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Alice Higgins
December 15, 1958
His athletic credo of thought before action has made Billy Steinkraus one of the world's great horsemen
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December 15, 1958

Thinker On Horseback

His athletic credo of thought before action has made Billy Steinkraus one of the world's great horsemen

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On a tense Saturday night in Toronto, Canada last month, 13 competitors from five nations awaited the final class of the last of the international competitions at the Royal Winter Fair. At stake was the individual riding championship; among the contenders was 33-year-old William Clark Steinkraus, captain of the U.S. Equestrian Team. Wearing an expression somewhere between solemnity and downright dejection, he entered the ring on Ksar d'Esprit and with the utmost deliberation made his salute. Then, coolly and carefully—with any feeling of drama, any hint of difficulty meticulously disguised—he started the big gray on its round. For most of the paying audience his style, unflamboyant, calculated, based, like that of classical painting, on a unity achieved by the harmony of individual parts, represented new depths in drab perfection. For many of the horsemen watching, however, it reached new heights in elegant mastery. Furthermore, it got results: Billy Steinkraus won the individual championship.

In doing so, Steinkraus defeated another leading proponent of the school of colorless brilliance: Germany's Hans Günther Winkler, whose outstanding team of riders only a week before had expressed their admiration of Billy's skill by presenting him with a special trophy they brought over with them. Like Winkler, Steinkraus eschews color in favor of control as the surest means of gaining the ultimate victory. Applause offers him no nourishment; he is sustained by his own sure knowledge of the course, which he carefully measures out beforehand in even strides. Thus, even when he wins, a certain theatrical edge seems lacking in the triumph. But whatever the impression, and Steinkraus professes not to care, it is a resounding triumph of reason over emotion and of one part of Billy Steinkraus over another.

This Steinkraus dichotomy has, naturally enough, its exterior reflections. As a rider he draws high praise from fellow horsemen, but within that same circle he is also a figure of fierce controversy—and sometimes, of course, the target of jealous attack. Yet he is not a man who actively makes enemies. He feels rather that it is just not important to make explanations—or friends.

At times Steinkraus can be as touchy as Greta Garbo about his privacy; at others, in a burst of sociability, he will talk with clinical logic and at great length on his pet subjects (horses and music), leaving his listener, according to his own interests, reeling with admiration or glazed with boredom. As a result Billy's nicknames are almost as numerous as his triumphs. He is variously referred to as The Brain, The Riding IBM Machine, The Pure-thought Rider or The Equestrian Egghead.

"Billy," said an old acquaintance not long ago, "is said to be the world's most articulate athlete. Well, he was trying to explain the various mathematical solutions of a certain Prize of Nations course to me the other day, and all I can say is, when he disappears into that mental forest of his, he's harder to track than the Abominable Snowman." Says another: "Billy is a genius like Edison or Bell. And you know all those geniuses are sort of screwballs."

A lifelong acquaintance believes, however, that Billy is at heart a social worker, albeit an equestrian one: "Billy thinks every horse can be turned into a 'useful citizen' no matter how spoiled. I guess that's true if anyone wants to work with a horse as long and hard as Billy will—but most don't have Billy's talents or beliefs."

In another age, an age where both the hero and the scholar were ideals, Steinkraus would have caused no comment, but today the fusion of intellectual and athlete has become more rare. Billy, aware of the puzzle he poses, recently spoke for himself.

"This nerveless legend that has grown up about me is false," he said. "I'm basically a very high-strung person, and I've had to learn a lot of control to avoid communicating my anxieties to the horse. I don't believe in communicating any kind of emotion to a horse. There is an old saying," he continued, "about throwing your heart over the fence and the horse will follow...and a lot of people believe it and even get occasional results. Well, I'm not a heart-over-the-fence man. I think you should know the capabilities of your horse and yourself, then you can often expect to get what you ask. However, I have immunized myself to disappointment, so I never expect complete success." He ran his hand nervously through his hair. "Often, before I go into the ring, well-wishers say, 'Go in there and win, Billy!' thinking somehow that if one wants to win badly enough the rider can will the horse to do more than he is capable of. But with all the will in the world it cannot be done.

"Even though the 'feelers'—the heart-over-the-fence riders—get results, there is another side to that too. For example, an intellectual concert violinist can play music he really thinks is trash with brilliance and conviction; and I can ride a horse I hate and that won't show either."

What decided Billy on his course, why he divided the world into those whose accomplishments are directed either by their hearts or their heads, "thinkers or feelers," is still a subject of speculation among his friends, because as a youngster he was, without giving it a thought, a "feeler."

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