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In the rarefied air of horse show circles, where the occupants of the boxes are as carefully groomed as those in the stalls, the undisputed queen for three-score years has been Loula Long Combs, the fashionably dressed and serenely confident woman of 75 shown on the opposite page sitting in a hackney. The Combs name first appeared as a winner in the American Horse Show blue book in 1902, but that was in the saddle horse class. For the last two decades Loula Combs has concentrated on hackneys and Hackney ponies. She now owns imposing numbers of both. She owns an imposing number of championships too. She took her first National blue ribbon back in 1913 and won at least one through 1952. Two weeks ago a serious illness kept her out of the American Royal Horse Show for the second time in 62 years, but even so her Hackney horses and ponies won four blue ribbons and a passel of seconds, thirds and fourths.
Health or no, Mrs. Combs is determined to be back in the ring at the Chicago International this month, the last big show of the season. There, the woman who has become a living legend in the horse show world will drive smartly around the ring in her impeccable red-wheeled phaeton, her superb horses stepping in perfect rhythm, a brace of Boston bull terriers at her side and a maroon-liveried footman sitting stiffly behind her. It will be a stunning performance, and the spectators will love it. They always have.
Loula Long Combs fell in love with her first horse at the age of 2. Her mother and her sister Sallie America could take horses or, preferably, leave them alone, but Loula and her father, the late Robert Alexander Long, who made a fortune in lumber, were incurable devotees.
When Loula Long married at 36, it was on the condition that she continue to live at home and raise horses. Her husband, Robert Pryor Combs, agreed and, as Mrs. Combs noted once in her diary, "always maintained his sense of humor even when referred to as 'Mr. Loula Long Combs.' " Home was a 97-room house in Kansas City. The Longs owned a string of the most beautiful show horses in the country which Mrs. Combs showed all week except on Sundays when the family gathered around one of the three golden organs while Combs played hymns at her father's request. In recent years Combs has been bedridden with Parkinson's disease, but he has continued to encourage his wife to enter shows.
After her father's death, the house was left to Kansas City for a museum, and Mrs. Combs has never been back to it since. Today her base of operations is a magnificent 2,000-acre estate called Longview Farms, 25 miles outside of the city. She breakfasts at 6:45 with the dogs (eggs, tea with lemon for her; milk and graham crackers for the dogs). Then at 8:30 she heads down to her two vast stables (one for harness, the other for saddle horses) where she spends the morning looking after her horses, training them and sometimes pampering them outrageously.
After lunch with her husband on the sun porch, Mrs. Combs walks around Longview for an hour, keeping a managerial eye on the 250 acres of beautifully clipped lawns, the extensive flower beds and four greenhouses from which fresh carnations and gardenias are shipped daily, thus helping out with the heavy taxes on the place.
The heart of Longview is the tack room, an immaculate sanctuary where gleaming harness hang astride polished brass brackets, and row upon row of blue ribbons are reflected in shelves of silver cups and trays. There are also a carriage room that still houses a dozen rigs, a blacksmith and carpenter shops, an indoor driving arena, a half-mile track, a clubhouse that seats 1,000, an extensive dairy farm and 42 modern buildings that house the families who work on the estate.
The mistress of Longview has strong and compassionate opinions on horses. Good Hackneys, which occasionally bring $25,000, are simply retired when they reach their peak. "A horse," she says, "who is used to blue ribbons gets morose when reduced to taking a red. I can't do it to him." When Hackneys die, they are buried in Longview's private horse cemetery overlooking the wide prairie. The only exception is Revelation, Loula's greatest horse, who is buried in front of the harness stable underneath a granite monument embedded with a relief of himself.
Loula Long Combs regards herself today as the last in a grand succession of those who truly enjoyed "the greatest of all sports." Among her eminent predecessors were Alice Dodsworth and Isabelle Wanamaker. Women today, she believes, are so used to superficialities that they have forgotten how to be honest, and this has affected their horsemanship. "I have seen beautiful women with beautiful horses fail to win," she said recently, "because they thought more of personal applause than they did of their horses. After 60 years I still get nervous each time I enter a ring. I still catch my breath at the sight of a blue coming toward me, and I suspect I will for the next 25, God willing."