American Quarter Horse Association (AQHA) two-time Superhorse Rugged Lark died Oct. 26, 2004, at the age of 23. Take a look back at three strong and adventurous women and how their lives, dreams and philosophies converged in the handsome bay stallion.
The story begins 60 years ago when a pretty, headstrong teenager named Bobbi Steele crept out the back door of her family's Illinois farmhouse to run away with a traveling rodeo. In the rodeo, the horse-crazy teen learned trick riding along with the fine art of jumping steers over six-foot fences. A few years later, she left the rodeo to pursue a childhood dream: joining the circus.
Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey at that time employed a number of sophisticated European trainers to work with the valuable animals that performed in the big-top acts. One of these trainers, Capt. William Hyer, was a German dressage rider who set up riding lessons for Steele and 20 other female circus employees. Only Steele stuck it out, and a few years later she was doing High-School movements, such as piaffe, passage and pirouettes, aboard circus horses under the big top.
In the 1940s, Steele left Ringling Brothers and toured the country, living with her own horses in a rebuilt refrigerator truck. She gave exhibitions of advanced dressage movements, done to music--probably the first dressage kurs performed in North America. She played such high-class venues as Madison Square Garden and the Royal Winter Fair, as well as the usual run of small-town fairs, circuses and carnivals.
Touted as "the only woman in the world today to practice the difficult and exacting art of dressage," Steele was written up in Life magazine in the summer of 1943. She eventually settled down in the outskirts of Sarasota, Fla., in a subdivision of 2 1/2-acre hobby farms where she could keep a few horses.
Eleven-year-old Lynn Salvatori leaned on the handlebars of her bike and stared from a distance at her neighbor's shining horses, immaculate red barn and fresh white fences. It took some months to overcome her shyness, but one day the child gathered her courage and walked through the gate. The year was 1963, and it marked the beginning of a career that would take a horse-crazy middle-class kid from the suburbs to heights she couldn't even begin to imagine.
Bobbi Steele took the child under her wing, teaching her the dressage fundamentals that she had been building on for years. Salvatori became the daughter that Steele had never had, the heir to the riding and training knowledge that she had amassed.
It wasn't always fun as the child struggled with difficult balance and coordination exercises. Her instructor made her work hard and challenged her to do better. But Salvatori was eager to learn, idolizing Steele and emulating her as much as possible.
Here, Salvatori got her first experience with bridleless training and at-liberty work. But she also spent long hours working on the elements of the classical school of riding. After she had ridden for Steele for six years, she began competing in dressage at fourth level under Steele's tutelage. By that time, Salvatori was determined that her life's work would be with horses.
To achieve that end, Salvatori knew she needed to continue her equestrian education. In 1970, she talked her parents into sending her to Golden Hills Academy, a private school in Florida that had a riding program. Salvatori made friends with a classmate named Allison Winans whose mother owned Bo-Bett Farm, a big Thoroughbred and Quarter Horse operation near Ocala, Fla.
Leaning back against a solid fence rail, Carol Harris, Allison's mother, surveyed her farm, Bo-Bett, a 350-acre spread on prime Ocala land featuring five immaculate barns and a training track.
On this day, her attention was drawn to an 8-month-old bay colt grazing in a nearby paddock. At the time, Harris was looking for a buyer for the colt, who was a son of Harris' Thoroughbred stallion Really Rugged and the champion Quarter Horse mare Alisa Lark; the Striegels, who owned Alisa Lark and her colt, had wanted a filly. Harris eyed the little fellow intently. There was just something about him, his fine neck and head, the big, soft, intelligent eye--something special. He seemed to be looking right at her.
A few days later, Harris was hit with a sudden realization: "For months I had been traveling the country looking for a stud that would be a good outcross for my breeding program. Meanwhile I was helping the Striegels look for a buyer for the Alisa Lark colt," says Harris. "Finally, I literally woke up in the middle of the night and said to myself, 'Why am I looking all over the world for a stud when I have this colt on my own farm?' It was like that old saying about 'acres of diamonds in your own backyard.' When it finally hit me, I couldn't wait for morning."
When dawn's first light finally came, she phoned the colt's owners. "I sold Rugged Lark," she said, "and I got you the price you wanted."
"Great," said Teresa Striegel. "Did he go to a good home?"
"He sure did," replied Harris, with a laugh. "He's staying with me."
It was rather an instinctive decision to buy the colt. But then, over the years, Harris had learned to trust her instincts. They had led her to leave the cold New Jersey winters behind and buy Bo-Bett Farm. And they fueled her desire to apply her creative talents to the breeding and development of fine young horses, which, in turn, brought her great success in the Quarter Horse industry. Her instincts were generally pretty good.
The decision to buy Rugged Lark was no exception. By his third year, the colt had picked up many more fans. Harris' trainer, Mike Corrington, was pleased with Lark's progress as a reining horse, and a young trainer, Lynn Salvatori Palm, who had gone to school with Harris' daughters, worked with him as well. Palm and Corrington rode Lark during his 2-year-old year and showed him lightly in Western pleasure.
"I really liked this horse as soon as I began to work with him," says Palm. "The thing about Lark that was so astonishing was his mind. We used to say to him, 'Lark, slow down. You're not supposed to be this good this fast.' It was just natural for him to pick up the right lead, to do the right things at the right time. He just picked up whatever you taught him, and since he was so naturally balanced and athletic, it was all easy for him."
Lark had a particular flair for reining. In 1984, he won the 3-year-old reining pre-futurity in Louisville, Ky., and was a heavy favorite to win the reining futurity at that year's All-American Quarter Horse Congress. Harris entered Lark in the reining event, but--going on a mysterious gut feeling--also signed him up for the hunt-seat futurity, even though he'd only competed in a few hunt-seat events.
In the first go-round of the reining futurity, Lark was disqualified for an overspin. Harris, who had hoped that Lark would win the prestigious event, was devastated. But there was no time for reflection: The hunt-seat futurity was only an hour away, and Lark had to undergo a speedy transformation. His sliding plates were pulled, his mane was braided and his tack changed.
By the time Lark carried Palm into the ring for the hunt-seat competition, he looked as if he'd been a well-appointed hunter all along. And apparently the judges liked what they saw. Defeating more than 200 competitors, Lark won both go-rounds and then the finals of the hunt-seat futurity, a mind-boggling achievement for a young reining horse.
"Lynn fell in love with Lark on that day," says Harris, "so I let her take him home with her after the show." Palm and Rugged Lark traveled to Bessemer, Mich., where Palm had established her training operation, Royal Palm Ranch.
Back in Michigan, Palm used her dressage training skills to help Lark become an all-around performer. Working with the colt both on the ground and under saddle, she focused on developing trust and understanding as well as building basic obedience and manners. For variety, Palm took Lark for swims in a nearby pond or leisurely hacks along the shores of Lake Superior or in the North Woods.
Palm's training philosophy, inherited in part from Bobbi Steele and shared with Carol Harris, is built on trust: "You have to trust your horse. You learn to communicate with him, and when things don't go right, you get off and try to figure out where you went wrong. You don't intimidate, you don't bully. You don't snatch or jerk, or you risk losing trust. And you let the horse remain an individual."
Palm's success in broadening and deepening Lark's skills was evident later that year when the 4-year-old qualified for the AQHA World Championship Show in no less than six events. And, once at the big show, he did not disappoint.
Competing against the best of his breed, he brought home the world championship in pleasure driving, a third place in junior reining and fifth-place finishes in the junior trail horse, junior hunter under saddle, junior hunter hack and junior working hunter classes. All of which earned Lark the title of Superhorse, an honor bestowed on the horse who receives the highest number of points in the most events at the World Championships.
Palm counts Lark's Superhorse win her most exciting victory ever, and the accomplishment was made all the more satisfying because Lark was still so young.
Harris judged the AQHA World Championship Show in 1986, so Lark was ineligible to compete. But when 1987 rolled around, she faced a tough decision: Should Lark shoot for an unprecedented second Superhorse title? The stallion was still performing well, and he was popular: His breeding schedule was full. Yet Harris knew that if her star failed in his bid to repeat his Superhorse title, it would not only be disappointing but might damage his reputation.
In the end, Harris managed to overcome her fears. And Lark rewarded her faith in him by topping his previous point total and becoming the only horse up to that time to win the Superhorse title twice.
"It was one of the most emotional experiences of my life," says Palm. "I knew that Carol would retire Lark from showing after the World, and when I rode forward to accept the award, I was just bawling. Carol had given me six years with this horse-the horse of a lifetime. I was overcome with emotion."
On the spur of the moment, Palm slipped the bridle off Lark and rode in bridleless to accept Lark's second Superhorse title to a standing ovation. Lark was then retired from competition but continued entertaining audiences at exhibitions and was later named the AQHA Ambassador to the United States Equestrian Team.
This article originally appeared in the July 1996 issue of EQUUS magazine.