TOM BASS VS. TOMFOOLERY
The effects of weighted shoes were well known in the 19th century. Knowledgeable people objected to them. John Dimon mentored industry mogul and harness fancier Robert Bonner in the principles and practice of horseshoeing (see “The First American ‘Sport Horse’ Breed,” EQUUS 502) and said in 1892: “My experience and observation has been that [any] horse that carries a high rate of speed … seldom, if ever, was known to make a successful campaigner shod with short toes and high heels, or the reverse, or both, and encumbered by hobbles, sideweights, toe weights, heel weights, calks of all kinds of lengths, shapes, and sizes, set on at as many various angles, or any artificial appliances; [because all of them] are sure and certain to keep a horse from being a perfect articulator, and a perfect articulator he must be before he is a successful campaigner at a high rate of speed … Man may, by fitting up the feet in various ways, gait a horse or produce certain results which may be desirable, but any and all tampering with the feet so as to turn them out of their natural form is, sooner or later, bound to result in soreness or lameness.”
Tom Bass did not believe in “artificial means” and often said, “success is all in the training.” There are no images of Tom Bass’s horses with “set” or nicked tails, standing or running martingales, bitting rigs, or weighted boots, pads or shoes. In many photographs his mounts appear to be barefoot. This is significant considering the hundreds of wins they logged on outdoor tracks or arenas, on every kind of footing from mud slop to baked dirt, in contests that never took less than one hour to decide. On the day his mare Miss Rex defeated theretofore unbeaten Rex McDonald for the prestigious Stilwell Five-Gaited Stake on the Fairmount Park Racetrack in Kansas City, Tom Bass is remembered as having attributed the great stallion’s loss to the use of weighted shoes. Weighted shoes can increase a horse’s action but they also cause premature fatigue. The contest took more than three hours to decide and even Rex McDonald could not meet this demand in weighted shoes. Bass, who had ridden and trained the great stallion, lamented the loss as being completely unnecessary.
Tom Bass was not alone in his feelings against “artificial means.” This photo of the handsome Kentucky-bred Auburn Rose (foaled 1905, by King Lee Rose and out of Willie Winlock) was taken prior to the sale of the horse to G.T. Williamson, and the photo and caption appeared in a newspaper ad taken out in 1917 by the regretful breeder. Tail-setting did not become widespread until the 1930s; actually breaking the tailbones or else cutting the nerves or muscles that empower tail movement was more popular between 1900 and 1935, but unsterile and clumsy surgeries carried out by grooms or owners ruined so many horses that the practice died out by the 1930s and was replaced by the use of tail-sets, tail cradles and tail braces.
The original G.T. Williamson crupper— today known as a “tail-set.” The 1911 U.S. Patent document states in part: “It is the object of the present invention to provide an improved crupper and the primary aim of the invention is to provide a crupper so constructed as to hold the stock of an animal’s tail upright and maintain it in this position for a desired length of time, thereby creating a tendency for the stock of the tail to grow in the position stated.” Williamson’s invention took the horse’s comfort into consideration; as the drawing shows, the tail support is padded with soft leather, and the patent document states,“The invention aims further to so construct the crupper that although it will normally hold the stock of the tail in upright position, this is accomplished partly through the medium of springs which render the device yieldable to a certain degree so that the animal is not materially inconvenienced.”
There are two problems with this: One, no crupper can ever cause the tail to grow upright; and two, even with springs which allow the horse to move its tail, wearing it 24/7 is indeed a material inconvenience to the animal. Horses that wear tail-sets frequently develop sores on the hairless part of the dock. They cannot be turned out with other horses, lest the rig become caught on something or another horse displace it and injure the tail. Horses that wear tail-sets must live in stalls with boards installed in the manner of a shelf that runs along the wall of the stall at hip-height, for the purpose of preventing the animal’s tail from bumping up against the wall.
Artificial devices are favored by people who insist on the appearance of collection in the absence of understanding how to obtain it. The beautiful appearance of a horse is not merely a matter of having a “waterspout” tail; when a horse makes the effort to raise its back and the base of its neck in order to collect, it will then arch its tail too because the tail is part of the vertebral chain.
Tom Bass trainee Rex Chief A, shown here in 1911, was a very handsome and correctly conformed stallion. Not all horses are beautifully conformed, but I would defy anyone to find even a single example of the many Saddlebreds presented in this article which is not a beautiful horse. American Saddlebreds have their characteristic conformational faults, like horses of any other breed. Careless breeding can produce weak-backed individuals with very narrow bodies; there’s an old joke about Saddlebreds having both front legs “coming out of the same hole.” They tend to be a little long in the hind limbs, which can push the croup higher than the withers. Fans of the breed like to see a level croup and a tail set on high. They also admire a magnificent shoulder, prominent breast and wellcarried head.
Stretched poses became popular in the 1890s because they disguise a high croup and over-angulation in the hind limbs. Posing on a slope makes a rump-high or “overbuilt” horse look as if it has level overall body balance. Rex Chief A was trained to several championships by Tom Bass, so we need not doubt whether the horse was athletic—but we can never know it from this photo because horses so posed cannot be accurately analyzed. Intentionally tricky and dishonest photography of this type has unfortunately become standard for Saddlebreds and Tennessee Walking Horses, as well as for certain sectors of the Morgan and Arabian breeds. When all horses in halter classes are presented in a stretched pose, breeders, judges, showmen and sellers have created a culture of belief in “alternative facts” which promotes the breeding of horses with faulty conformation. Why would breeders want to mix the elixir of their own destruction?