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 special expense not covered in our family budget. New saddles in local shops cost from $300 to $1300, a bridle from $20 to $100. Well-dressed riders choose English-style jackets which start at $100, and they favor made-to-order field boots priced at about $275 a pair. (Obviously, you don’t buy these until your kid has stopped growing.) Lisa baby-sits to cover her half of the cost. Other kids on the circuit braid manes and tails for competitors. The going rate for the full coiffure is $25.
In my day, I took no responsibility for grooming my horse. At Edge Park a groom would appear with horse in hand, braided and brushed to a fine gloss. For all I knew it was born that way. The groom has now been largely replaced by mother and offspring. In the gray dawns of horse showing mornings we transform horsing into mounts fit for a coronation. Lisa and I shampoo Junior with Breck, braid her mane and tie it with yarn, then polish her coat with Show Sheen until it’s as slick as a seal’s.
We not only arise at ungodly hours, we also pay unconscionable sums to sleep in dingy highway motels and to eat fast and greasy food. I have seen other middle-class families make what I’d call outrageous sacrifices: mothers in Levi’s mucking out stalls, kids sacking out in stalls at night to save cash and watch over their precious animals. Sometimes I think we are all a little daft.
There are usually eleven major shows in Texas. They begin with a Christmas show in San Antonio. Then a series of shows runs from March through June, and the next from June through December. The landscapes vary from the austere cavern of the Abercrombie Arena near the Astrodome, where Pin Oak is now held, to the dusty, scrubby fields of Fredericksburg’s county fair grandstands. Lisa and I went to five shows last year, and, in retrospect, I see that I learned just enough about the Texas circuit to be less impressed by the dazzle and more conscious of the saddle sores. At least Lisa won’t grow up with my romantic notions.
As I haunted the barns and watched trainers working with their riders, I couldn’t overlook the bone-wrenching schooling and the emotional stress involved in preparing for a show. A novice horse-show mother can be scared out of her wits at such goings-on, and also a little put off by the rough-and-tumble trainer-rider relationship. (Maybe it’s just hard to watch someone else discipline your kid.) Many trainers draw liberally from a stock of threats and gibes, which elicit tears and tantrums instead of improved performance. A certain amount of rough treatment is necessary, but some trainers may be in the wrong profession. One particularly sarcastic man told me that he hated teaching. “I could ride twenty horses a day and never get tired,” he said, “but teaching drives me crazy.”
Some people are born trainers, though. Joan Waterman, who owns Pine Hollow Farm in New Caney near Houston, has a well-known rapport with young riders, and her wisecracks, praise, and low-voiced criticism pays off in the bouquet of ribbons her kids collect each year on the circuit. Through hours of tedious practice, Joan’s students achieve the poise and polish it takes to win those top prizes, but they also have the advantage of working in an ideal schooling atmosphere. Pine Hollow has a huge indoor ring, an outdoor arena set beside tall pines, and commodious box stalls for 32 horses.
Out trainer, Frances Doig, exhibits the same enthusiasm as Joan Waterman, but she has more handicaps. She takes mostly inexperienced riders (like us) with medium-quality horses (like Junior) to shows where they are outclassed by $60,000 animals. It takes character and muscle for Frances even to stay in business. She assembled the collection of wire pens, homemade sheds, and prefab stalls that constitute St. Stephen’s Stables in 1974. It was only a year ago that she got a water line laid and could stop trucking water down the hill to the horses, and she still can’t afford to put a steel roof over her riding ring. “Most people will tell you they are in business for the money,” she says. “Well, I’ve never been out of the red. I do it for love.”
Lisa and I aren’t as philosophical about our underdog status as Frances, but we have learned that you don’t have to own a dream of a hunter to win ribbons on the Texas circuit. Lisa might have felt like Cinderella in a burlap sack trying to win the prince, but she consistently won second- through sixth-place ribbons. Of course, she also placed best behind less competent riders on mounts that outshone Junior. Lisa would like to own a super horse some day, but even if she never does, she will acquire more than just ribbons. She is learning to give a horse its best chance, and that’s what keeps her and the other riders wearing out their seat bones and sharpening their skills. “A show is a test to let you know what a horse will and won’t do,” one young rider told me. “That’s really it—my learning to ride him and his learning to let me ride him. It’s a compromise.”
And that explains why I have rediscovered the lure of a sport I thought I had outgrown long ago. I am even preparing to enter a horse show, my first in twenty years. It’s just a small local affair, but already my palms sweat in anticipation. What if I forget which jump comes first? What if I fall off my horse? Lisa is full of constructive criticism. “Stop flopping around all over her back. Pull your stomach in.” My calves are blistered and my legs are bowed, but I easily forget those aches and pains. After heaving a saddle onto Junior’s back and riding around in choking dust for hours, I can canter down to a three-foot fence, hang on tight, and suddenly I’m flying.