As a child in Westport, Conn., where his father Herman had moved the family from Cleveland after becoming president of Bridgeport Brass Co., Inc., Billy, the youngest offspring and only son, felt, as so many children do, a wild love for horses. Even though he was encouraged by no more than an occasional pony ride at the local track, Billy had all the winners of the major races in England and America memorized and had read every book on riding that he could find. Then, when he was 9 years old, his dreams came true: he was sent to a summer camp in Canada where he rode a horse for the first time.
"I started taking riding lessons and violin lessons more or less simultaneously," Billy recalls, "and one of the many things I learned from playing the violin that I also apply to riding is: Practice the things that are hard for you. Analyze why something is difficult, then work until it is not."
For Billy, the combination of natural ability developed by hard work paid rich and rapid dividends. He won a blue in a beginners' class at his first horse show in 1935, and in six years reached the apex in horseman-ship by winning both the Good Hands and the Maclay classes at Madison Square Garden. In fact, it was the fitting climax of a great year for Billy; in 1940 he had won some 5 championships and was undefeated in bareback competition. Newspapers called him the "boy wonder."
Billy was very good," recalls one of his instructors. "Only one kid in a hundred could have ridden some of the horses he did. But he got a lot of those first places because he was such a happy-go-lucky kid with a big smile on his face. The women judges couldn't resist him."
This was the last year, however, that the horse show world saw Billy Steinkraus as a happy-go-lucky kid. At 16, when he entered Yale, he was already adopting the character of serious reserve which dominates him today. The U.S. was in World War II and, when he reached his 18th birthday, Steinkraus volunteered for the cavalry. He was barely in time. The mounted troops were abolished shortly after Billy's class graduated, but even so he was shipped to India, complete with boots, spurs, saddle and violin, to await horses that never came. His regiment was converted into infantry, so with his fiddle strapped on his pack Billy started marching, into Burma and behind the Japanese lines. When the regiment emerged at Kunming, China, it had four battle stars, and Sergeant Steinkraus had nothing to do.
Fearful of being assigned to a pre-Burma officer whom he detested, Billy looked around Kunming for a way to make himself indispensable. He found it. "In eight days' time," he remembers happily, "I made myself the world's leading expert on lend-lease to China and was assigned to supply headquarters."
The war ended, for Billy, in a time of comparative ease. He was playing Bach's Double Violin Concerto in Kunming with a friend when the Japanese surrender was announced. Shortly after, he was transferred to Shanghai, where he galloped Mongolian ponies at the race track and worked out a mathematical table of expenses for his officers to present to some visiting Pentagon brass. When he was awarded the Bronze Star for services above and beyond the call of duty, he had enough points for a discharge.
Billy went back to Yale as an English major, back to showing horses and, as a sideline, played the viola with the Connecticut Symphony Orchestra. While still a student he spent the summer of 1948 in Europe and came home with two new projects: an embryo collection of antiquarian music (which led him in turn to take up bookbinding) and, as a result of seeing the equestrian Olympics, some new thoughts on riding.
"I started thinking about teaching methods and learning," he said. "Most people are inclined to accept anything that is. In fact, this is the greatest age of unquestioning acceptance since the Middle Ages. If a certain method of teaching has got results it is used indiscriminately on everyone without analyzing if it fits the needs of that particular individual. I remember when I started playing the violin—I thought I sounded awful. Well, I was right. I was awful. Later I understood why. My fiddle kept sliding around my chin so I kept hitting wrong notes. What I needed was a shoulder rest. But my teacher, who was built differently, did not, so he thought they were useless. The horse world, too, is full of such misconceptions and truisms. People generally accept them without question.
"Actually," Billy went on, his thoughts reverting to riding, "the theory of riding a horse is a lot like pitching ball. A natural athlete like, say, Dizzy Dean, can rely on power, strength and instinct. But take a pitcher like Sal Maglie—he was great because he could change his pace, had enormous control and was able to analyze the batter, to think. Well, riding is like that. If you don't have one of those rare horses that can jump almost anything from almost any position, you then have to analyze the horse's strong and weak points and learn how to make the most of them. It's like working with people: if you want to exploit a person's talents you don't do it by using his weak points."