University of Vermont AAHS

Outrageous Memories

Jan Dawson
President, AAHS

[reprinted from Volume 3, No. 3 Fall 1998 Caution: Horses]

In a September issue of a Memphis newspaper appeared a story about the closing of a local Saddle Club. The reason was, of course, urban development and the club had had several previous homes including, reportedly, the land on which Elvis Presley built Graceland. I realized that saddle clubs such as the "Graceland Farms Saddle Club" were nearly a thing of the past. It has been a real loss that has occurred for various reasons. At the risk of shocking others in the area of horsemanship safety, I must confess that I am a product of one of those "saddle clubs." And what fun it was...

We lacked the protection of today's safety gear. We rode bareback. We rode double. We wanted to see how many kids we could get on one big old draft-type horse and still jump the little log with all of us still on board. Five was one too many.

Some of the kids owned their own horses and some of us rented ours. Generally, if you were a "regular," someone who rode every day for a dollar an hour or who would ride some of the regular livery horses, no one else would be permitted to ride "your" regular horse. Riding every day for one dollar just about covered the thirty-dollar-a-month board so it was rather like leasing.

Our gang of kids hung out at the stable every day after school and all day when there was not school. The group was unique in that we all came from different parts of the city and few of us went to the same schools. We were not abandoned or let to run wild. Our parents always permitted sleep-overs and parties. The boys were not permitted at the sleep-overs, only the parties. Still it wasn't a successful sleep-over if the boys didn't make an appearance. The rules at the barn were strict and we would be grounded in varying degrees of severity for infractions. The punishment could range from not being permitted to ride for a specified period of time to being banned from coming to the stable for a specific amount of time. The rules applied to everybody whether you owned your own horse or rented.

I don't recall many rules that didn't apply to horsemanship. If you failed to cool out your horse or got him too hot you were really in trouble. Inadequate grooming was noticed. Failure to clean tack would do it. Incorrectly tying, especially if it resulted in a loose horse, would have you sitting in the tack room cleaning the barn's show tack which consisted of Lane Fox saddles and full bridles. In fact I would have to say that most of my better habits were learned from Mrs. Herbert Bruce and her sons at the East Side Saddle Club in Wichita, Kansas.

We went on trailrides in the snow for what seemed like miles and miles and how we got anyone to take us I have no idea, but we were always supervised. After a ride, if you came in and went to get a hot drink or otherwise take care of yourself before you took care of your horse you would be absent from the barn for at least a week.

There were boys as well as girls in the club and many adults but the activities seemed to be more for kids. We ranged in age from twelve to fifteen. I don t recall anyone with a driver's license. Because the barn was in town, surrounded on all sides by development, we had the luxury of an A&W Root Beer stand across one of the pastures. It had "fence" service as well as curb service. We were really cool. Yes, we had riding lessons, but the lessons were different than what we often see today. It was assumed that the goal was to be able to really ride a horse in and out of an arena, anywhere one wished to go. One learned to stay on the horse, care for the horse, and know what were the safe and unsafe things to do with the horse. That included riding in rough country, down roads. We learned about safe and unsafe surfaces and footings. It was interesting that most of the stated "unsafe" things to do related to possible injury to the horse more than to the rider. It was stressed that if we took care of the horse it would take care of us. We were constantly reminded that stacking five kids on Old Dobbin to jump the log would result in at least some of us on the ground.

We were not oblivious to the possibility of serious or even fatal injury. We all had heard many horror stories. Death from dragging and runaways with serious results were talked about whenever the dangers of riding came up. And the topic would come up at least once at every slumber party, which was almost every Friday night.

The worst trouble that I remember almost getting into involved all the girls who were at a slumber party about ten blocks from the stable. We talked all night and then had the wild notion to walk over to the barn and go for a ride at dawn, which we did. We rode about two hours and put up the horses and went back and went to sleep. Later that day we walked to the barn all innocent. I think Mrs. Bruce knew exactly what we had done and it was clear that if we had been caught we would have been grounded for the rest of our lives or at least a month which was ultimate punishment usually reserved for the boys.

I recall no injuries and no falls except in multiple-rider log jumping. I confess that I do not know why safety was so cool and why we looked down our little teen and pre-teen noses at bad practices, but I have a suspicion.

Although we were not angels we somehow had been impressed with the idea that good horsemanship was in and bad or unsafe horsemanship was stupid.  We never saw any staff member doing anything we were told not to do. They were always doing everything the same way we were taught. When new kids came in we taught them and I guess if they wanted to be "in" like we were they would do things the way we showed them. If they didn't they would suffer the consequences and peer pressure would be strong to let the offender know what was an unacceptable practice.

I also believe that it made a tremendous difference that the people teaching us had more than a passing familiarity with horses as necessary for transportation and transport. Mrs. Bruce came from a time when horses were necessary for travel. The sons had served in the cavalry and understood what was necessary for a horse to have a long and productive life. The horsemanship that we were taught was the horsemanship of people who depended on horses for their livelihood. I should probably add that this was not just a rental barn but also a show barn. Many of the practices in use at that time are rightfully deplored today. It is interesting that in a barn that stressed so much correct horsemanship there were just as many inhumane practices in use on a daily basis, many of which are illegal today. However, as kids we were not aware of the more brutal practices of the professional horse world. We were focused on our pleasure horses, our trail-rides, and our annual show. We rode the show horses but were taught from the beginning that these horses were different.

There were pluses and minuses in the old East Side Saddle Club. We all had tons of fun. We learned a lot compared to most kids riding in the midwest in the fifties. We all seemed to learn to ride, although at that time the saddle seat equitation position was closer to a dressage position today and only the trainers rode back and with their lower leg away from the horse. We were repeatedly told that that was wrong. I have suspected for a long time that the American "park horse" came into being as a short cut to the noble European high school horse. That is the only explanation I can think of that would have produced the set high-tail and artificially elevated gaits, practices that have never been in the horses best interest. Admittedly, the situation is better today than it was then.

During that period of time when a family went to a big resort hotel in the Midwest, one that had riding horses, the horses would be American Saddlebreds and would be park horses. Usually these would be "natural" saddlebreds shod flat-footed. These were the ultimate pleasure horses of that time in that place. But nothing is forever...

 We moved away. My "regular" horse was sold to a female army officer. I discovered hunters...

There is a bunch of kids, now adults, who owe a lot to Mrs. Herbert Bruce and the East Side Saddle Club.

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