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.

EQUUS - - Equus - By Deb Ben­nett, PhD

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.


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.


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.


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.


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….”


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

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