Dick Hudson rode his first Shetland pony in the 1940 Nebraska State Fair. He was 3.
Seven years later he traded it for a parade Paint pony, and since then there has never been a horse Hudson hasn’t been willing to sell.
That is, until he bought The Hud, a Belgian Warmblood, from importers Lynn and Guillermo Obligato. The Hud is not for sale–Hudson has turned down several generous offers. “You can’t sell a horse who learns how to open his own stall door just to give you a kiss,” he said of his namesake.
Some would regard such unabashed sentimentality as incongruous in a horseman of Hudson’s stature. At Windhoek Farm, five miles southeast of Lincoln, Neb., Hudson has bred, trained and traded more than 200 horses.
The key to Hudson’s success lies beyond his dedication, entrepreneurial talents, or even four decades of experience. Lynn Obligato has known Hudson for more than 10 years, and she sees his affection for The Hud (whose name matches his personality much better than the registered Tresor Stormwind) as a natural reciprocity toward an extraordinary horse. “Dick is an extreme horse lover and a very kind and gentle person. I’d never feel bad about him having one of my horses,” she said.
Watching Hudson in his element, working with or talking about his horses, it becomes obvious that his strongest impetus to perform comes, essentially, from his utter glee at the sight of a good horse, jumping well. A horse like his beloved Hud, for instance.
There is more than tricks and kisses to The Hud, of course. Peter Pletcher, Hudson’s rider, describes the horse as the most consistent performer he’s ever ridden, one that doesn’t require a lot of warm-up or drilling. At the age of 8, Hud is just reaching his prime. Despite a limited show record, he has secured a line among the top 20 of the U.S. Equestrian Federation’s regular working hunters and ranks first in Zone 6.
Hudson smiles every time The Hud’s name comes up: “Horses are like people. Some, like Hud, never let you down, and some do. You can’t change their personality, just like you can’t change people. Sometimes you just have to give up on people, and sometimes you give up on horses.”
Doing Their Best
One horse that Hudson just about gave up on was the gray Holsteiner, Al Capone. When the young gelding struck his daughter Dee in the head while she was helping her father give him a shot, Hudson thought he’d had enough. Dee’s patience and persistence convinced him otherwise, though, and Capone has had a string of successes recently–something the family wouldn’t have expected him to do two years ago.
Hudson is not parting with Al Capone yet. In him, he now sees a medal performer in equitation. “He is getting better and better to work with,” said Hudson. “Now I can clip his ears without a twitch. And when you see a horse make such great strides, you don’t mind continuing with him.”
Dee, long an integral part of Windhoek Farm as a trainer, teacher and rider, has her own take on her father’s patience. “It used to be that I absolutely had to win, for him to get the ultimate thrill,” she said. Now, to Dee’s unconcealed approval, Hudson is happy to see a horse perform to the best of its ability, even if it doesn’t top its class.
This older Hudson also prides himself on the beginner riders that take lessons at Windhoek–no matter their ribbon count. His advice to a novice dreaming of hunter ring fame? “Stay away from it. Take up tennis.”
There are too many heartbreaks, he said. “Invariably, your horses step on you, or do something and hurt themselves, or kick your friends’ horses.”
Hudson knows about the vicarious pain of a horseman personally. Vanada (born Cece), Dee’s current grand prix hope, recently had to have a small tumor removed from her chest. Hudson’s face and voice fill with anxiety when he describes watching the surgery (he wouldn’t leave one of his horses alone under duress) to remove the small tumor and verify that it wasn’t malignant.
According to Dee, such preeminent care for the horses’ well being drives her father to little every day extremes–for example, he still personally loads and unloads his trailers.
“I’ll probably die cranking up my trailer,” he said. “It’s 40 cranks up before it’s up on the truck. I’ve done it on cold days, hot days, snow storms–one of these days my heart will stop, and I’ll just drop dead.”
Hudson simply cannot imagine himself not being an equestrian–he considers it a predestination given his line of equestrian-minded ancestors. Hudson’s grandfather, the first in the living memory of the family to display what Hudson calls the “horse-gene,” bought and sold working horses, back in the day when horse-drawn wagons churned along the streets collecting and delivering laundry.
His father Robert ran away from home at the age of 13, and was soon selling newspapers, cigars and non-alcoholic beer. With prohibition then the law of the land, fate was already dealing the Hudsons a dynastic hand–that non-alcoholic beer led to investment in soft drinks, which, in its turn, brought the Hudson brothers a share in 7-UP and Pepsi brands. By the time young Richard was 3, Pepsi was an American staple, and his parents were breeding Saddlebreds and Palominos.
Taking His Time
Young Hudson’s initiation into horse training came from observing the work of Don Dean, his parents’ trainer, whom Hudson fondly remembers in his short story, “Why Horses?”, a story likely to be one of the chapters in the autobiography he’s working on. From Saddlebreds, the family switched
to Quarter Horses, and Hudson now jokes that he wouldn’t have become a hunter/jumper trainer if an accident hadn’t forced him into it.
In 1961, he bought a little mare named Ado Annie for his wife Ann, and the horse turned out to be too hot-blooded for anything but jumping. Once given a vent for her energy in the jumping arena, Ado Annie ruled the local show circuit over the next couple of years. At that time, Lowell Boomer, the founder of the U.S. Dressage Federation, was also competing in jumping, and his methods became the rule and the inspiration in Hudson’s training career.
“Did I borrow from dressage? Absolutely,” said Hudson. “The leg aids, the hand aids all come from dressage. It allows you to fix all the small faults that could be caused in the process of breaking young horses.”
Hudson stressed the importance of giving a horse time to grow; he never allows a single jump until the horse is 4, and even then takes next steps very slowly.
“We used to compete in the International Hunter Futurity, for 3-year-olds, but we couldn’t keep the horses sound if we started them too early,” he said.
Boomer, a lifelong friend of Hudson’s, was the first in a long line of equestrian professionals from whom Hudson never ceases to learn. Lessons came from show jumping legend George Morris, from riders Peter Pletcher and Tony Font, and even from Hudson’s own short-lived foray into race horse training–short-lived because he felt he had to concentrate on one sport in order to perform to the standards he was setting for himself.
From race horse training he preserved his belief in conditioning and a figure-eight mini-racetrack on his property, where he used to teach the racers to change leads. Hudson refers to himself as a “conditioning freak.” He makes his horses trot uphill as a regular component of their training, to tone their muscles and to fine-tune their trot.
“Once you have been in business for a long time, sometimes you start to think that you know it all–that’s like cancer. You have to keep an open mind and continue to learn, or the sport will pass you by,” he said.
For about 30 years, until the 1990s, the Hudsons bred their own hunters and jumpers, as well as show horses, and Thoroughbreds for the yearling sales in Kentucky. Ultimately, however, Hudson came to view breeding as an enterprise laden with too much chance. “It is a lot easier to find a perfect horse than to breed a perfect horse. They change so much between when they are weanlings and 3, that anymore I hesitate to buy anything that’s younger than 3 or 4,” he said.
Love of horses and horse sports has made Hudson a formidable force in the world of Midwest hunters and jumpers. There is, however, one final facet of his personality that doesn’t immediately manifest itself, but which adds an indispensable stroke to the man’s portrait.
“Our lives are so much like movie-stars’; we got to know a lot of movie people, and they live just like we do at a horse show,” said Dee. “You come, you find your spot and park your trailers and make camp. In the mornings, everyone gets together for breakfast and coffee, and then you’re off to your day–make-up and costuming and acting for them, grooming and jumping for us. You find a good restaurant in town, enjoy your nights off, and then you’re on the road again.”
In the lounge at the Windhoek Farms’ barn hangs an autographed photo of Patrick Swayze, a souvenir from the days Swayze spent in Nebraska filming “Too Wong Foo, Thanks For Everything, Julie Newmar.” And there, again, on the cover of “Why Horses?” is Roy Rogers and Trigger, stars of the cowboy movies Hudson loved as a boy. As the years pass, the Hollywood metaphor still holds: look around at your next show. You’ll spot Dick Hudson scripting, directing, producing, and ultimately, holding his breath, watching his own show.