This Between Rounds column ran in the January 7, 2005 issue of The Chronicle of the Horse.
Last month (and long before!) I was thumbing through issues of the Chronicle, and I was truly appalled by the style–or lack of style–of the top professional hunter riders in this country. Yes, I’m sure they have a great feel, sense of pace, and eye for a distance, but, my fellow horsemen, that is not enough!
In years gone by, we didn’t have videotapes. Yes, home movies (sometimes even in slow motion) were fairly popular. So what we counted on were the still photographs taken by the great horse show photographers of that day.
Victor Hugo-Vidal, Ronnie Mutch and I would pore over our photos after every show, from both the equitation and the hunter classes. We’d be mortified if our heel was up, leg too far back, eyes down, if we were ducking over, or if we were not maintaining a straight line from elbow to the horse’s mouth.
If I had a really decent picture, I’d take it to my teacher Gordon Wright. Or later, once I’d made the U.S. Equestrian Team, to Bert de Nemethy or Bill Steinkraus. Billy was particularly “picky,” and I liked that. He controlled his riding position down to his little finger.
In desperation over our current plight, I called John Strassburger, the Chronicle’s editor, to ask him to dig up some photos from the 1950s so we could compare then and now. We will present six photos, one an international amateur, one an amateur woman, one junior, and three outstanding professionals of the day for you. After that, you can go back the last few months (or years, for that matter) and compare. I’m sure you’ll agree that, although much is better in our sport, style and position are worse.
I understand that some riders think that today’s fences are bigger and tougher than they were in the old days. Wrong. First of all, those fences were much bigger. And, second, all of today’s fences are ascending, triple-bar type fences. Anyone who jumps knows the simplest fences are those ascending fences.
The fences you see in these photos were all vertical or nearly vertical, with little if any groundlines, and they were solid. And they were big–4 feet and more.
Photo No. 1 is somebody you all know. Frank Chapot was a six-time Olympian and won the individual bronze medal at the 1974 World Championships, to touch on just a few of his accomplishments. There was no kind of class that Frank could not win. He won the ASPCA Maclay Finals, was AHSA Working Hunter Champion of the year, and won nearly all the jumper classes at one time or another, both here and abroad.
Here Frank is pictured aboard Peggy Augustus’ champion working hunter Defense at the Cologne, Germany, show in 1956. Yes, not infrequently, some of our great hunters went to Europe and stepped up to the jumper classes like this. Can you imagine that happening today?
Actually this could be a tall hunter type of fence. The horse is in great form–and so is the rider. Frank’s leg is anchored down with the weight in his heels. His seat has cleared the saddle, neither jumping ahead nor dropping back. His upper body is parallel to that of the horse. Eyes up. And almost a perfectly straight line from elbow to mouth. Although the style of the day was to have more foot in the stirrup than today, I consider this a great picture of style over fences.
Carol Werber Del Guercio (Photo No. 2) was a lovely amateur rider who handily jumped the 4’6″ courses of the day. After all, there weren’t any amateur-owner classes. They had amateur ladies and gentleman’s classes in the open hunter divisions. Period.
Carol’s mount here is Fairview Farms’ legendary seal-brown gelding Bronze Wing. To be perfectly honest, I best remember this horse under Betty Bosley. Bronze Wing was a beautiful Thoroughbred horse, a “10” mover, and a scopey jumper. He did not have the tightest front end, but he had a good front end.
Carol is in good form here. Perhaps her stirrup is back on her foot and her leg a touch too far forward. This, of course, has caused her seat to slip too far to the rear. Her eyes are up, her posture excellent, and she’s showing a beautiful and correct “short” release.
New York’s Madison Square Garden (the only real National Horse Show in my book!) looks pretty good here too, in 1956. Notice the elegance of the judges, spectators and jump crew in the background. And note the simplicity and vertical construction of these true hunter fences. Oh, I have such nostalgia!
Photo No. 3 shows Peter Dinkelman aboard his own great-performing junior and working hunter champion Little Trip over the big hedge at Fairfield, Conn. This hedge was about 4’10” high and at least 5 feet wide–see what I mean about how big these jumps were?
Unfortunately, the photo is a fraction late and doesn’t do the horse justice. But look at Peter and his near-perfect position. Again, in those days we rode with the stirrup truly back on the ball of the foot. (Rodney Jenkins probably brought us nearer to the toe!) And he is outgrowing his boots. So what! Boots are expensive.
Peter is “tight as a tick,” his heels are down, his seat just out of the saddle, eyes up, and a perfectly relaxed yet straight back. Peter has a beautiful “automatic” release with a straight line elbow to mouth. This is form over fences!
Photo No. 4 is none other than legendary horseman Bobby Burke. Bobby was not only one of the great horsemen of the last 50 years, but also one of its most colorful personalities.
This photo is vintage “Burkie.” He rode with his foot close to “home” in the stirrup and cocked his toe a little bit in front of him. Note the tight leg grip and the exemplary seat position just clear of the saddle. Bobby’s eyes and head are up, with his posture soft and relaxed. Bobby also rode with a bit of a longer rein and a “short” release all the time. This is where he put his hands, but he never “stiffed” his horses.
The Tyrolean hat was often part of Bobby’s “look,” as was the handkerchief in his hip pocket. We all tried to copy him.
Although the horse is jumping a bit over his front end, he’s very attractive and magnificently turned out. Everything about “Burkie” and his horses was classy and stylish.
This is a real hunter fence without the over-abundance of ground lines that we see today.
Raymond Burr, Emerson Burr’s brother (in Photo No. 5), was probably the greatest stylist of his era or any era. His angles were so correct that the great artist Paul Brown used him as an example for his drawings.
Yes, it was a hot and dusty day at the Fairfield (Conn.) Hunt Club. Raymond always rode a number of horses, and his boots are dusty. So what! Look at his angles on horseback. His ankle angle has stayed closed, his knee angle has opened just enough, his hips are closed, and the angle in his elbow affords him just that perfect straight line from elbow to mouth. Raymond’s eyes are up, and he always had impeccable posture on a horse.
Raymond is a study in form over fences. He usually rode with his stirrup a bit back and held quite a short curb rein above the snaffle, between his second and third finger. He will be best remembered as a rider for his position, smoothness and incredible eye for a distance. No matter how fast–and he really galloped on those outside courses–he never came wrong to a fence. And he rarely wore a hat.
W. “Cappy” Smith (Photo No. 6) was another giant in his field, bigger than life. Cappy was more than 6 feet tall, had movie-star looks and a personality to go with it, and was a great, great horseman.
His position here exemplifies the forward seat–heels down, ankles flexed, toes out, legs in contact, seat slightly out of the saddle, back flat, eyes up, and a perfectly straight line with light contact to the horse’s mouth. I don’t see riders like this in the hunter ring today.
This photo was taken at the Upperville show in Virginia. I remember the horse Jazz Session very well, especially as a green horse. He was a very pretty horse and always won the model and the hack classes. Being a bit of a limited jumper, as you can see by his hind end, Cappy would always “nurse” him around, getting him called back in the top three or four. Because of his conformation and Cappy’s showmanship, the horse usually ended up on top, especially as a 3’6″ horse.
I hope you have enjoyed turning back the clock with these six wonderful photos as much as I have. History is a great teacher. And we mustn’t forget these days–when perhaps some things were better.
As you all know, I am a great proponent of the forward seat as taught by Caprilli, Chamberlin, Wright, Steinkraus, Littauer, Williams and de Nemethy. We must protect this way of riding for the good of the galloping, jumping horse, as well as for riders of future generations. Professionals are our role models, so it is especially important that they exemplify this classic way of riding.