate what a horse has been trained to do—what kind of obstacles and terrain it can carry its rider over successfully. Hunters are judged on their grace in hurdling relatively low obstacles (usually around four feet high). Jumpers, more like athletes, are judged strictly on their strength, skill, and nerve; they jump higher obstacles (up to six feet, nine inches), and it doesn’t matter if they do it awkwardly, as long as they make it over.
Most hunters are show-ring prima donnas. They probably wouldn’t know what to do if they saw a real fox, and since most Texas shows are held indoors, they rarely confront an outdoor hunt course. Evaluating a hunter’s performance is a subjective business. “I look for good movers,” says Virginia judge Jimmy Lee. “Horses with nice, long strides and smooth rhythm. A good hunter should look tidy over the fence, keep his legs tucked up, and make a graceful arc with his body.”
About five hundred hunters and jumpers travel the Texas circuit. That’s nothing like the nine hundred horses that show up at the famed Harrisburg show in Pennsylvania. But even though Texas lacks the depth that the East has, it is catching up. It wasn’t until the late forties—just six years before I learned to ride—that the hunter and jumper business got organized in Texas. Aside from rodeos, there was not much horse activity in Texas in those days. Colonel John Russell, one of the first trainers in the state, remembers only four hunters in San Antonio when he arrived in 1956. There were probably not more than thirty good ones in the whole state.
These graceful animals bring astounding prices on the Texas circuit these days. In the forties a Texan could get a horse for a good price at government sales in San Antonio, where U.S. Cavalry mounts were periodically auctioned off, but those days are long gone. Reentering the horse scene, I was staggered by today’s prices: the average cost of a well-schooled show hunter starts at $10,000 and can easily go as high as $60,000. A Dallas professional rider recently sold a jumper to the German equestrian team for about $200,000.
In the East a considerable element of high society, as well as high prices, pervades the horsey set. But if the haut monde exists in Texas’ equestrian circles, it keeps a low profile. In fact, I found a strong democratic spirit on the Texas circuit. Maybe because the sport is new here, and because it was popularized by riders who built the backyard jumps and rode by the seat of their pants, there hasn’t been time for snobbery to take hold. Accustomed to looking at the horse as a work animal, Texans have trouble thinking of it as a social tool or a toy for an equestrian jet set.
It’s a good thing no one snickers if you don’t ride a $60,000 horse, because Lisa and I would be laughed off the circuit. We would never have been able to enter the horse world at all were it not for Scotswoman Frances Doig, who runs the stables at St. Stephen’s Episcopal School near Austin. With her eye for a bargain she spotted our horse as an ordinary-looking mare with untapped talents. When we bought Junior for $600 four years ago, she had never jumped a jump, but she learned. And while most owners pay $250 a month to keep a horse at a stable, we pay $115 for Junior to live in an open-air pen at St. Stephen’s. It’s not as cozy as a stall, but Junior grows a lush coat in the winter.
Other expenses mount up, though. Hauling fees (about 30 cents a mile) and entry fees ($15 per junior hunter class) make showing Junior a