At the National Horse Show in Madison Square Garden last week a woman from the East was heard to say that she had come on Saturday to see the Good Hands saddle-horse championship because that was the one with "all the beautiful blondes on the beautiful horses that always do so beautifully!" Although the woman is probably regarded around home as a heretic for this fondness for the saddle-horse event, she was correct in her assessment of the Good Hands—except that this year the winner turned out to be not a blonde, but an 18-year-old brunette freshman at SMU, Dana Lyon of Houston.
Differences in speech, geography and outlook do to some extent separate the saddle-seat sets of the South and Middle West from the hunt-seat strongholds in the East and California, but last Saturday a number of the hunting types (the self-styled mink-and-manure crowd) hung around the Garden to watch the Good Hands, limited to youngsters 18 and under. Even so, P.A. announcer Victor Hugo-Vidal, whose resonant utterances are stirring indeed ("And nooowwww, for the interloooood, the Meyer Davis Orchestrah"), said, "A lot of people in this area wouldn't know a saddle horse from a string bean."
In a way it is odd that saddle seat is not more popular in the East. Certainly it used to be. Twenty or 30 years ago even boys from New England prep schools took part. In 1940 James A. Thomas Jr., who came in Saturday from Locust Valley, Long Island, to watch his daughter present the winning trophy to Dana Lyon, won both the Good Hands and the Maclay championship for hunters and jumpers, the traditional Eastern favorite. Retired U.S. Equestrian Team Captain Billy Steinkraus accomplished the same feat in 1941, and as recently as 1965 Edward Lumia of Croton-on-Hudson, N.Y. won the Good Hands. Since then, interest in this more precise riding style has been on the decline in the East. Thomas, a lawyer who served as president of the National Horse Show in 1962-63, speculates that with the accelerating buildup in an already crowded part of the country, Easterners have come to feel that "there is a certain artificiality to saddle seat these days. The horses are used only in show competition, while the hunt-seat people are out in the woods and fields. This whole ecology thing affects the kids."
Saddle seat does thrive elsewhere, particularly in Kentucky, where the American saddle horse evolved more than 150 years ago. The state also has the best trainers and teachers, such as Jim B. Robinson of Lexington and Mrs. Helen Crabtree of Simpsonville who, with her husband Charles and son Redd, runs the most successful stable of its kind. In that part of the country many people still hanker after the more gracious life, and saddle seat is certainly the epitome of elegance. The hunt-seat boy or girl would think nothing of grooming a horse or mucking out a stall, things a saddle-seat rider would never deign to do—a point emphasized by Mrs. Crabtree. Her bracelet of medals from victorious pupils jangling on her wrist, Mrs. Crabtree tripped back and forth last week from the Garden to the Statler Hilton Hotel to look after the seven girls she had riding in this year's Good Hands (they included Dana Lyon, Frankie Bird and Kristy Grueneberg, three of the top four finishers).
"You'll see a girl who can't comb her hair right turn into a poised, accomplished young lady," Mrs. Crabtree says. "Saddle seat is a very rewarding experience. It gives girls confidence they couldn't get otherwise, and if they need humbling, a horse can do the humbling. You can't have a temper fit on a horse and profit by it.
"Boys are in a terrible minority. Girls are predominant. From time immemorial girls have gone through a horsey stage. Young girls collect statues of horses, and those who persist and have the opportunity go into competition. Saddle seat is an exacting form of riding because success is determined by judges. A fence is a fact, but the quality of performance is a judgment." Mrs. Crabtree feels that the riding style is especially suited to girls because "saddle seat leaves no margin for being sloppy, and girls from eight to 17 are more meticulous than boys. They will persist through the very tiny little things that make for perfection, while boys find it nit-picky and would rather go play football. The natural tendency of the female is to be more precise. Plus the fact," she added, "that girls are more physically attractive at this age than boys, who are all hands, feet and Adam's apple."
Girls come from all over the country to train in Simpsonville with Mrs. Crabtree during school vacations. They are not charged for lessons, but they do pay for room and board in an apartment house built for them on the farm. They also pay $10 a day to leave their horses there for year-round training. But Mrs. Crabtree does not like the word cost.
"You're investing in a young person," she says of the expenses of saddle-seat riding. "The big thrill is to see young kids develop in this sport," though "it does take money," she admits. "If people have money, they can pay a fabulous price for a horse—it can go from $5,000 to $30,000. This is not a dead expense but an investment, because a good horse has tremendous resale value.
"There is a great art to matching horse and rider. You can't put a tap dancer together with a waltzer. Dana Lyon's horse is very impressive, graceful and elegant, to match her, the queenly sort of girl. Kristy Grueneberg is petite and vivacious, and so is her horse."
Kristy's father, Willard Grueneberg, president of an aluminum foundry in Cincinnati ("missile parts and precision castings"), took rather a different view of the investment question. As his wife and daughter winced, Grueneberg announced, "Do I have a horse for sale? They're all for sale!" But it turned out that like many another parent he was delighted that his daughter was keen on horses. "It's not cheap," he said, "but it's good for the person."
Kristy herself said that she and Frankie Bird, who was rooming with her at the hotel, were so involved in riding that they had passed up their freshman year in college to compete at the American Royal in Kansas City and the Good Hands in the Garden. Typically, she had loved horses since she had been a toddler. One morning when Kristy was eight her Welsh pony slipped on ice and she broke her arm. This upset her greatly—because she was afraid her father would make her stop riding. She hid out with her broken arm until evening. When she was 11 her mother began driving her to Mrs. Crab-tree's for lessons every Saturday, rain or shine, a round trip of 240 miles from Cincinnati.
As for winner Dana Lyon, she also has been riding from the time she could walk. "She'd go to an amusement park and ride the pony, 11 tickets for $1," her mother recalls. "She started lessons when she was three. I decided that if she was going to ride, she should have instructions, and the saddle seat is the basis of all riding. Once a child learns that, she can ride anything she wants."
Dana and her mother did not fly to New York until Friday evening because of Dana's classes at SMU. Her father James (whom she describes as "mostly a banker") stayed at home to watch her sister play field hockey. Besides, Mrs. Crabtree explained, "He's terribly allergic to horses. Poor thing, he came to Kansas City to see Dana ride and he had an attack."
Ordinarily Dana would have spent the first evening at the National with Kristy and Frankie and the rest of the girls, but the airline had lost her luggage. By the time she got to her room she was so on edge that she stayed up to soothe her nerves with an old Elvis Presley movie.
The elimination for the Good Hands started at 11 the next morning. Since there were 35 entries (three of them boys), the riders were split into two divisions, call-backs to appear in the afternoon for the final. The riders paraded around the ring as an assistant announcer intoned at intervals, "Canter, please, canter" and then "Walk, please, walk." The judge, Chat Nichols of St. Charles, Ill., wearing a business suit, watched from mid-ring. He marked the riders for their hands, seat and control while Coaches Robinson and Crabtree were down on the rail clutching the chicken wire, peering through and offering guidance to one or another of their passing girls. "Watch yoh feet, honey," Jim B. would call out, turning to explain, "Jus' givin' 'em a little help."
When the call-backs were announced, 13 in all, none of the boys had made it and Jim B. had been wiped out, but Helen Crabtree had four, including Dana, Kristy and Frankie.
Saturday afternoon, shortly after the Meyer Davis Orchestra finished playing Bulldog, Bulldog, Bow Wow Wow and Toot, Toot, Tootsie, Goodby and other selections apparently deemed appropriate for the Fine Harness Horse class, the saddle-seat girls came back into the ring. They trotted, walked and cantered and then Mr. Nichols, resplendent now in top hat and tails, had each of them perform the same intricate exercise: a serpentine at a canter, returning at a trot, without stirrups, demonstrating diagonal changes. Down by the rail Mrs. Crabtree watched through the chicken wire. Frankie Bird, her first girl, came by. "Good! Good! Beautiful!" she said. "The first one who's done it right." Kristy passed, and Mrs. Crabtree told her, "Do four." Then to Dana, "Dana, for God's sake, be careful."
The girls lined up in center ring while Nichols marked his card. "They all did beautifully," said Mrs. Crabtree, "and Dana made an exceptional ride. They all changed diagonals on every fourth stride, and if any one of my girls wins, that's one of the reasons why. Other kids did three or five, but when they say four, they mean four."
The numbers of the placements were announced: Dana first, Frankie third, Kristy fourth. Dana, Mrs. Crabtree pointed out, had now swept the Big Four this year: Lexington, the Kentucky State Fair at Louisville, the Medal Finals at the American Royal and finally the Good Hands.
Back in the stalls a misty-eyed Dana posed with her chestnut gelding, Last Revenge. Kristy sat off to the side, teary. "They're all crying because it's their last ride," Mrs. Crabtree said. Mrs. Crabtree herself was smiling. "Three out of the first four. And the horse that was second I just bought."
BEST SEAT in the Good Hands was Dana's, on Last Revenge. Kristy Grueneberg, here having her ponytail plaited by Coach Crabtree, managed a fourth.