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."