Haverford, Pa., June 3, 2010 -- If ever there were a perfect place to honor the past, it's the Merion Cricket Club, where dozens of the show world's biggest names gathered this week at the National Show Hunter Hall of Fame induction dinner to pay homage to their own.
Set in one of the leafy suburbs along Philadelphia's Main Line, just a few miles from the Devon Horse Show grounds, this venerable sporting and social establishment offered the right backdrop for the annual dinner. Green lawns and walls lined with oil paintings of past club presidents set the mood for remembrance and a tribute to the horses and riders who are the legends of the hunter world.
Presiding over the evening was Hall of Fame Chairman Jimmy Lee, the Virginia trainer and judge who has made the organization his special cause and a highlight of each year's Devon experience.
He and I talked about the background of the 15-year-old Hall of Fame, and why it's so important.
The traditions on which today's hunter industry are built were highlighted by many photos and the emotional speeches that went with them. What impressed me about those being honored, especially the people with whom I was not familiar, was their dedication to the horse itself. Not just to showing or other pursuits, but to the generosity and nobility of the animal that gives so much to humanity and has shaped countless lives.
Some of those cited at the dinner have names that bring instant recognition. Others may not be as easily identified, but on a special evening we learned about all their contributions and their place in the industry that is far more than a business.
I was extremely touched by Betty Oare's presentation on behalf of Noel Twyman, the Virginian who was a "consummate" horseman, with accomplishments in the fields of racing, showing and fox hunting.
Noel "did almost everything a person could imagine doing in the horse world," said Betty, a Hall member herself. The photos of Noel, whose late father, Delmar, is also in the Hall of Fame, showed him in a classical position on all his mounts, and that's the way he always rode.
Sadly, Noel had been very ill in recent months. Though he hoped to make the dinner, he died on May 2, but Betty, who was his cousin, and Jimmy went to his home to present him with his plaque shortly before he passed away. He was buried in his hunting pinks, ready to follow the hounds through eternity.
Another inductee, Eileen Beckman of Virginia, died on the same day as Noel. A board member of the Virginia Horse Shows Association, she also was a founder of the Virginia Pony Breeders Association, and many outstanding ponies came from her Otteridge Farm. Characterized as "a true horseman and a lady," she spent her life teaching others to appreciate horses the way she did.
Eileen's relatives, like Noel's, were on hand for the ceremony. Though there were tears, there was also inspiration. Her daughter, Laura Beckman Rodes, told the guests that in her last letter to her family, her mother said she never gave up and advised "you who follow to do the same."
Mary Braga, helped to the microphone by rider/trainer Patty Heuckeroth, recalled her first riding experience 86 years ago when she was put aboard her mother's statuesque Irish hunter. That was the start of a lifetime devotion to horses. In the years since, she and Patty worked at developing many young prospects.
Carol Altman Molony, a founder of the Hall of Fame, was rightfully inducted for her many contributions to the sport. I watched her win both the Maclay and the Medal finals at Madison Square Garden in 1962 (they were held on consecutive days at that time). I was only a tot then, of course, but what would have made the performance even more outstanding, had I known it, was the fact that her mount was a borrowed horse that she had competed previously only in a hunter trials the previous weekend.
That tidbit was told to us by her friend Judy Richter, a Hall member who introduced her. Carol rode with Gordon Wright, who also was one of George Morris' trainers. She earned numerous championships, including at the National Horse Show, and also gave advice to Mary Mairs (Chapot) on how to win the equitation finals on a borrowed horse. After a 1969 accident that ended her riding career, she turned to teaching, working at Bennett College, the Ox Ridge Hunt Club and other stables along the way until settling in at Stony Creek in North Salem, N.Y. All the while, she has been "a real doer...who quietly gets it done." She has contributed to the industry by being a leader in the U.S. Equestrian Federation (USEF), the Professional Horsemen's Association and the U.S. Hunter Jumper Association, as well as having involvement in the intercollegiate program and judging national equitation finals.
Timmy Kees made his entrance into the Hall with the way paved by a funny speech from his longtime friend and associate, Leslie Burr Howard. A trainer of many equitation finals winners, including Steve Heinecke and Laura Tidball, and top horses such as Watership Down and Double Cinco, he grew up in a horse-oriented family with a mother who was a racing trainer, and got a leg up from working with the late Ronnie Mutch, another Hall of Famer.
"The greatest compliment you can be paid is by one's peers, and to be fortunate enough to be part of this industry and be recognized favorably is a very humbling experience," Timmy said, adding he was "touched beyond words." I think he spoke for all the inductees.
The horses installed were Bavaria, who I watched win the grand hunter championship at the National Horse Show more than a few years back, and Duke of Paeonian, who was before my time--though I know his name well. They joined such luminaries as Bonne Nuit, Bold Minstrel, Bronze Wing and Rox Dene in the pantheon of equine Hall of Famers, who must be retired or deceased for five years before being considered.
Linda Hough, a judge, trainer and Hall of Fame member equally well known for being show jumper Lauren Hough's mother, remembered Bavaria's style as being so awe-inspiring that she felt like applauding in the warm-up ring.
The Duke was characterized by Jimmy Lee as "an iron horse," who for four years was the national champion Regular Conformation Hunter.
"He always gave his best, and he tried so hard," said Jimmy, who remembered The Duke's favorite treat--Coca-Cola.
Bucky Reynolds, Betty Oare's brother, showed The Duke for the first time under less-than-optimum conditions at Upperville, when he had done a little too much partying the night before. As a result, he simply sat quietly and let the horse do his thing, which worked out perfectly. But in another class, "when I tried to make him go my way," he said, "that was not the way he wanted to go." The Duke knew best.
In addition to the Hall of Fame inductions, there were annual awards. I'm not going to list all of them, so go to www.nationalshowhunterhalloffame.com for the complete roster. But I did want to offer a few highlights.
Devon was the Horse Show of the Year, not its first time achieving that distinction. While accepting the trophy, co-manager David Distler vowed the show would continue raising its standards. The new footing for the Dixon Oval this year is just the beginning: organizers are hoping to replace the footing in the Gold Ring and the schooling area as well, once funding comes through. Care to contribute?
Californian John French spent a lot of time at the podium. As he had at the USEF annual meeting, he accepted a trophy for the First Year Green Working Hunter, Small Affair. John told us again about the horse's trainer, Scott Wilson, who believed so much in Small Affair but had died suddenly weeks before his horse was saluted by the USEF. Also gaining honors was another of John's mounts, Rumba, the Second Year Green Working Hunter and Horse of the Year for, among other things, his brilliant win in the International Hunter Derby finals.
Not surprisingly, John was the Rider of the Year. He told us a great story about his younger days in the sport. Riding a 15.1-hand palomino, he attributed his lack of success with the horse to poor judging (he made that crack that with a wink, of course). He actually gave up riding for awhile until the day a friend called to say his photo (on the palomino) had been featured in George Morris' column in Practical Horseman magazine. While George didn't have anything nice to say about the horse, he commented that John's form was "all in all, the best example of classic hunter seat equitation I have ever seen." That convinced John it was time to go back to riding, and the rest is history.
During the dinner, I chatted with Diane Carney, a key mover in the international hunter derbies that are changing the face of the hunter industry. She gave me her take on the Hall of Fame, and I thought it was worth passing on.
I loved the way Jimmy Lee ended the ceremonies. He said: "Go out and make some more history. See you next year."
(The National Show Hunter Hall of Fame has a display in the National Sporting Library and Fine Art Museum in Middleburg, Va., www.nsl.org.)