I wanted to ride in the National Horse Show in Madison Square Garden when I was 12.
Every November, our 4-H club in rural northwest Connecticut would charter a bus from the E.J. Kelley Transit Company and we’d go into “the city” to the National Horse Show at Madison Square Garden. I still remember most of the landmarks we’d pass along the way, and the smell of roasting chestnuts and hot pretzels can take me back there in a second.
We’d go on a Saturday for the afternoon and evening performances, and there were always equitation, hunter, saddle seat, and jumping classes. The evening performance would be opened by a ringmaster in full livery blowing a horn to begin the competition. The upper seats were full of folks like us, youth groups with their chaperones; but, down in the boxes in the front – men wore tuxes (and patent leather shoes!) and women wore gowns and gloves and their good jewelry.
The show programs, which always had the same picture on the cover, listed not only the classes, and names of horses and riders, it also had a directory of the box holders. As you may well imagine, Mr. Steinkraus and his wife Helen were box holders. Every year I’d find out where his box was and make my way down, program and pen in hand, shaking like a leaf, and ask for his autograph. He always smiled. He was always gracious. What more could I want in a hero? I still have those programs.
Along with my star-struck encounters with Mr. Steinkraus, the opportunity to be somewhat up close and personal with some of the greatest names in show jumping and show hunters was heady stuff. Occasionally, I’d go and stand as close to the in-gate as I could. From ground level, those 5’ fences seemed more like 15’. It was mesmerizing to see the intense look on the riders’ faces. To hear the horses breathing, and feel the vibrations as they galloped by. I still have a small piece of stone kicked up by Idle Dice on one of the blazing-fast turns Rodney Jenkins could get from him as they flew to the next fence (and often to the win).
We would watch the classes and pick our favorites – my Mom always had a pretty good eye for a winning 5-gaited horse (my Mom wasn’t a horse person – I guess she just had a knack for picking out a talented Saddlebred).
Then there was the War Dress. War Dress was a beautiful chestnut Thoroughbred mare bred by Mrs. A. C. Randolph of Upperville, VA. The 2 years I saw her at the Garden, she was ridden by Nancy Baroody. Together the pair racked up wins in hunter and equitation classes and War Dress was the AHSA National Horse of the Year in both 1972 and 1973. War Dress was lovely, and Nancy was an impeccable rider. What was even better? She was a local! She lived just 15 miles or so from my home. That catapulted Nancy into a whole new level of hero. I met her several years later, and her kindness kept her comfortably in my hero category.
And if all of that wasn’t enough, there was shopping! (Miller’s Harness and Kauffman’s Saddlery each had a shop in MSG. Neither one still exists – but every year, my entire Christmas wish list could be purchased from the catalog of either of those venerable institutions.
The whole experience was magic to me. I’d go home every year and create training programs for my Quarter Horse/Arab cross ex-ranch horse mare. We never went further than 4-H and Pony Club competitions, but that dream would rekindle every year as I climbed onto that bus and headed to the city to spend a day with my hero.