Hard times bring big changes
As the Great Depression and Dust Bowl reshape life in America, the Quarter Horse undergoes a transformation from racehorse to ranch horse.
As the Great Depression and Dust Bowl reshape life in America, the Quarter Horse undergoes a transformation from racehorse to ranch horse.
The advent of the automobile and gasoline-powered tractor prompted a steep drop in the American horse population, with the greatest losses on farms east of the Mississippi. Western ranchers, however, still needed thousands of working horses, as the modern era of gathering cattle with ATVs and dogs and doctoring them in chutes was still far off. The Depression and Dust Bowl years squeezed ranchers hard, prompting fundamental changes in how quarter-mile racehorses were bred and used. These changes set the stage for the foundation of the American Quarter Horse Association (AQHA) in 1940.
The Quarter Horse is founded upon the Thoroughbred, but the type of Thoroughbred used changed over time. The most popular sires in America shifted after the Civil War, from horses harking back primarily to Herod and the Godolphin horse to animals tracing to Eclipse. Eclipse-breds often have short speed and also frequently have the big hindquarters and more thick-muscled physiques admired by Quarter Horse fanciers. As we saw in the last installment, breeders in the Gay Nineties who fancied “short” horses increasingly turned to Thoroughbred cover. The establishment of the U.S. Army Remount Service just after the turn of the century further promoted Thoroughbred cover of the Billy-Rondo short-horse strains in the West.
Thoroughbred racing in America also underwent big changes from 1890 to 1920. Unlike pleasure-riding or show horses, racehorses continued to have solid economic value due to their real earning potential. By the mid-1890s the old four-mile heats were long gone, and “classic distance” races covering 1 to 1 1/2 miles had become the “new normal” for the flat track. The short-stirrup “American seat” (less politely called the “monkey crouch”)
popularized by white American jockey Tod Sloan helped horses run faster. In the 1890s Sloan began an astonishing winning streak utilizing this style, which anticipates the similar “forward seat” for jumping taught 15 years later by Italian cavalry officer Federico Caprilli. Sloan’s success during the height of the Jim Crow era helped to shutter the jockey profession to African Americans, who had until that time always been the majority in American horseracing.
TOUGH YEARS FOR SPRINTERS
While racing for Thoroughbreds boomed, “short” or quarter-mile racing nearly became extinct, and families who bred horses for this athletic specialty struggled to find venues. One common strategy was to obtain false papers issued “for racing purposes only,” which allowed part-bred horses to compete at Thoroughbred tracks. Ultimately, however, this became a viable option only for the best sprint-racers--and those who looked the most like Thoroughbreds---so that during the 1930s, with the repeal of Prohibition at the national level and as pari-mutuel betting at racetracks came under the control of the various states, the practice of false papering died out.
Ranchers still bred sprinters, but during the Great Depression and Dust Bowl years, people no longer had the luxury of feeding them just for racing, and owners were forced to find other uses for them. Ranch folks still enjoyed weekend get-togethers, but instead of taking their horses to match races, now families went to rodeos where roping, bulldogging and cutting were the main events.
My own parents and teachers lived through the Depression, and they remembered times when they had to go without food and when children and teenagers commonly performed the work of adults. Until President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal, which in the mid-1930s ushered in Social Security and other social welfare programs, the only assistance available to those in need came through churches and private charity. Many people at the time were unwilling to admit the depth of their poverty and had, in any case, been raised not to be beholden to anyone.
THE IRON HORSE, CLABBER
It is in this context that we must understand the story of Clabber, nicknamed “The Iron Horse,” who was the first stallion named World Champion Quarter Running Horse and World Champion Racing Quarter Horse (1940-1941). A son of the seven/eighths-bred My Texas Dandy, he was beautiful, powerful, correctly conformed and harmoniously built. There is no doubt about the identity of Clabber’s sire, but his dam
may have been one of two individuals: either Blondie S, a three/quartersbred by Lone Star by Gold Enamel, a Thoroughbred of the Touchstone sire line, and tracing to Traveler on the distaff side; or Golden Girl by Chaparosa by Hard Luck by Red Man by Joe Hancock, a horse with acknowledged draft ancestry.
Golden Girl is out of a mare by Possum, who was by Traveler, so no matter which individual was actually Clabber’s dam, he traces to Traveler (see “Change on the Horizon,” EQUUS 493) and it is from this horse that his beautiful topline and near-level body balance come. Although the AQHA lists Blondie S as Clabber’s “official” dam, eyewitness testimony reported by Quarter racing historian Melville Haskell says that it was Golden Girl, and I think this more likely also because infusion of draft blood was, during the first third of the 20th century, a breeding stratagem widely used to increase weight-for-height in horses that were going to be used for something more than racing.
Foaled in 1936 during the Great Depression, Clabber is remembered as a very tough individual who sired not only speed but soundness. Owned for most of his life by Arizona rancher Ab Nichols, thanks to unrelenting hard use the stallion lived only 11 years. Phil Livingston records in Legends Volume 2 that “Ab was a cowman of the old school and he expected every man and horse on the place to earn his keep…. Nichols didn’t go in for special training of his race horses. There was just ranch work ---and lots of it.”
In a 1941 edition of The Running Quarter Horse, Haskell wrote: “Clabber is a horse of great power---he seems to thrive on rough treatment. During his racing career he has served about 100 mares a year, been used as a cow horse and rope horse, been turned out to pasture and then taken up, been hauled several hundred miles in a trailer to race, without training, and hauled home the same day. In spite of all these handicaps, he is one of the most consistent performers we know of.” Livingston concurs: “As far as bandages, blankets, liniment, a deeply bedded clean stall, and lots of brushing, Nichols just didn’t see any sense in it….[yet] in 1941 at Eagle Pass, Texas, Clabber ran three quarter-mile sprints in one afternoon and won each of them in 23 seconds. The last two sprints were only an hour and a half apart….”--and, as eyewitnesses testified, Clabber apparently spent some of that “rest” time breeding a mare.
Clabber’s history is probably more extreme than that of many Depressionera ranch horses, but there were thousands of others whose lives paralleled his. Every able-bodied person during those hardscrabble times had to work to survive, and this is the real beginning of the era---only 10 years before the foundation of the AQHA--when horses of Billy, Rondo or Peter
McCue breeding were expected to function primarily as all-around ranch horses rather than as racing specialists.
WILLIAM ANSON: NEW USES FOR OLD SPRINTERS
Sprinters like Peter McCue, Della Moore, Carrie Nation and Flying Bob, who carried a high percentage of Thoroughbred blood, put the old Texas Billys and Missouri Rondos out of business, but breeders on Western ranches still had plenty of mares of the old type. During the Depression they might have gone extinct had it not been for British horsemen who emigrated to the United States and had the brilliant idea of using them for polo. Billys and Rondos were just the right size; they were good-minded and unflappable, with intelligence, gameness and the ability to stop, start or turn on a dime. During the early decades of the 20th century there was also a strong market for Army remounts; horses were needed for the Boer Wars in Africa and for other conflicts and were being requisitioned by the British, Canadian, Australian and American armies. “Quarter ponies” bred in the American West who were not classy enough for polo were purchased by the thousands and shipped overseas.
The journals and magazine articles of William Anson---known to his friends as “Uncle Billy”---constitute some of the earliest and most valuable attempts to record the history and origins of the American Quarter Horse. The seventh son of a British earl, Anson was a well-educated former cadet and enthusiastic polo player with broad society connections. He emigrated to Texas in 1890---partly to live out romantic ideas about the American West, then all the rage in Europe--and at first stayed at the ranch of his older brother Frank, who, like William, eventually became an American citizen. In 1899, “Uncle Billy” began inspecting and buying horses for the British army.
In 1903 he established his own spread in Christoval, near San Angelo, and began a breeding operation in which he at first employed Thoroughbreds. He was not very interested in racehorses of any type but wanted to breed horses suitable for polo, as remounts and for general ranch work. He tried several well-bred Thoroughbreds as sires but their cover of local Cayuse mares did not produce the sort of foals he wanted. Living in west Texas, Anson soon became aware of the Peter McCue-bred quarter-milers who raced throughout the region. Impressed with their good-mindedness
as much as with their speed, Anson started buying as many as he could find of what, he discovered, was not “a randomly propagated regional type” but an excellent strain that “bred true.”
Other British horsemen who immigrated to these shores early in the century also noticed the exceptionally fast acceleration and turning ability of the Billys and Rondos. In 1905 fancier E.H. “Boogie” Leache bought a 2-year-old Texas horse called Jack Tolliver (by Traveler out of Fannie Pace, whom historian Robert Denhardt avers was a granddaughter of Missouri Rondo). Leache shipped Jack Tolliver to Virginia and changed his name to Buster Brown. By 1908 the gelding had matured into “the greatest polo pony in the world”; a contemporary issue of Bit & Spur magazine commented on his tremendous speed and bottomless endurance, as well as noting his high intelligence: Turned loose on a polo field with reins tied up on his neck, he would spontaneously “play the ball”--and do it better than many high-rated veterans. Historian Jim Goodhue reports that Buster Brown was also exhibited as a high-school horse, even
travelling to Europe in 1910 to give a command performance for King Edward VII of England.
Buster Brown’s performances brought the “American quarter-ofa-mile horse” to the attention of Europeans. The strait-laced British cavalry---whose horse-procurement department was headed by the redoubtable M. Horace Hayes, FRCVS, Queen Victoria’s chief veterinarian during the Raj---looked down on any non-Thoroughbred. So evident is this prejudice in Hayes’ books, in particular the encyclopedic 1893 Points of the Horse, that Argentinian hippologist Ángel Cabrera felt moved to note, “It is as if [Hayes] deliberately picks out the most unflattering images of the worst non-Thoroughbred horses of the Americas, and then presents them as if typical.”
In 1902, Hayes contacted William Anson asking for photos and information about American horses. There could have been no better way to soften the stiff upper lip of a British cavalry officer than to supply him with a string of polo ponies that he could both win on and afford to buy, and Anson soon was filling orders not only for warhorses but “quarterpolo ponies.” Malcolm Moncreiffe, yet another British polo player living near Sheridan, Wyoming, also began procuring for the British cavalry at this time. Between them, in the years from 1900 to 1920, Anson and Moncreiffe shipped more than 40,000 Billys and Rondos overseas.
“UNCLE BILLY’S” SHORT-HORSES
While inspecting so many horses, Anson naturally took the opportunity to do a little personal shopping, and in this way he built up a band of good broodmares, many sired by Gold Dollar Billy (1893, by Crawford, by Traveler, out of an unknown mare, probably a Cayuse or Billy). Others included Black Bess (1915, by Butler’s Warrior by Captain Sykes by Sykes Rondo, out of the famous matriarch Jenny by Sykes Rondo); Little Dutch (ca. 1925) and Froggie (ca. 1922), both by Joe Collins by Old Billy; Little Dutch’s dam is unknown but Froggie is out of Red Rover by Old Billy; and Flaxie B (1909, by Tubal Cain out of a mare by Grey Wolf by Young Cold Deck). All of them represent the classic Rondo-Billy breeding and conformation, which has been reviewed through several previous installments.
In 1907 Anson became aware of a stallion called Arch Oldham, whose daughter had taken second prize in the open class at the Meadowbrook Polo Pony Show. Like many other quarterracers of the day, Arch Oldham was probably sired by a part-bred “short” horse but was falsely registered as a Thoroughbred. Anson bought a son of this horse, Arch Oldham Jr. (also called Crawford Sykes), who was out of a Sykes Rondo mare. With this stallion, “Uncle Billy” knew he had hit the mother lode. Looking for more of the same, in 1908 he acquired the yearling Peter McCue son Harmon Baker from Sam Watkins in Illinois. In 1910 he bought Jim Ned (by Pancho out of a mare by Traveler; see “Change on the Horizon,” EQUUS 493), and in 1911 he completed his stallion string by purchasing the 17-year-old Sam Jones (by an unknown Thoroughbred stallion out of Lizzie Crouch, a Steel Dust descendant).
Anson loved these horses. “Harmon Baker,” he wrote, “has just the right mixture [of Thoroughbred and Rondo], and perpetuates his own wonderful conformation and disposition more truly than any stallion I ever knew…. I never race him myself [but] let a reliable man take him out after the breeding season is over, just to let him make a reputation, and his name has become a household word among Texas horsemen.”
“Jim Ned,” Anson continues, “is a beautiful brown horse, about 14:3 [hands] and weighing about 1,100 pounds. For twelve years he has served me faithfully, out in the pasture during the summer months with his mares, and the remainder of the time in the saddle horse pasture, doing as much or more work than any cowpony on the ranch; he is a true representative of a great race. Even-tempered and intelligent, easily kept, never ailing or sick for a day, sure footed and never known to be guilty of a mean act or trick, this is the horse which has laid the foundation of my stud. The other stallions in service were, it is needless to say, selected with the same object in view; they are being bred principally to mares sired by Old Jim, as he is affectionately known….”
THE SUFFOLK CONNECTION
Who were the mares sired by Old Jim that were covered by Anson’s other stallions? Perusal of any Quarter Horse pedigree that traces back to Anson’s herd reveals a most surprising fact: With almost no exceptions, his broodmares are unnamed and their pedigrees are---officially---blanks. “Uncle Billy” was a smart, welleducated, knowledgeable and thorough man who kept impeccable records of every horse purchase and breeding, so it is not believable to me that he did not know or bother to record the identities and breeding histories of every mare