A great American horseman
Born into slavery just before the Civil War, Tom Bass was the horse whisperer of his day. His methods, philosophy and innovations have improved the lives of horses all over the world.
Born into slavery just before the Civil War, Tom Bass was the “horse whisperer” of his day. His methods, philosophy and innovations have improved the lives of horses all over the world.
This story begins with the Civil War---its causes and its aftermath. In 1877, after serving two terms as president, Ulysses S. Grant and his family embarked on a diplomatic tour of the world, meeting the leaders of many nations. On one stop, he visted the “Iron Chancellor” of Germany, Otto von Bismarck. “You are so happily placed in America that you need fear no wars,” opined the moustachioed Bismarck when the two men sat down together---for in Bismarck’s view, Germany was a country beset on all sides by rivals. “What seems so sad to me about your last great war was that you were fighting your own people.” “But it had to be done,” Grant replied.
“Yes,” said Bismarck. “You had to save the Union just as we had to save Germany.”
“Not only save the Union,” said Grant, “but destroy slavery.”
The German was incredulous. “I had supposed, sir, that the Union was the real sentiment---the dominant sentiment,” said Bismarck.
“No,” replied Grant. “I felt---we all felt, even those who did not object to slaves---that slavery must be destroyed. We felt that it was a stain on the Union that men should be bought and sold like cattle. …. The existence of slavery would always mean the germs of new rebellion. We had to destroy it. We were fighting an enemy with whom we could not make peace. No convention, no treaty, was possible---only destruction.”
Tom Bass was born an enslaved person on the Hayden Plantation in Boone County, Missouri, in the heart of a region that still styles itself “little Dixie.” Slaveholders from Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia were its settlers; they who grew hemp and tobacco. In 1860, when Tom Bass was 1 year old, enslaved people made up no less than a quarter of the county’s population. Although during the Civil War, Missouri was officially a border state and never joined the Confederacy, Boone County was strongly proConfederate and pro-slavery.
The birth of a baby among the enslaved population on a Missouri plantation was in no way remarkable. Thanks to the close oversight by white owners, parentage was rarely in doubt, and babies were commonly named not by their parents but by their owner, who would then add the child to their inventory of possessions.
Tom Bass’s mother, Cornelia Gray, was Black and enslaved. His father was white: William Bass, the son of plantation founder Eli Bass. Soon after Cornelia gave birth to his son, William Bass married a white woman. When emancipation came four years later, the Bass slaves were given the choice to either stay or leave; Cornelia took the opportunity to find work in St. Louis. Little Tom was raised at Hayden by her parents, Presley and Eliza Gray. A quiet boy with wide-set, intelligent eyes, Tom never slept in his father’s house, but lived with his grandparents and their 14 other children in the one-room cabin where he had been born. As was common in that time and culture, William Bass never denied that Tom was his son, but he never accorded him special privileges either.
LIMITS OF FREEDOM
Before and during the Civil War, slaves frequently ran away, at least 100,000 of them via the network of secret routes and safe houses set up by abolitionists and sympathizers known as the “underground railroad.” In addition, during colonial times, slaves sometimes gained freedom through manumission (whereby an owner freed his slaves), which resulted, even in the antebellum South, in the growth of scattered communities of free former slaves.
Nonetheless, Missouri historian Rose Nolen notes that “The few free Black men and women throughout the state fared little better in the matter of personal freedom under Missouri law than those that were held in slavery. A series of repressive laws severely limited the “freedom” of free Black people. They could not travel or gather in groups. They could not possess weapons. An 1835 law forced each black person to purchase a license, costing from $500 to $1,000, to reside in any Missouri county. To get the license, it was necessary to post a bond or get a white person to act as sponsor. They could not serve as a witness in court. …. An 1847 law made it illegal to teach blacks, slave or free, to read or write.”
The Emancipation Proclamation, an executive order, was promulgated on September 22, 1862, and ratification of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution in 1865 made slavery illegal throughout the United States. Nolen observes that “….Racial prejudice and oppressive conditions during slavery inspired a spirit of entrepreneurship among Missouri’s free black population …. [Yet after emancipation] when blacks banded together to become prosperous and serve on city councils, the hostility of some whites toward the former slaves greatly increased.… .During
the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the outbreaks of violence became a reign of terror. Between 1897 and 1918, 51 Blacks were lynched in Missouri.”
I am willing to predict that most folks reading this article have heard of baseball great Jackie Robinson, who is credited with breaking the color barrier in professional baseball. Many will remember boxer Joe Louis, and some will recognize the name and accomplishments of Olympic track star Jesse Owens, both men of color who, before Robinson’s time, won in competition against whites. Less well known is the name of Willie Sims, the Black jockey who twice rode the winning horse in the Kentucky Derby (1896 and 1898). But much less well known---and no less deserving of renown---is Tom Bass, though some might be familiar with the name only because it is attached to a particular type of bit.
When Tom Bass died in 1934, his friend, nationally syndicated columnist and pundit Will Rogers, penned a famous obituary: “Tom Bass, well known Negro horseman, aged 75, died today. Don’t mean much to you, does it? You have all seen society folks perform on a beautiful three- or five-gaited saddle horse, and said, ‘My, what skill and patience they must have to train that animal.’ Well, all they did was ride it.
All this Negro Tom Bass did was train it. For over 50 years America’s premier trainer, he trained thousands that others were applauded on. A remarkable man, a remarkable character. Many Negroes have been great horsemen; every stable has its traditional stories of what its Negro rider used to do. If old St.
Peter is as wise as we give him credit for being, Tom, he will let you go in on horseback and give those folks up there a great show and you’ll get the blue ribbon yourself.”
Tom Bass’s name had, in fact, already begun to fade from public consciousness a decade before he died.
Part of the reason has to do with changing times: the coming of the automobile, the decommissioning of the U.S. Cavalry, and the consequent relegation of horse-showing to a cultural back burner. But another large part has to do with the timing of Bass’s career, which began in the 1880s when any Black face in a Missouri horse-show arena was unheard-of, and continued through the height of the Jim Crow era. In a recent column, Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaper columnist Leonard Pitts expressed frustration over the fact that numerous readers had written to him after viewing on TV a retelling of the 1921 Tulsa massacre, in which white mobs razed a thriving African American neighborhood, killing dozens of people. They said, “we had never heard of this. We didn’t know.” His response: “You cannot know what you have not been taught …. But not knowing is not accidental, either.…. Instead of truth, we are offered a version of history calibrated for
managed not only to break into white horse-showing but for 50 years remain the only Black person allowed to compete at many venues. “Never violent or confrontational with either horses or men,” writes Young, “Tom Bass was the first to cross a number of color barriers in America, which he accomplished merely by being himself.”
Tom Bass showed special abilities with horses from an early age. His grandfather Presley was William Bass’s favorite and most skillful coachman, and Presley was pleased to see that his grandson was clearly destined for a career with horses too.
Barely out of diapers, Tom could hardly be pried away from a favorite mare---his white father’s property.
Even William Bass would shake his head and admit, “That boy’s talent with horses is uncanny.”
Tom’s inner thoughts might have echoed those of Spanish rejón bullfighter Angel Peralta-Pineda, arguably the greatest rider and trainer of the 20th century. When asked where his abilities came from, Peralta would recount a dream he had as a boy. “With my waking eyes I beheld a rider upon a winged horse galloping across the vast plains and flickering along the banks of the Guadalquivir, who arrived at my house on the very day of my birth. That rider was the soul of a centaur that became incarnated in my body.”
A SPECIAL TALENT
Emancipation was declared in Tom Bass’s boyhood, but that did little to change the circumstances of Presley Gray and his household. Tom grew up poor, watching his white half-brothers receive the normal upbringing of wealthy gentry: They had nice clothing, good educations---and their own horses, the best saddle horses their father could buy. The Presley Gray family owned one equine: a mule named Mr. Potts who had the annoying habit of literally sitting down on the job.
All great horsemen seem to be alike in that they share insights that never occur to other people. Cowboy Hall of Fame inductee Tom Dorrance used to say, “I have never seen a stubborn mule. But I have seen a mule shut down for a while in order to give the person time to figure out what the person should have been doing.”
According to Downey, Bass figured out how to discourage Mr. Potts from sitting down, but what he fails to emphasize is that young Tom also figured out how to make that mule not only an honest worker, but a happy and willing one. This is another major key to Bass’s success. Dorrance always advised, “You want to get it to where the horse would rather be with you than anywhere else.” I am convinced that Tom Bass knew this, for later in his life he said, “I believe that horses are like human beings.”
On a pivotal afternoon in about 1870, when his white half-brothers were taunting him for his dusty bare feet and ragged clothing, Tom decided to show them the results of a little project he had been working on. He saddled up Mr. Potts and brought him out to the center of the training arena adjacent to the barn---this to peals of derisive laughter, so boisterous that William Bass came out of his house to see what his boys were up to. They all lined up along the fence to see the show, essentially Tom Bass’s first real
audience. Downey reports that in the next 15 minutes, Tom showed his father and brothers that a mere “farm mule” could outperform their fancy blooded saddlers: smoothly making the transition from walk to canter, then from walk to a smooth and speedy rack. (“What! A mule that can rack!”) Next came a half-pass, rollback and Spanish walk. And finally, almost unbelievably, a canter backwards. Stung and embarrassed, the elder Bass reproved his white sons and, Downey reports, suggested to them that they perhaps might benefit from taking riding lessons from Tom.
“William felt that Tom had special talent,” Downey observes, “but William was also imbued with reservations when it came to exceptional Negro talent. This he expressed by saying, ‘Yes, little Tom does have good ability--considering he is a colored boy.’” William’s attitude, however, may have
shifted the day he witnessed Tom’s performance with the mule, because from that time forward he put Tom in charge of training all the horses in his barn. That this was a huge benefit to himself and his family goes without saying; but this move was also a clear acknowledgement of his son’s talent.
A LIFELONG LEARNER
Presley Gray passionately believed that education was the way out of poverty. He helped to found the first grammar school for Black children in Boone County, and he sent Tom there.
The boy reluctantly obeyed, but would much rather have spent the time with horses. He stuck with it through the third grade and learned to read and write, though not to cipher. Like many illiterate and semi-literate people, both Presley and his grandson displayed remarkable eidetic memory. Tom was
especially adept at memorizing pedigrees and could rattle off foaling dates, the names of horses and the names of the local farmers who bred them.
According to Downey, it was only after his grandparents retired and left the farm in 1870 that Tom developed a thirst for reading---his grandfather had left behind a few Old Farmer’s
Almanacs, a livestock manual and a Bible. On Sundays Tom attended the Log Providence Baptist Church which Presley Gray had helped to found, and there he was called upon to read psalms and the hymnal. In 1882 when he was 23, Tom married Angie Jewell, a teacher at the school for black children. Together they worked on Tom’s spelling, reading and mathematics.
Angie helped to ignite in Tom a lifelong thirst for knowledge. He began to read everything he could get his hands on, but especially anything having to do with livestock and horses. It is quite accurate to characterize Tom as an animal empath who showed special abilities from a very young age, but mastery
requires that natural talent be shaped and honed, and not by experience alone. Spending much time at livestock auctions and horse shows, Tom Bass relentlessly lived out Tom Dorrance’s maxim to “observe, remember and compare.” Bass studied three- and fivegaited competitors and the High School classes and, as master horseman Ray Hunt used to say, “went to bed thinking about it and got up thinking about it.” Downey reports that even as an old man Tom Bass sought out anyone he thought might be able to teach him anything about horse breeding, horse management, driving, riding or showing.
Downey does not mention it, but given this history I find it impossible to believe that Tom Bass was not aware of other great horsemen of his generation. Chief among these was Ulysses S. Grant, another animal empath whose remarkable accomplishments with horses as a toddler, a boy, a cadet at West Point, a captain in the MexicanAmerican War and a general in the Civil War were widely recounted in Bass’s time. Embedded as the Bass plantation was in “Little Dixie,” it is impossible that Tom had not heard exploits of the many very skillful Confederate cavalry commanders, great horsemen who must have been heroes to his white neighbors: Robert E. Lee, J.E.B. Stuart, Thomas Jonathan “Stonewall” Jackson, and the “Grey Ghost” John Singleton Mosby. No less than three famous southern cavalrymen hailed from “Little Dixie”: Joseph O. “Jo” Shelby, who, like Tom Bass’s father, owned a hemp plantation; John S. Marmaduke, who after the war served as Missouri governor from 1885-1887; and the infamous William Quantrill, who in retaliation for the Union’s razing of Atlanta, burned the town of Lawrence, Kansas to the ground, assassinating almost every male citi-zen over the age of 12.
Among civilian horsemen, young Tom would certainly have heard of
John S. Rarey, whose humane methods of horse training went far beyond the “Rarey strap” for which he is now chiefly remembered. Rarey, who was active in the 1850s at the very time when Tom Bass was learning, was the first American “horse whisperer.” Neither U.S. Grant nor Rarey ever wrote a book on how to train horses, but there were others in America who did.
The first of these was Edward L. Anderson. Formerly a captain in the Union army, after the war Anderson opened a riding school in New York City. His widely circulated 1883 book “The Saddle Horse: A New Method of Teaching Riding and Training by Means of Photographs Taken from Life,” drew upon two primary European sources: the Spanish Riding School at Vienna, and the writings of François Baucher. Anderson explains the basics but also includes sections on more advanced work---the sort of information Tom Bass would eagerly have devoured---such as Spanish walk, Spanish trot, flying changes, canter and trot backwards, piaffer, turns on the forehand and haunches, and lateral work.
It was in 1875 during a Saturday livestock sale at the local auction barn that Tom first met another Mr. Potts--this one a man, not a mule. Joseph
Potts came from the town of Mexico, some 30 miles from Hayden. Potts and his brother-in-law Cyrus Clark owned Mexico Horse Sales, the largest and most prestigious sale barn and training facility in Missouri at that time.
Two men more different in temperament can hardly be imagined; Potts was expansive and ebullient while Clark was conservative and calculating. Impressed by the bright teenager who politely asked him to detail a pedigree,
Potts gave Tom his card and suggested that if he wanted a job, he could use it to call upon his friend Louis Hord, owner of the Ringo Hotel in Mexico. Several days later when Tom appeared on his doorstep, Hord hired the 16-year-old as a bellhop. He soon discovered that Tom was the best employee he’d ever had---a young man who could care for his livery and also drive the hotel shuttle with spit-polish efficiency and professional skill.
Hord couldn’t brag on him enough, but what Tom really wanted was a job involving more horses. In 1876,
Joseph Potts hired Tom as a groom and trainer for Mexico Horse Sales.
In his last few years at Hayden,
Tom had acquired a local reputation for being able to reform “bad ’uns” ---well-bred horses who nobody else could handle and were dangerous to be around. When Potts had hired him, Clark openly expressed the feeling that having a Black “boy” as a trainer would detract from the firm’s reputation. Clark, however, was also the financial manager, and Tom immediately began to prove his worth by letting it be known that he would buy rogues ---which owners were happy to let go at bargain-basement prices. Tom turned dozens of these mishandled, confused, and unconfident horses into wellmannered, reliable mounts that sold for good money. When Clark saw the positive bottom line, he also saw reason to keep his doubts and biases to himself.
One afternoon in 1877, a farmer brought in a very beautiful and wellbred coal-black mare---a daughter of King William, himself a sireline descendant of the Saddlebred foundation stallion Denmark. Tom was able to purchase her for almost nothing because she was vicious. She showed aggression and hostility with both teeth and heels, and it took four stout men armed
with pitchforks to get her into a stall. Nonetheless, within two days Tom was riding her up and down Mexico’s main street. Potts and Clark were dumbfounded, but Tom said, “If she had wanted to kill me, she would have let me know.”
The next spring brought the beginning of the 1878 horse show season. Mexico had (and still has) an excellent show ground, and it was expected that the Potts and Clark firm would present at least one horse in each of the show’s major divisions----because, after all, that is the original and still the main purpose of every horse show: to exhibit before the buying public horses that are for sale. Potts and Clark’s enterprise depended upon the good publicity that show wins generate. But, upon reviewing their list of potential entries, they found to their dismay that they had nothing that would go in the fivegaited class for mares. Tom had a solution already prepared for them: the “Blazing Black,” as they now called her. There was only one hitch---no one could ride her but him. The unthinkable was now a live proposition: could a Black man compete against whites in the same arena?
Joseph Potts believed that Tom could. As Downey observes, “sociologically, Tom Bass would be ‘colored’ all his life. If he walked the water or healed the blind, his color would never change. [But] …. a measure of friendship and admiration had grown up between Tom and Joseph Potts that transcended the normal employee-employer relationship.” People who rise above the limitations of their culture and upbringing rarely realize how far their good deeds may reach. They turn the Shakespearean quotation on its head: “The good that men do lives after them; let the evil be interred with their bones.” Perhaps because it was completely unexpected---and no advance notice was given---there was no formal protest against Tom’s presence in the Mexico show ring. “His debut was such an uneventful one it was almost disappointing,” says Downey.
It was not that the judges did not notice Tom’s presence. He posed an unprecedented problem for them: What do you do when the best horse in the class is exhibited by a Black man? They gave him second place. Potts was furious, but, as Downey observes, “Tom knew the real victory was in the fact that he had been allowed to compete at all.”
A YARDSTICK FOR SUCCESS
Potts persisted in sponsoring Tom’s entry at shows, and by the end of the season Tom had been accepted by all the top competitors. Downey notes that it actually became a symbol of achievement to have beaten “the colored boy on the black mare,” and anyone who asked that Tom not be allowed to show was suspected of being afraid of losing.
Throughout Bass’s career, there were scattered incidents when other contestants or someone in the gallery would shout racial slurs. There were also attempts to harm his horses. Bass could not help but notice, but he persevered despite the ignorant and the
abusive. Joseph P. Harris, Esq., Bass’s brother-in-law, remembered: “His theory was that one should be efficient and forget about race. For example at times when he had his stables full of horses, Tom [employed] both white and colored men. It made no difference to him. The main thing he was interested in was results. In other words he became so absorbed in the art and business of training horses that he forgot all about race.”
Trainer John Hook was a lifelong friend and Mexico native who had a very successful career first in Kansas City and later in California, where he became a major force in raising the quality of West Coast shows. In a Tom Bass memorial edition published by the Mexico Evening Ledger in the late 1940s, Hook recalled that only once in Missouri did he ever find any complaint of allowing Tom to ride because he was Black. A committee of prominent horsemen came to him with a petition, the purpose of which was “to bar all Negroes from the saddle horse show rings as riders.” A number of horsemen had signed it, but they wanted Hook to head the list. “If that means Tom Bass can’t ride, I’ll not sign it,” he reported telling the committee. Then he read the list over and marked off several names already on the petition. “These men,” he reported telling the committee, “wouldn’t have signed this if they’d known it would bar Tom, so I’ll take their names off also.”
Another sour note went down in Des Moines, Iowa at the 1898 State Fair, when a number of exhibitors refused to show against Tom because he was Black. When Luther Barnet, Bill
Lee, John Hook and several other of Tom’s white friends from Mexico heard about this, they stopped Tom from taking his horses home and exhibited them for him. Some of those horses were owned by the wealthy and influential Loula Long of Kansas City, who promptly wrote an indignant letter to the Iowa State Fair Board. When Tom returned to compete the next year, there was no problem.
The Iowa kerfuffle may seem surprising to some, because by that time Tom was world famous. With Potts’ help, Tom had established his own barn by 1880. In 1883 he opened a second barn in Kansas City, where he also taught riding and founded the first
of the old Tom Bass Riding Clubs. He advised students to invest only in the best quality clothing, tack and equipment, admonished them to improve their posture when walking and sitting as well as in the saddle, and warned them away from pool halls, soda fountains, dance halls and other places of questionable repute. He also taught them the subtle uses of the double bridle equipped with the Tom Bass bit. His teaching was the more effective because he set the example himself. Art Simmons, who during the 1940s through 1960s ran the largest saddle horse training establishment in the world, recalled that “Tom Bass was one of the great riders and showmen of all time. Aside from his ability as a horseman, he was always a gentleman and highly respected not only because of his ability but because of his behavior.”
Tom and his cousin Wesley Gray ran the barn in Mexico and at first, got mostly renegades. But in 1888 Tom was asked by former Missouri governor C.H. Hardin to find a horse suitable for a man in his position, and so pleased was Hardin with the grey gelding selected and trained for him that he wrote Tom a letter of gratitude, thanking him for “making an old man feel like a boy again.” In the same year, Tom found the fearless and incredibly athletic part-Arabian Columbus standing in a cow pasture and began training him for High School exhibition. And he was already training Miss Rex, a mare bred and owned by Joseph Potts. Tom took in as many client horses as his stable would hold; the charge for training was $30 per month and the average time to finish a horse was 10 months. Tom and Angie’s bank account grew along with Tom’s reputation.
The major break came in 1893, when he was invited by the Equestrian Committee of the World’s Columbian Exposition to bring his horses to Chicago. His wins there with Miss Rex and other Potts horses propelled a career arc that would last for 40 more years and make the name of Tom Bass known nationwide.
In 1895 Alfred Vanderbilt saw Tom perform in Kansas City and invited him to compete at the National Horse Show at Madison Square Garden in New York. The governor of New York, Theodore Roosevelt---already one of Tom’s friends---was in the audience that saw him take home a majority of the prizes. His circuit widened to
include every major American horse show from New York to Sacramento, and from the Minnesota State Fair to the Atlanta Nationals.
A LEGEND AMONG LEGENDS
Contestants in Tom Bass’s day were expected to do much more than is asked of show horses today. After her championship performances in fivegaited and High School competition in Chicago, in 1896 Miss Rex went on to win the prestigious $1,000 Stilwell Sweepstakes over her half brother Rex McDonald, Thornton’s Star and many others---it was said that this class was “the greatest ring of horses ever shown.” It was a battle royal that went on for more than three hours with some 20 contestants. The next day, Miss Rex won the High School class for $600, and on the third night she took first in the Long-Bell $500 stake. At the Illinois State Fair the same year, she was first in mare open, first in the five-gaited championship class, first in the High School class. Two months later at the St. Louis Fair she was first in saddle mare any age and first in the High School class, first in combination ride-and-drive, and first in High School “tandem” class.
Tom and Angie’s son Inman was born in 1896, and vowing that his son would never know want, Bass sold his marvelous, silver-white High School horse Columbus to “Buffalo Bill” Cody for a considerable sum. By mutual agreement, Tom continued to show Columbus until, in 1906, during an exhibition at the Mexico show grounds, the stallion flipped over backwards while performing a high rear. The accident crushed Tom’s pelvis and injured his neck, depriving him of much of the feeling in his right hand. He was in the hospital for two months and then laid up at home for almost two years. Although he was in pain, nothing could make him blame Columbus. Eyewitnesses reported that at the time of the accident, the horse rolled over, stood up, and immediately turned back to nuzzle Tom and nip and pull at his clothing. “I’ll never forget that look,” said Tom. “That horse showed as much compassion for me as any person would.”
Columbus went on tour with Cody’s Wild West Show during the time when Tom could not ride. How deep did Tom Bass’s influence penetrate? During a parade down the main street of Columbia, Missouri, Columbus was standing on the bed of a wagon with one foot up on a box while lifting the other to “wave” to the crowd, a pretty girl sitting sidesaddle on his back. Something spooked the team pulling the wagon and they ran out of control down a hill. Columbus widened his stance on the box but never tried to jump off until the wagon was finally pulled to a stop and his ashen-faced rider was lifted, still shaking with terror, from his back.
William Cody was a kind man but vain and fickle, and it was not long before he grew bored with the easyto-ride Columbus. The horse was leased to the Miller Brothers 101 Wild West Show, then leased again. He died tragically in 1910 as part of “California Frank’s All Star Wild West” when the stabling tent caught fire. Tom Bass said he heard Columbus’s screams in his dreams for the rest of his life. When the Miller Brothers came to him to try to obtain a replacement, he refused to sell them any horses.
A MAJOR DRAW
Cyrus Clark owned Belle Beach’s dam, a daughter of Black Squirrel named Belle Morris. In 1888 she was covered by Forest King, another five-gaited champion trained by Tom. When the filly was born, Cyrus Clark gave her to his son Charles, who took lessons from Tom while Tom gave the mare her initial mannering and schooling. Saddlebred horses are traditionally started not under saddle but in harness, and Tom affirmed, “good saddle horses are made in harness.” Harness was not Belle’s favorite modus, but Tom’s presence made it sufficiently sweet for her. When she was 3 years old, Charles Clark sold her to an army captain named Short for use by his wife, who was an exceptionally good driver. Things went along well enough for a while, but separated from Tom’s immediate influence the mare became more and more difficult, wrecking several vehicles and finally running through a plate-glass window.
At that point, the Shorts brought her back to Tom, who offered to buy her. They would not hear of it; instead they gave her to Tom on condition that he never sell her. That was one of the easiest horse deals that Bass ever made.
Belle Beach was Tom Bass’s alltime favorite horse and there is no space here to enumerate all of her championships. Although a serious contender in any five-gaited class, more and more as the years went on the pair specialized in the High School classes, where she was without peer. Bass was so successful in High School competition on Belle Beach
that he eventually put himself out of business because no one would even try to compete with him. After the National Horse Show at Madison Square Garden converted the High School class to a non-competitive exhibition in 1898, other shows followed suit.
Thereafter, Bass continued to exhibit Belle Beach as a High School horse because show management considered them a draw. The American Royal used them for years as “half-time entertainment” during their evening program until it was noticed that a large fraction of the audience would go home after they saw Belle Beach. Management then moved them to the closing act.
In my view, this is a measure of the public’s hunger for---and appreciation of---true collection, master horsemanship, and the mysterious and moving connection that exists between a man and a horse united by deep and sympathetic understanding.
HEARTBREAK AND, FINALLY, REST
Belle Beach was champion High School horse at the International Livestock Expo in Chicago in 1916 and made her last championship there in 1926 at the age of 23, when Tom was 67 years old. By that point, age had begun to catch up with him and Angie made her husband promise to cut back on both travelling and training.
He decided that 1927 would be their last year on circuit, and announcers in St. Louis, New York, Chicago, Denver and Kansas City informed audiences that this would be their last opportunity to see Belle Beach. The doctors had informed Tom that he had a mild heart condition and approaching the age of 70 it was time to slow down.
Some shocks are almost too devastating for any heart to bear.
Tom’s son Inman had struggled in life; bright but lacking direction, he worked as a railway porter and descended into alcoholism. At the age of 34 he stumbled under the wheels of a train. When Tom heard the news, he collapsed in grief. Friends came to help out at the barn. Neighbors who revered him as an elder statesman of horsemanship asked Tom to come over to advise on breaking their colts and to teach their children to ride, and that helped even more.
By 1931 Tom had improved enough that his doctors gave him permission to ride in the St. Louis Spring Horse Show. Amidst the excitement of the five-gaited class, Tom suffered a catastrophic heart attack. He had to be pried out of the saddle. After a doctor treated him on the grounds, he was taken home to Angie’s care.
While he was recuperating, the
St. Louis Globe-Democrat came to interview him. Tom said, “I’m glad that automobiles came in when they did. They were the emancipation of the horse. Many nights I have lain awake thinking about poor tired horses that had been whipped all day to make them do things that their bodily strength did not permit. To a man who loves a horse, to see one abused is as bad as having the whip laid on his own body. So the automobiles after all were a welcome relief to the average horse.
“Good horses are still with us and are commanding a higher price today than ever before. Riding is a more popular sport today than it was 25 years ago when almost everybody had a horse. It will always be popular
because there is nothing that can compare in thrills with a swift canter on the back of a horse.”
The earth went ‘round the sun two more times before, one early morning, Tom found Belle Beach dead in her stall. People say that this hastened his end and I do not doubt it. A few weeks later, Tom Bass died of heart failure. No less than five clergy officiated at his funeral. Thousands of tributes poured in. Hundreds of visitors who came to the house saw Tom’s trophy cabinets containing over 2,000 ribbons and at least 30 silver trophies.
More than a decade later in
1947, The Mexico Evening Ledger produced a Tom Bass memorial issue because the General Assembly of the Missouri Legislature had passed a formal resolution honoring Tom Bass, Black horseman.
Fifty-two more years passed until, in 1999, Tom was inducted by the same legislature into the Hall of Famous Missourians, where he is honored along with such luminaries as Mark Twain and Harry Truman.
His induction may in part have been prompted by the actions of a petty vandal named Joseph Haly, who as a 19 year old in 1997 set fire to the 114-year old Bass barn and was convicted of second-degree arson. As reported in The Southeast Missourian, the historic structure was completely destroyed, but no mere fire has the power to destroy the immortal legacy of Tom Bass.
Coming next: Tom Bass and the Forgotten Art of the American High School