Monday, December 22, 2014

Christmas Greetings

Wishing you all a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

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Tuesday, September 30, 2014

The Value of a Complete Training Foundation

Having friends in the just completed 2014 Single Horse World Driving Championship in Izsak, Hungary, I followed the United States Team members closely through the FEI  and DrivingNews USA Internet sites.  Facebook kept me in touch with the personal stories by the players and fans.  I spent some sleepless nights over the last 3 days so I could have up to the minute results as they unfolded 9 hours ahead of my time zone.  It was an exciting weekend for this (now retired) armchair competitor.

What I want to talk about is not the results so much, but of an incident that happened that could have been disastrous if the simple step of foundation training had not been put in place and reinforced throughout this horse's career.  Here is what happened.  Our top ranking USA team member, Leslie Berndl of Newcastle, California was in fine position after the first phase of Dressage.  She had the 12th best test out of 77 competitors from 18 different countries in the world.  Dressage is her strong suit and she delivered a good one for the USA team.

Our three team members (Jacob Arnold, Donna Crookston and Leslie) were looking forward to a great marathon.  As luck would have it, the bit in Leslie's horse Travis broke in the second hazard while they were at full speed.  The bit fell out of Travis's mouth and Leslie acted with a verbal command to halt.  That big, on the muscle horse, came to a dead stop for her and stood.  He had been asked, and even though he was in the "heat" of the moment, he stood and waited.  It was no accident (literally) he stood.  He was trained to halt on command no matter what.  Everyone should want that in their driving horse.

Since there was no way to repair, they had to retire from their competition at that point.  Here is the point of my post:  I wonder how many carriage drivers make sure that important part of the training of the carriage driving horse is in place? When things go wrong with a horse pulling a carriage, it is very dangerous with the weight and bulk of the carriage, putting people on board, and people all around at risk of injury or death (not to mention the horse).

Understandably, Leslie is sorely disappointed at what happened after so many months of hard work and training for this biennial world championship.  Because she and her horse Travis have this wonderful relationship and complete trust in one another, she will rise to compete again with this great horse...because he listened to her, stopped on her verbal command alone, and stood.  It could have been career ending for both or worse.  That is great horsemanship.
Leslie driving Travis through a water hazard

As a final note...failure of equipment can happen even in the most quality made equipment, so I think the best form of insurance to protect one's huge investment in this sport (or any equine endeavor) is to train the horse to have the kind of foundation that ensures trust between horse/rider/driver so when something goes wrong...the horse does not question, but does what is asked.

There is a public video of the incident and when I figure out how to link to it, I will add to this post.  I will also follow with a draft I have been working on for awhile that this incident is related to:  "The Risk of Do it Yourself Horse Training"

Thursday, July 25, 2013

JMF Anna Beam Gone to Glory!

JMF Anna Beam with Tom Simmons at Gilroy CDE

  Last week, one of my favorite mares crossed into glory aided by her lifetime owner and trainer Tom Simmons.  She was a rare and unique mare that gave me one of my most thrilling moments in driving horses in sport. 

  It was at the last Myopia Combined Driving Event in 2000; and as far as I know, it was the last 5 phase CDE ever done in America.  After a run of 25 years, Myopia Driving Event, held at Groton House Farm, Hamilton, MA. was host to the AHSA (now USEF) National Pony Championships.  My Morgan horse, Lance was entered but had cut his fetlock two weeks before the event and could not compete.  My trainer suggested I use his Morgan mare Anna Beam who was no stranger to Combined Driving under Tom's direction.  At the time, Anna had been retired and became one of Tom's best broodmares.  She may have been a broodmare but she kept condition by putting on what we called "The Anna Show".  Tom would open the farm gates regularly just to have her trot by us at full speed for her joy of life and our thrill to watch it.  

  Once a Morgan horse has been conditioned over the years, it does not take long to bring them back into peak performance mode, and she was no exception.   She always had that special something that Morgan mares have that make them so desirable for sport.  Anna had willingness and ambition enough to rise above and beyond what was asked of her.  One has to be careful in the initial training of ambitious mares so as not to wake up the "sleeping genie" of speed performance, or it will be a lifelong trial to try and put the genie back in the bottle.  It is always need to make it a habit! 

   What had attracted Tom about her as a baby was her special quality of being able to trot like the Currier and Ives images of trotting horses.  The artists depicted what they saw with no exaggeration and it was real enough in Miss Anna Beam.  Tom couldn't resist allowing this mare to express her full brilliance and beauty of motion.  Her trot was so true that it had a special sound that still resonates in my head as I think of that day in the Fast Trot C Section of that event in 2000.  

Anna Beam being driven by Tom Simmons with daughter Renee Simmons navigating at Yellowframe Farm CDE in Southern Pines, North Carolina

  The total length of the marathon was just over 17 kilometers and the fast trot C section was 4.2 kilometers at 16KPH.  It felt exhilarating even as I was holding her back a bit until my husband/navigator told me we had met the minimum time allowed.  I let her go over that last stretch before the finish line and here came that memorable moment forever etched in my mind.  The sound she made with her hooves hitting the ground was unlike anything I have ever heard before.  It sounded like perfectly timed footfalls that struck the ground with a "phump" sound.  The crowds lining the course all stopped to watch this trotting machine fly by with their jaws dropped open.  I could barely see the finish through my watering eyes from the speed.  Tom has always said Anna is a Standardbred trapped in a Morgan body.  Tom never thought Anna was a great beauty but here he was wrong.  She had the great beauty of being a noble creature who was allowed to be who she was, and show what was in her to give.  At Myopia, more than one person came up to me to tell me she was the most beautiful horse they had seen.  Beauty is as beauty does!    

A year or so ago, I was talking with Jodi Cutler who was one of the judges.  She does not remember my dressage, done at a road trot, where I circled the arena prior to entering and almost took out the judges stand.  I remember seeing Jodi and Sydney Smith of Great Britain, standing up and stepping back as I flew by.  A seven minute test done in half the time.  Not very admirable in dressage, but awesome in marathon and cones.  Anna drove in those phases like a cat and snaked her way through the seven hazards at my mental direction.  She was thrilling to say the least.

We finished the event successfully even though we were just out of the ribbons.  The vets found her in good condition. I really want to thank Tom Simmons for giving me the opportunity to experience Anna in Combined Driving and in my life with horses.  

Me driving Anna Beam at Southern Pines

Anna Beam has gone back to where ever she came from; but her memory, along with her sons and daughters still grace this earth.  

I salute you Anna ... you will live forever in my mind and heart.  A grand old mare!

an additional note:
Looking at her pedigree, I see that back in 1918 there WAS a Standardbred, Pluto Watts, in Anna's lineage. He was a decendant of Hambletonian who was a decendant of the Thoroughbred, Messenger. So you see...speed was in her blood. What a mare!

Anna's son LH Harlan County 5 yr. old gelding

Saturday, January 26, 2013

The Ten Habits of Highly Effective Dressage Riders

Last week I read a great blog post written by Nancy Kotting entitled The Ten Habits of Highly Effective Dressage Riders.  I requested and got her permission to reprint here on my blog so I could share with you her wise words that apply to anyone wanting to be really good with their horses in whatever discipline they seek to do well.  Thank you Ms. Kotting...  N. Rojo

Ms. Kotting writes:

Over the years working a never-ending multitude of horses, great Dressage riders develop habits, ways of achieving consistently high performance and excellence in the daily work. These are not training how-tos but rather personal habits adopted by riders to set themselves up for success every day. While there are endless training pearls-of-wisdom the Masters kindly pass on, it is inevitably up to the student, through endless hours of practice, to confirm the path to success. There is no sport, nor art form more difficult than what we attempt every day as practitioners of Classical Horsemanship. None. It is up to us to support one another in this endeavor, giving and sharing what works and what doesn’t.
Below is my list of ten habits of highly effective Dressage riders. It is my hope that you find them helpful in your daily practice.
Good Luck and ride well-
Nancy Kotting

The Ten Habits of Highly Effective Dressage Riders

1: An effective Dressage rider looks upon each failure as a ladder rung: step on it and lift yourself up.

Great riders know that failure is a constant on the road to success and they train themselves to use it in their favor. Failure provides us with critical information which we then use to improve our work. Embrace it. Welcome it. Study it and learn its lesson. Each time you fail, be thankful for the information, put it behind you, raise yourself up to the next ladder rung and try again. Failure is not the end, it is the beginning.

Photo: Nancy Kotting
Photo: Nancy Kotting

2: An effective Dressage rider leaves their personal issues on the ground, approaching each ride emotionally neutral.

What is energetically in us, goes into the horse. If you carry your emotional refuse into the ride, ie; bad day at work, family problems, etc., it will inevitably effect performance. Be very careful what you put in as horses are like computers, if you write bad code, you will have to rewrite it at some point. Learn to neutralize your emotions BEFORE you get on the horse. This will give both of you an opportunity to begin the ride clean.

3: Effective Dressage riders make themselves the calm baseline that their equine partner can rely upon at all times.

The psychology of the horse requires a partner willing to assume a leadership position.  This assumption of the leadership position by the rider in the partnership translates to the horse via the language of the body in all circumstances, all scenarios. A rider who remains mentally AND physically steady when the horse experiences confusion, fear and perhaps resulting chaos, will very quickly gain trust, confidence and devotion to the work from their equine partner. A skilled rider quickly proves his or her leadership ability to a new horse, who then, greatly relieved in such capable hands, will confidently trust his rider and attempt to work with and not against. Trust is earned not given; work to deserve it from the horse.

4: An effective Dressage rider owns their personal space both on and off the horse.

Closely related yet different from habit #3, maintaining ones space communicates leadership. A dominant stallion does not mosey into a herd head down, tail low, back soft.  Oh no, he is up on his toes, tail flagged, every muscle pumped full announcing his arrival…his presence is known. His body language virtually screams ‘follow me!’ This type of presence must also subtly be in a riders body language when working both on the horse and off. Our equine partners rely on us to lead them and we communicate our worthiness of this responsibility with our body language, with the feeling of resolve within our bodies. Effective riders maintain exemplary posture both on and off a horse, we carry ourselves, we own our space with a steely intention, communicating our empathetic power and ability to lead to those who rely on us: our equine partner.

5: An effective  Dressage rider has trained their ‘inner voice’ to be either positive or constructively negative, never defeating.

An effective Dressage rider approaches the ride with a sense of wonder: what will the ride bring? What is the legacy of yesterday’s work? Will it be fair to push the horse just a bit more today?  Problems, resistances that arise are addressed constructively, not reacted to emotionally. It is the supportive ‘inner voice’ of the rider that keeps the ride ‘on the rails’ and productive, ending always on a positive in preparation for continued success in the next ride. It is the burden of the rider to maintain an emotional ‘thru-line’ that directs the ride steadily toward completion.

6: An effective Dressage rider knows success happens one ride at a time, day in and day out, remaining consistent and realistic in their daily goals and expectations.

The work is a continuum, each ride building upon the last. There are no short cuts. You cannot buy it, you have to make it with consistent, correct work, realizing nobody can do it for you. The amount of success you have as a rider is directly related to the amount of effort you put into it. Rome was not built in a day and neither is a Grand Prix rider/trainer, nor a Grand Prix horse. Get up, dress up, show up and put in another day’s work. Then do it again, and again and…again.  The river of trying never stops flowing.

7: An effective Dressage rider has the courage to be creative in their problem solving, the courage to go beyond the text-book and think independently.

An effective Dressage rider innately understands that every horse is different. Every rider is different. Every moment is a new moment, a new opportunity to create quality.
                               The Training Scale

An effective Dressage rider has the courage to experiment and try something different in approaching the problem, all the while adhering to the core premise of the Training Scale, placing the mental and physical well-being of their equine partner first and foremost.

8: An effective Dressage rider knows they must be an athlete in their own right before they can expect their equine partner to be one.

The foundation of the Training Scale is the rider’s seat. Every rider strives to be in control and command of their physical being, able to independently apply the aids effectively in both calmness and chaos.  A Dressage rider uses every single muscle known to man, and then some!  It is imperative that we cross-train, building our own strength, endurance and dexterity away from the horse. Cross-training keeps the muscles ‘fresh’ ie; not locked into the sole muscle memory of the ride itself but rather neutral, able to break old ‘muscle memory’ response patterns easily if required. Poorly trained horses effect the muscle memory of the rider just as poor riding effects the muscle memory of the horse. Cross-training assists the rider in both developing athleticism and neutralizing undesirable muscle memory.

9: An effective Dressage rider knows there is only one direction to go: forward!

Horses are built to move, they are born to move and most love to move. Effective riders know how to use this base instinct in the horse as a key ingredient in the work each and every day, much like flour to a baker. As it is in life, so it is in Dressage: if all else fails, GO FORWARD! In this way, an effective rider creates a fresh moment, a fresh opportunity to try again toward understanding and success.

10: An effective Dressage rider works for their horse, not vice versa.

Great riders do what they do for the sake of the horse… and nothing else. ‘Dressage’ encompasses all that we do from the moment we rise in the morning and enter the stable aisle to the final night check at the end of the day. Highly effective riders know they must stay close to their horses each and every day in order to build the intimacy required for the Grand Prix. They know their partner’s moods, their idiosyncrasies, their likes and dislikes. The transition from the aisle to the school is best seamless: true partners from the stall to the aisle to the schooling arena to the show ring and home again.
Remember, Dressage is an art form in motion, therefore it only survives as such when practiced correctly on a daily basis by both Master and student, through the grace of correctly trained horses. Strive to develop good habits, for the sake of the sport, for the sake of the horse and for your own future as an accomplished rider.
Written with gratitude to ‘the trainer’s trainer’, Michael Poulin.

© 2013 Nancy Kotting   All Rights Reserved   Reproduction by Permission Only 

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

If the front door is closed, come through the back

We had a Tom Simmons horsemanship clinic at the ranch in June.  Being host caused me to miss most of the action.  I did get to see an excellent example of how horse training is "A thinking man's game".  Tom says that quote but it applies to anyone and every situation in life as well. A change in the horse's thinking has to be made and this is where thinking about how to go about it comes into play. 

A horse was brought to the clinic to get Tom's help changing the horse's mind about not wanting to go through water while being ridden.  This applies to driving as well as the concept is the same.  Yes, it is about establishing leadership and confidence in the horse's mind; but sometimes, you just need a horse trainer to get it done.

Previously, this horse had won many attempts to get it through the water to no avail.  The owner does trail riding primarily with this horse but also drives the horse as well.  Tom spent a short time in the round pen to gain the horse's respect as a leader, then took it out into the open arena on long lines to convince the horse to change it's opinion of going into water.

The water element in these photos is hard to see but it is 3 feet deep, 10 feet long and about 5 feet wide.  It is up against the granite wall but there is a 4 foot bank between the wall and the pool of water.  I'd like you to notice Tom's body language that shows how he allows the horse to make the decision to change himself with no forcing involved.  He guides direction with the long-lines and then allows the horse to make the decision.  It takes as long as the horse requires to give up previous resistance, affect a change of mind, and then comply with the request.  Tom persists and tries another tack to give the horse a new option by backing him into the water.  I'll let the photos and body language tell the story of giving up the resistance. 

asking to go right
keep it going forward

knocking on the front door

no answer

how about another option?

let's try going in the back door...

the battle is half won

well...what have you learned?

"ok...let me smell it"

here we go...

"ok...I can do this from now on"

Tom has to make haste or he'll go in the water too!

I recently came across the owner and asked how the horse was doing at crossing water after the clinic.  Great!  All it took was someone with a lot of experience reading how a horse thinks and having the judgement to present a situation in the right way to the horse to overcome a previous problem.

Sometimes you just need a great horse trainer...

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Be the Captain of your Ship

 There is an attitude that every horse owner should attain before walking to the barn to greet their horse for whatever is planned for the day.  Like clothing, this attitude is the uniform that the horse will see every time.  It is calm, quiet, slow moving, consistent for every contact with the horse whether it be feeding time, training, pleasure time or competition. 

Stack the cards in your favor, every single time, so you will succeed.  This may not be the most fun part of working with a horse, but it is the most important part to insure safety for all. It is necessary every single time so that the fun part will be there for you when you have built the confidence for yourself and the horse has the same confidence in you.  Whether it be for riding or driving, this holds true for all equines, minis, mules etc. 

Ask your trainer or mentor for a protocol for each and every drive you make.  Go through that exact same routine every time.  You will know what to do and so will your horse.  I would not ride or drive with others until you can keep to your protocol even in the presence of others.   Stick to organized activities and lessons for as long as it takes to gain the confidence and skill to know how to react, better yet, avoid situations that can put an abrupt end to the sport you are pursuing.  It is work, costs a bundle in lessons, equipment and commitment....but, it can pay off wonderfully in a lifetime of accomplishment and pleasure.

You must be the Captain of your Ship.

Protocol is a definite set of rules or actions that one performs to insure a safe ride or drive.  It is understood by you and the horse.  If one step is missed, you are courting disaster.  Think of it as a "pre-flight check list" that a pilot does each and every time they take the plane out to fly.  There is a definite protocol to be followed by the law and by common sense.  In driving, protocol is the routine....Routine.  I can't stress how important it is especially for a new driver or an inexperienced horse.

Sometimes people think I am distant and not too friendly in public.  What is really happening is I am focused and following my routine to make sure my horse and I will have a safe and successful drive.  I try to analyze and make decisions about everything right down to who I choose to drive my horse near if I am in a group.  There is a reason I do everything I do with a horse because not only is my life at stake...but my horse and the people and animals around me.  Driving is serious business and can be great fun, but it is serious business and one must treat it as such.

It is good to take lessons from trainers.  Learn what their protocol or routine is for every drive.  Then here comes the thinking part of it for have to think and assess if it is correct for your situation and act accordingly.  If you have questions, ask your trainer but try and think for yourself.  You can't lean on trainers for ever.  You must try and gain the ability to assess situations for yourself and make decisions that will be best for you.  You know yourself better than anyone and by doing what is best for you, you are taking responsibility for you and your horse and being the "Captain of your Ship".

Things to consider are:

  • How often do you drive your horse and what do you need to do to prepare him for work?  If he has been out to pasture all winter, bring him back to the barn for a few days to get into "work mode" and re-establish your routine.  Remember how it is going back to work after vacation? can take a little time to get back into the groove...aka:  routine.   Get your equipment out and ready to use (don't do like I sometimes do and remember my sunglasses after I am hooked).  Think ahead to avoid having to leave the horse unattended or at risk of moving before giving the "go ahead" command. 

  • Groom what is only necessary to insure no dirt under harness parts.  In other words, don't spend an hour aggravating a horse getting him spotless before you go out and get him dirty.  Do the bulk of your grooming after work.  His coat is warm and releases hair, dirt and sweat more readily after work.

Teach horse to stand while harnessing and hooking.
  • Harness efficiently and exactly in the same way every time.  Never hurry and expect the horse to stand and wait until you ask for movement.  You don't see the passengers telling the captain to hurry up and cast off.  It is the captain's decision...every time. 

  • Lead the horse to the vehicle in the same way every time.  I lead by the reins near the bit and make a big circle to the left and stop in front of the carriage.  If at home, hook him in the same place every time.

Take your time and your horse will expect to wait.

The captain directs the helper every step of the way.
  • Make your actions exactly the same each time...your horse has a computer for a brain and wants routine.  He wants to be assured of what is coming next.  It is a secure  feeling for him.  It is like having a job description where one knows what is expected.  

  •  When hooking, do it yourself and don't let people stampede you into doing things differently or their way  (unless you are working on what is correct with your trainer or mentor).  If you need help, direct the person to take your orders and stress the importance of doing things your way.

  • Be careful of having headers for your horse.  Some people can bring their nervous energy to you horse's head and make your horse nervous.  They grab and hang on when they shouldn't, or do nothing when they should.  Just be careful and explicit in your directions if you have help.  Stress calm and quiet.

First time hooking keeping it short and simple.
  • Keep your initial drives short, purposeful and direct your horse every step of the way.  Don't "showboat" like the captain of the Costa Concordia or deviate from your plans. 

  • Keep working with a trainer or mentor and employ your own brain in the decision making process.  Just don't take orders.  Start taking command and know why you are doing what you are doing.  

  • Training (every time one touches a horse, they are training or UN-training) is a serious business.  I continue to learn from the best.  What is taught is so simple, yet so hard to achieve.  Simplicity is the challenge. 

I am still on my learning journey.  All I can do is give you something to think about.  It is your journey and your responsibility...wear it confidently like a uniform.

             Assume command of your ship! 

Driving my favorite ship "Lance"   photo by  grandson  Caleb Ott

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Great American Horseman...Tom Bass ... part two

If you missed part one of Whisper on the Wind you can read it  Here

CuChullaine O'Reilly FRGS

Before Jackie Robinson ever donned a Dodger uniform
- there was Tom Bass.
Before Rosa Parks ever demanded a seat in the front of the bus
- there was Tom Bass.
Before Martin Luther King ever had a dream
- there was Tom Bass.
Before Barack Obama ever ran for President
- there was the legend of Tom Bass – the black horse whisperer.
Born a slave, the friend of Presidents, the most famous Black American horseman this country has ever known, today his story is consigned to oblivion. Yet, once his name was a household word synonymous with equestrian feats of unparalleled beauty
and achievement.
But he didn’t start out famous. He started out in chains.


Tom Bass was too stunned to answer at first. He had discovered Columbus when he was just a colt, frolicking in a field full of cows. He had paid $100 for the gangly young gray. And now here was the famous Buffalo Bill Cody standing in his parlor asking to buy him.
He stood there mute.
“Money’s not an issue,” Cody said.
Tom Bass hesitated, remembering how he and Columbus had brought down the house when they cantered backwards at the famous St. Louis horse show. He, the first black American to ever ride there had won on this gray dream of a horse.
“He’ll get the best of care,” Cody said.
Columbus was more like a son to him and Angie than a horse Tom thought.
“Well Mr. Bass,” Cody asked.
Tom Bass drew a deep breath.
“Lets step outside Colonel Cody,” was all he said.


If there was one thing Tom Bass knew well it was how to play horse-tradin poker. He had learned at the hands of old Joe Potts, his white mentor and the most influential horse trader in Missouri. Tom had seen plenty of men go all shaky at the sight of a beautiful horse, reach for their wallets and to hell with the cost. Tom wasn’t one of them. He kept his secrets well.
As they walked to the barn trading small talk Tom recalled what he knew about Colonel Buffalo Bill Cody. Why the man was a genuine American hero, rode for the Pony Express, fought in the Civil War for the Union in the 7th Kansas Cavalry, later awarded the Medal of Honor by Congress for fighting Indians and now he was traveling around Europe showing kings and queens and commoners the sights and sounds of the legendary American West.
But what settled it for Tom was Cody’s seldom known role as a friend of horses. The Colonel had quietly brought Clydesdale, Percheron and Cleveland Bay stallions out west to his ranch in an effort to help breed up the horses of the western range. He had a reputation as an expert rider, derived from his years as a stagecoach driver, scout and outdoorsman. He was above all a Horseman.
Tom had Columbus brought out. He put him through his paces, while an astonished Buffalo Bill stood at the side of the ring shaking his head in amazement. Columbus did the Spanish Trot, changing his leads on every other step. The magnificent gray leaped and landed like a tiny ballerina. When Tom cantered Columbus backwards around the training ring Colonel Cody clapped wildly.
None of that mattered. Tom had already decided Columbus should go to the Colonel. His cherished equine friend had a bigger part to play now. As always, Tom put the welfare of his horses before his own financial gain. Money was exchanged. It didn’t matter. A friendship was begun. A trust passed on. Columbus left with the setting sun.


Tom Bass had reached heights of fame as a horse trainer and show ring rider that he could never have imagined as a barefoot slave child. His reputation for fair dealing and phenomenal results brought rich and famous men from all over America to his training stable in Mexico, Missouri.
Theodore Roosevelt journeyed to the small Missouri town to ask Tom to provide him a well-trained mount for the New York saddle paths. Every Missouri governor was now a friend of Tom Bass, and quite often seen riding a Tom Bass horse.
Being black in the lily-white world of the show ring had taught Tom early that the one thing all horsemen understood and respected was results. In an era riddled with open bigotry, his training stable was free of racial antagonism. He employed both whites and blacks with the understanding that they were all horsemen first and Black or White second.
His brother-in-law recalled years later that Tom Bass never considered a man’s color, just how the fellow treated Tom’s horses.
“His theory was that one should be efficient and forget about race. He worked both white and black men. It made no difference. The main thing he was interested in was results. He became so absorbed in the art of training he forgot all about a man’s race,” Joe Harris said.
The Tom Bass stables were conducted along the lines of a New York finishing school for girls. While Tom still trained equine outlaws, as boarders he only accepted the best aristocratic and pureblooded horses. The fees were a steep $30 a month and the horse was required to stay a minimum of ten months.


Tom Bass however could not hide at home. As his records mounted in the show ring he was forced to confront the ugly racial bigotry he had been quietly fighting since his illegitimate birth forty years before in a Missouri slave cabin.
Through it all he retained a sterling reputation as a gentleman both in and out of the show ring.
He won the Chicago Columbian Exposition in 1893.
After a winning round in the show ring, a white antagonist asked him if the famous Tom Bass bit, which he had invented, was named after his former master.
He rode the famous mare Miss Rex to the championship at the St. Louis Fair Championship Stake.
A list was circulated among Missouri show horse riders, urging them to petition that Tom be barred from the ring because he was black. Several white friends crushed the idea.
He was the first black American to ever ride in Madison Square Garden, the guest of the Vanderbilt family.
When he went to Los Angeles to compete and win at the annual Pacific National Show, he traveled in a private railroad car provided by the train company’s owner, in order to circumvent the Jim Crow laws that would normally have forced him to ride in a second-
class compartment.
Most difficult to deal with was the fact that many of the same men who competed against him in the show ring expected him to present himself at their back door when he came to discuss training their horses.
The cruelest blow came when he showed up to compete at the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines. He was told all blacks were barred from competing. An unknown white contestant had complained to the Fair board that he felt uncomfortable competing in the show ring against a black man. Tom quietly loaded his horses back on the train and went home.
Meanwhile outrage grew across America at the injustice inflicted on the man the Canadian horse world called “the greatest living competitor alive.”
The Fair rescinded its ignorant decision and the next year Tom Bass came back leading a string of quality show horses. The Tom Bass onslaught at that year’s Fair is still remembered. He went on to win more ribbons and break more records than any other competitor in history. His overall record for winning still stands.


Despite the prejudice he encountered Tom Bass achieved a degree of racial immunity largely unheard of in his day. President William McKinley came to his home, as did the famous statesman William Jennings Bryan. On one of his visits to the Bass home, Buffalo Bill Cody brought along a young Oklahoma cowboy named Will Rogers, who earned his supper by doing rope tricks.
As the new century began Colonel Cody briefly returned Columbus to Mexico, Missouri so that Tom could show the gray gelding in the 1902 Mexico Horse Show. By this time Columbus had toured Europe and most of America. School age children in dozens of countries had seen the wonderful horse canter backwards with the equally legendary Buffalo Bill Cody on his back. The little gray colt Tom Bass had brought home as his first brag horse, was now the world’s most preeminent equestrian star.
There in the Mexico show ring, with an expectant crowd holding their breath, Tom asked Columbus to rear up and stretch into a perpendicular stand. For some unknown reason the mighty gray toppled backwards, crashing down and crushing Tom Bass beneath him.
Before the horrified audience Columbus scrambled to his feet. Seeing Tom on the ground unable to rise, Columbus tried to render assistance. He pawed at the ground, and then tried to lift Tom with his teeth. It was no good. Tom Bass, America’s foremost equestrian rider was rushed to the hospital in critical condition.


Tom Bass was told he would never ride again. His pelvis was crushed and he was lucky to even be alive. The news had traveled around the world. Even the London Times wired the Mexico, Missouri newspaper inquiring about Tom’s health.
For twelve pain-filled months Tom was house bound as he slowly healed. He told his wife Angie he could recall how Columbus had looked down at him with bitter regret after the accident.
“I’ll never forget that look. He looked at me with as much concern as any person would have,” he told her.
The next year word came to Tom regarding Columbus.
The Buffalo Bill Cody Wild West Show had come to Columbus, Missouri for a two-day show. As usual an equestrian parade through the town’s main street preceded the opening of the show. A vanguard of cowboys led a contingent of mounted Indians, Cossacks and Arabs. Connestoga wagons and the Deadwood stage rumbled along behind.
Coming down Broadway at the head of the Conestoga was Columbus. He was mounted on a large flat wagon drawn by three teams of horses. He stood on the wagon with his hind feet on the floor and one fore foot perched on a two-foot pedestal. The other forefoot was on an even higher pedestal, giving the gray horse a classic circus pose. Mounted on his back sidesaddle was a beautiful young girl who was waving at the crowd. Despite the jerky action of the teams and the cobble-stoned road Columbus stood like a statue.
Then something spooked the teams. The wagon starting careening downhill, the driver unable to hold back the six rushing horses. Cowboys and Indians charged in pursuit, ran alongside the runaways and finally managed to drag them to a halt.
When the wagon was stopped the town’s eyes all turned to Columbus. The fantastic gray had not budged. The girl was scared but unharmed. Columbus had saved her life as well as his own by not moving an inch during the emergency.
Later Buffalo Bill sent Tom a special letter expressing his pride and thanks for allowing him to own such a remarkable and courageous horse.
When Tom heard the news, he told Angie, “I’m getting up.” Still racked with pain, he walked slowly to barn and mounted a horse. Tom Bass would not quit.


At the tender age of nine Tom Bass had taught the family mule to canter backwards. During the course of his lifetime he owned, trained or rode many of America’s premier horses. Today names like Michael Jordan, Babe Ruth and Mario Andretti are recognized in any American household. In Tom Bass’ day the horse was the hero and any small child would have recognized the names of Rex McDonald, Lou Chief or the Hambletonian Stud.
However next to Columbus, Tom Bass is most closely associated with one of the most famous show mares ever known in America, the legendary Belle Beach.
It had been two pain-filled years since his accident on Columbus, when word reached Tom that the famous show mare Belle Morris had foaled a black filly with a white star on her forehead. Tom hurried to the barn of his old employer, the shrewd horse trader Cyrus Clark. Twenty years before Clark had been opposed to letting Tom work in his Mexico Horse Sales Company because of his race. Clark’s partner and Tom’s friend, Joe Potts, had overruled Clark arguing that Tom Bass was the finest judge of horses he had ever known.
Now Potts was dead and here was Bass anxious to buy Clark’s newborn mare.
The haggling went on for days, with the price always creeping up, not down.
It didn’t matter to Tom.
He knew his bloodlines. This little mare was born to be special. Her daddy was Forest King. She was running almost purebred Denmark blood. Tom Bass knew that this tiny mare was the culmination of decades of careful breeding.
But Clark finally priced her so high Tom had to reluctantly withdraw. At three years of age Belle was sold for an astronomical price to an Army captain who wanted a buggy mare for his wife. A few months later, after having tossed said wife through a plate glass window, the captain sold the high-strung Belle Beach to the patient Tom Bass.


Belle was named after a famous debutante society girl of the Gay 1890’s. She was one of the fastest gaited mares anyone had ever seen in Missouri. Word began to spread that this one was different. This one was special.
Tom Bass prided himself on his humane training methods. He spurned the whip, the spur, the club, and even a harsh word. Instead he brought Belle along gently, coaxing, giving her enough to hold her interest, and then quitting. He never tired her, treating her instead like a puppy, to be loved and handled with the gentlest of care.
She took to basic training like a lady.
Tom decided that she was not going to be just another winner. She was destined to be the best.
While not keeping her a total secret, Tom kept Belle’s training closely guarded.
When the time for her debut arrived the horse world was impatiently waiting to see what Tom Bass was hiding.
“Tom Bass on Belle Beach,” called out the announcer. The show ring went quiet as the beautiful black mare cantered gracefully into the ring. When Tom brought her to an abrupt halt, the band started playing softly. Belle reached for the sky, rose up on her hind legs and stretched to her full height. With her forelegs high above her head, she made a dainty full circle. It was the task Columbus had attempted before falling back on Tom.
She came gracefully to the ground and began a collected Spanish Trot that was perfect. Then she trotted backwards around the ring. The crowd went wild.
Bringing her to a halt in the middle of the ring, Tom slid out of the saddle and faced Belle. The band started playing the waltz, “After the Ball was Over.” To the crowds amazement Belle started waltzing to the music, dancing and gliding in time with her master. Then the band struck up “Turkey in the Straw,” and Belle gave an equine hoedown. As the music concluded, Belle kneeled to the crowd.
No one had ever seen or heard of such feats from a horse.
Tom Bass had trained many a horse. Years earlier a British colonel had appeared at the conclusion of one of his spectacular wins and personally invited Tom and his horses to sail to England, where he would be the honored guest of Queen Victoria at her Diamond Jubilee in London.
Tom gracefully declined the honor, telling the colonel, “I’m sorry sir. My horses and I are poor sailors.”
Now many years later, after Belle Beach’s initial remarkable debut, a special delegation from France had arrived to inspect the talented mare and see if she was, as the Americans claimed, “the greatest high school horse in the world.”
At the conclusion of her performance the Frenchmen told Tom, “Messier Bass, we have not watched a horse perform. We have seen instead a wave of water.”


Tom Bass had reached the pinnacle of his career. Queen Marie of Rumania made a special point of visiting St. Louis in order to see him ride Belle Beach in the program. President Calvin Coolidge invited Tom to ride in his inauguration parade. The bare-foot slave child had reached the top of his profession.
Earlier in his career a devastating barn fire had ripped through one of the largest show barns in his hometown of Mexico, Missouri. Tom and dozens of others hurried to form a bucket brigade. It was too late. The flames gutted nearly a block of downtown Mexico. But even worse was the sickening screams of the 30 horses trapped inside the inferno.
Tom never forgot the sound of those horses in agony.
From that point on, he saw that all of his horses were bedded down on special black earth he had brought in by wagon to his barns.
In the summer of 1910 Tom’s worst fear struck home.
His beloved Columbus burned to death in a barn fire in Augusta, Georgia.
To make matters worse Tom discovered Buffalo Bill Cody had sold the famous horse to the 101 Wild West Show, who had in turn leased him to “carnival people.”
The practice of leasing or lending out an act or an animal was a common practice in those days. It was a method of recouping some of the operating expense during the off-season.
It made no difference to Tom Bass. Columbus had become a living legend throughout America. His picture had graced countless circus posters and dime store novels, showing him and Buffalo Bill Cody racing after buffalo, saving helpless damsels from ferocious Indians or leading the Wild West show. He was America’s first equine legend and now he was dead due to negligence.
Shortly afterwards the Miller brothers, millionaire owners of the 101 Wild West Show, came to Mexico to try and buy another Tom Bass horse to replace Columbus. They expressed interest in Tom’s newest marvel, a legendary gelding named Louis A. who was winning blue ribbons in every category. He was similar in size and color to Columbus, another reason the Miller Brothers wanted him.
The conversation between Tom Bass, a man reputed to have never lost his temper and the Miller Brothers was not recorded. What is known is that they were astonished when he turned down any offer they made on Louis A.
None of his horses were for sale to the 101 Wild West Show he told them. In fact Louis A. was being sold to a young doctor for thousands less than what they were offering. The good treatment of his horses meant more to Tom Bass than money.


Tom ended the show season early that year. The doctors discovered he had lost most of the grip in one hand due to the accident with Columbus. He took it in stride. Every year he promised Angie it would be his last in the show ring. He and Belle Beach rode together until 1928, amazing crowds right until the end. She was known as the Dowager Queen and was still going strong at age 24 when she retired. That was the year the New York newspapers declared Tom Bass, “An American Phenomenon” and “American Horseman Emeritus.”
In 1931, at the age of 72 Tom Bass entered the show ring for the last time.
He suffered a heart attack while competing in the show ring. Friends who rushed to his side had to pry the old man from the saddle. They gave him a little whiskey, then hurried him home. He never fully recovered and never rode again. Belle Beach died in his barn the next year. Tom Bass followed his beloved mare less than a year later.
The country mourned the passing of its greatest horseman.
Tom Bass, the child born in slavery, the man who was told he couldn’t ride because he was black, the man who spoke to horses and always put their welfare before his own, that man was mourned by white and black Americans alike. He had been friends with five presidents and ridden in three presidential inaugurations.
Will Rogers wrote his eulogy.
“Tom if old Saint Peter is as wise as we give him credit for being, he’ll let you ride in on horseback and give those folks up there a great show.”
Soon after his death well-wishers came to the Bass home to check in on Angie Bass. Over the decades Tom Bass had given away hundreds of his blue ribbons as souvenirs to friends. Nevertheless the visitors started counting Tom’s pile of blue ribbons heaped in the bottom of Angie’s china cabinet.
With hundreds more to go, they stopped counting at 2,000. 

Once again, my thanks goes to Basha O'Reilly for allowing me to reprint this article...Here is to all the great horsemen and women, whatever their color, who make the horse's life better in this world....Nancy Rojo

To coincide with the publication of this article, The Long Riders' Guild Press is proud to announce the release of the inspiring biography, Whisper on the Wind - the story of Tom Bass, celebrated Black Horseman. This ground-breaking work was created by the noted African-American journalist turned author, William Downey. A portion of the royalties will be used by the Audrain County Historical Society so as to preserve the historic Tom Bass collection of artifacts, as well as to promote the astonishing legacy of this mounted forefather of equality. For more information about this forthcoming
title please visit And for more information on Tom Bass visit