Horse Hero Bill Steinkraus

Horse Jumping Champion bill-steinkraus

William C. Steinkraus was a member of the USET’s show jumping squad for more than 20 years. The Team’s riding captain for 16 years, he rode on 39 winning Nations Cup teams. His five Olympics included the 1968 Mexico City Games where he became the first American rider to win an individual gold medal. Bill went on to serve as the USET’s president, chairman, and chairman emeritus.

How did you get started with horses ?

I think I was born horse-crazy. All of my favorite childhood pictures, toys and stories involved horses from as far back as I can remember, and the biggest thrills of my young life were pony rides, whenever the opportunity presented itself. I grew up in Westport, Connecticut, which was and is a fairly horsy area, Westport being about halfway between the Ox Ridge Hunt Club in Darien and the Fairfield County Hunt Club in Fairfield. When I was very young, I mostly just dreamed about horses, but when I was nine, my sisters and I were sent to a summer camp in Canada that included some rudimentary riding instruction in its program. I was thrilled and got to do a little riding, as well as learning archery, sailing and canoeing. The second year I became a something of a problem camper because I didn’t want to leave the stables.
Back home that fall, my sisters and I changed schools to one that happened to have a modest riding program, conducted by a marvelous Canadian-born woman named Ada Maud Thompson, who had also started up an American branch of the British Pony Club in Wilton, Conn., long before any American Pony Club existed. I rode in her school riding program, and won my first ribbon—beginners to walk and trot—in a school show. When the school program stopped for the winter, I somehow persuaded my mother to let me continue riding with Mrs. T at her at her own stables. The following year my parents bought for me the school pony I had been riding, Tweedledum, who had a pretty good jump and a mind of his own. I thought he was Man o’ War!
I should note that my parents did not come from a horse background. Luckily, however, my darling mother believed that children should be encouraged and permitted to follow their passions wherever they led, within reason. In retrospect, it was very fortunate that I was drawn so strongly to horses, for I was always the smallest member of my class as a kid, and trying to cope with mainstream team sports would have been a very tough struggle. I now realize that it must have been a huge challenge for my mother to keep up with the cost of all those lessons during those depression years, for one sister was an actress, the other a singer/pianist, and I was trying to learn how to play the violin as well as to ride. Nonetheless, she somehow managed it and thus made my whole subsequent riding career possible.
Before long I had become practically a member of “Mrs. T’s” family, and during the summer I was at her stables almost all day long, every day, mucking out, grooming and cleaning tack if I wasn’t riding. Mrs. T organized local shows and a local point-to-point, and was a passionate foxhunter, so I got to learn something about all those things too. Mrs. T believed that you learned to ride by riding, especially bareback, and in her quiet way she gave me a marvelous foundation and a real respect for horses. We went mostly to shows (and hunts) that you could hack to, those within a radius of fifteen miles or so. After several years of this and some local success, Mrs. T and my mother decided that I should spread my wings and move up to a stables that went to some of the bigger shows that were farther away, so at fifteen I moved on to Gordon Wright’s Saxon Woods Riding Club (later to become Secor Farms).

What was it like riding with Gordon Wright?

Gordon really picked up where Mrs. T left off, for he, too, believed a lot in bareback riding. He liked to set up a jumping chute in the indoor ring and would run us down it without stirrups or reins, with our hands on top of our heads, behind our backs or wherever. He was practical rather than theoretical in those days, a rough and ready taskmaster, but basically very good natured. His clients included a bunch of good kids who all rode hunters and jumpers in addition to equitation, and he took us to shows somewhere almost every week, from the schooling shows he ran himself, and the local Westchester County shows to major shows like North Shore, Piping Rock and the Garden. Archie Dean (who won the Maclay in the Garden, as did his younger brother and sister) was Gordon’s best pupil at the time, and I think I learned as much from watching him, and Peggy Carpenter, and Marion Loucks, as I did from Gordon himself. All of them would have made good team candidates today. It was Gordon who started me with open jumpers, riding Sonny, a favorite “old stager”of his. Sonny could still jump clear rounds in his twenties, but was quick to deposit you on the ground if he didn’t like the way you rode your approach.

Didn’t you ride some saddle horses, too, in those days?

In the l930s you could theoretically ride either hunter seat or what was called “park seat” in equitation on the flat, but by l940 it had become apparent that the only way you could get pinned was to wear jodhpurs and ride something that was pretty saddle-horsey. (You looked funny on a hunter or jumper wearing jodhpurs, however, and some of the more exciting moments of my young life were spent changing in the back of an overheated car, wondering if I’d get the change made in time for the next class!) So in l940 and l94l I did some saddle horse riding with that great gentleman, Frank Carroll, who was as much at home with saddle horses as with jumpers, and this experience culminated in my winning the AHSA Medal in l940—there was only one in those days, a flat class with cumulative annual points—and eventually the Good Hands finals. Frank also taught me how to drive four-in-hands, for he considered it wonderful training for your hands.
Getting driven to Gordon’s place or to Frank Carroll’s as well as to the shows was a burden that was shared by my the whole family, and it must have been a huge relief when I finally got my own driver’s license. I knew and really liked many of the kids I rode against in those days, for we had a lot of fun together, and the older girls knew all the risqué jokes. Because of subsequent events I especially remember Ethel Skakel from Greenwich (later Mrs. Robert F. Kennedy), a thorough tomboy who was a lot of fun and a gutsy jumper rider, and Jackie Bouvier (later to become our first lady), who rode hunters and equitation very elegantly in the fancier Long Island shows.

How did you get started with Cappy Smith?

Like everyone else in those days, I idolized Morton W. “Cappy” Smith, the famous show-rider/dealer, who then lived only fifteen minutes away from our home, near the Fairfield County Hunt Club. (After World War II he reestablished himself in Middleburg, Virginia.) By then I was riding a cheap ex-racehorse that I was trying to convert into a jumper, but I wasn’t doing a very good job of it. Cappy offered to take it off my hands and help me find something else. At first I just tried a few of his green horses, but than he suggested that if I came over every day during the summer he would “put me on some horses.” Riding with Cappy regularly was like getting a graduate course in hunters and jumpers. He’d let me exercise or school four or five different horses every day–sometimes more–everything from dead green ones and nappy ones to show-ring champions, and then I’d go with him to shows, riding amateur hunter classes on some of his superhorses. I can never properly repay him for all the things he taught me, not just about horses, but about everything.
The culmination of my career as a junior rider came in l94l, when I had just turned sixteen and won both the Maclay and Good Hands Finals at the Garden. Cappy shut down his business and went into the service the following year, and after a year at Yale, I followed him to Fort Riley. I had volunteered early to be able to pick my branch of service, and succeeded in getting to Fort Riley and taking my basic training mounted. After basic training I joined a mounted cavalry regiment (the l24th) that was on its way overseas. When we got to India, however, our Australian horses never materialized, and we went into combat in Burma on foot, with mules to carry the artillery pieces and the heavy equipment. Luckily I got through it all in one piece, and by the very end of l945 I disembarked in Seattle after a long voyage from Shanghai. Two weeks later I was a civilian again.

How did you get started riding again after the War?

I was lucky enough to be accepted back at Yale almost immediately after I returned from overseas. My parents had boarded a hunter/jumper mare for me while I was in the Army (for $30/month, turned out), and I started riding her on weekends almost immediately. I also got a chance to gallop some racehorses for Arthur McCashin, who lived only twenty minutes or so away. While in school I was contacted by a retired Yale wrestling coach who had some jumpers at his place in West Haven and asked me to show them for him. We showed all over New England and won quite a bit. “Izzy” Winters had been the World Lightweight Wresting Champion before World War I, and had barnstormed all over the world. He was a great character, a wonderful story-teller and a vastly amusing companion.
After I finished college Izzy sold his best jumper to Albrurae Farm in Connecticut, and I continued to ride him for his new owners. Later I rode hunters for John Farrell and a bunch of different horses for Fairview Farms, among them the Hall of Fame jumper Ping Pong. Next, thanks to Cappy’s recommendation, I was offered a really fancy string of jumpers to ride by the late Arthur Nardin, one of whose ambitions it was to win the Long Island Jumper Championship. This involved a long series of shows on the Island, and we had great fun traveling all over the Island from our home base in Brookville, and we finally succeeded in winning the series, as well as competing at many other major shows.
The experience of having to make my own decisions, and riding a variety of horses in so many competitions was to prove invaluable to me later on. For one advantage of the old, uncomplicated jumper courses with touches to count was that you could ride each horse in two or three classes a day, and compete against the best professionals even before you had any chance of beating them. As a kid, I rode against people like Joe Green, Cappy Smith, Mickey Walsh, Arthur McCashin and Pat Dixon, all Hall of Famers. Thus, unlike Mary Chapot, for example, I didn’t have to come straight to the USET from the equitation division (which didn’t exist, as such, in my era); by the time I made the team I had ridden in hundreds of horse shows and thousands of competitions, and had really lived more or less the life of a young professional.
(So much so, in fact, that at one point my amateur status was challenged by a bunch of people who had no facts, but only assumptions to go on!)

How did you become connected with the USET?

Following the l948 Olympic Games (which I had attended as a spectator), the official announcement was made that there would be no more Army Cavalry participation in international equestrian competition (including the Fall Circuit and the Olympics), and that a civilian teams would be selected and trained. The next year an ad hoc organization, predecessor of the USET, was created to provide teams for the National Horse Show and the Olympics, and Gordon Wright was engaged to conduct screening trials. Final trials were held at Indiantown Gap, Pennsylvania, to pick the l950 Fall Circuit team.
I didn’t have a really solid horse to take to the first trials, and didn’t take part, but the following summer both a Fall Circuit team and an Olympic squad were chosen through trials at Fort Riley, Kansas, and I went out there with Black Watch, loaned to me by Don Ferraro. Black Watch wasn’t exactly the international type, and knew nothing about the banks, ditches and water jumps that were included in the trials courses. However, he was brave and tough and could jump a big fence, and it was he who made it possible for me to squeeze my way onto the team, joining Arthur McCashin, Carol Durand and Johnny Russell, the sole carry-over from the l948 Army Olympic Team.
I rode on the Fall Circuit in l95l, in the Games in l952, and then remained with the USET through l972, missing the Fall Circuit only in l953, when my job didn’t permit it, and l960, when I was recovering from a fall in the World Championships. The story of those twenty-two years, and twenty-one more in the administration of the UISET as President and then Chairman is too long to tell here, but it included a lot of thrills along with all the headaches, a lot of marvelous international victories, Pan American and Olympic medals, and unforgettable people, horses and experiences. I wouldn’t exchange all those memories for anything!
As you can tell from what I’ve said, from my very earliest horse experiences I was blessed with a whole series of wonderfully generous teachers, mentors and owners, right through my experiences with the team. So many people went so far out of their way to give me the very best help they could! It took me a long time to realize that a very large part of my own success had really depended on others, and represented in some degree the fulfillment of their own dreams as well as my own. For truly, nobody can hope to succeed in accomplishing difficult things all by themselves! You don’t really understand or appreciate much of this when you’re young, but as you grow older you learn, and eventually much of your pleasure comes from trying to give the same helping hand to talented youngsters that you were given as you grew up. It was ever so!

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