How did you get started with horses?
I was raised in the mountains of east Tennessee, near Bristol, which is on the Virginia border. Dr. Bruce Mongel, our family doctor, had foxhounds. He loved to hunt them – it was the only way he could get away from the telephone. This wasn’t the English style of riding to hounds -people on foot followed the sounds of the hounds baying as they hunted down a fox.
This was about 1946, and I was in my early teens. Another neighbor and I used to go with him to listen to the hounds hunting. I also helped take care of the hounds. Then the next thing I knew, the doctor suggested “Why don’t we get a couple of old horses so we can ride out to the mountains on the dirt roads and listen to the hounds?” We went to the stockyards and picked up some old horses. I had no formal riding training, I just learned to ride and jump obstacles out in the country.
The local fair had some jumping, so we took the horses. Of course we couldn’t get over the first jump. The doctor, who was a pretty wealthy guy, said, “To hell with this – let’s get some better horses.” And we did. They were better schooled, real foxhunting horses.
I don’t known why it was, but I could ride. I started to jump the horses, then take them to little horse shows in eastern Tennessee. The courses weren’t very complicated: twice around the four jumps around the ring, and once in a while there’d be an in-and-out. Or once around and down the middle.
Another guy in town bought a horse with a little more talent. I showed the horse in open jumper classes and started winning at the bigger horse shows in Tennessee and western North Carolina. An open jumper class in those days had nothing to do with money won, they just had higher jumps. You’d be lucky if you won a class and got $15.
When did you become a professional?
I was seventeen years old when I went to the Atlanta horse show. I won the jumper stake. I’ll never forget going back into the middle of the ring and having them put a wreath of roses around the horse’s neck. A guy by the name of Jack Godwin was judging. He asked me, “Son, you wouldn’t be interested in a job, would you?” I asked, “Doing what?” He said, “Riding horses, of course. Why don’t you come see me next weekend, and we’ll talk about it.”
Jack Godwin lived in Southern Pines, North Carolina where he worked for a man named Brewster. I borrowed my sister’s car and drove to North Carolina. Jack’s barn was so fancy, I didn’t think it was a barn… I went on driving right down the road.
I went to work there riding nice hunters. There was a first-string rider, and then I came. I rode there till I had to go into the service. After two years in Korea, I went back to Southern Pines.
In 1955, a friend of Jack’s had a horse that he thought was talented enough to be a jumper. Jack took the horse, and I rode and showed him all over North Carolina.
Jack called Arthur McCashin and Billy Steinkraus and told them about this horse. When they came down to see him, Bill fell in love with the horse and they bought him. The horse was Night Owl that showed with the [United States Equestrian] Team.
As we were walking back to the barn, Billy, who I had met for the first time that day, said to me, “Bob, what are you planning to do?” That was because Mr. Brewster decided to sell off his horses. “I don’t know,” I replied, “I guess I’ll go back to Tennessee.”
“Well,” he said, “how’d you like to come and work for the Team?” I asked, doing what, and Billy said, “We need somebody to kind of run the barn – to ride a little bit and exercise, to supervise the help, and run the stable.”
The Team was in Camden, South Carolina. So I packed my bags and went to Camden, just in time to go with the Team to the Pan Am Games in Mexico.
Was [jumping coach] Bert deNemethy with the Team in those days?
In those days the Team would winter in Tryon, North Carolina and summer at Arthur McCashin’s place in New Jersey. At that time Bert was walking hots in California. Then Billy and Arthur arranged through Gabor Foltanyi [another Hungarian horseman-émigré] to get Bert a job with the Team as kind of our liaison guy. You see, when the Team went to Europe, we couldn’t read the conditions books – we didn’t have anyone who could read all those languages.
Bert came with the Team and took over. He turned the Team’s whole world around in show jumping with his training techniques.
Bert and I got along really great. In those days the Team was run by old military guys who went by the book., such as “a horse gets eight pounds of hay” sort of thing. Bert and I wrote everything down and talked it over. Then we asked [USET president] Whitney Stone for a meeting. When Whitney Stone heard our suggestions, he turned everything over to us. Bert did such a good job, and I gained so much experience being second in charge.
Describe showing in the Team’s early days.
In the early days people would give the Team horses they couldn’t do much with. We got some pretty bad ones, but also some good ones like Sinjon, Czar d’Esprit, and Night Owl.
The Team didn’t do many shows compared with today. We went to Ox Ridge, Branchville, and the fall indoor shows. We didn’t have the money to go to Europe every year; we’d go every other year or every third year. We’d fly the horses over because of the conditioning factor, but we’d come back by boat because it was cheaper.
Showing in Europe was an eye-opener for us. The first horse show Frank Chapot went to, he rode a little horse named Matador. It was a time class, and Frank and the horse went as fast as they could go. They came out of the rings, both their tongues hanging out, but I don’t think they even won a ribbon. Why? The European horses were so well broke, they were better at turning.
European horse shows had puissance classes in which five or six horses were jumping seven feet. We didn’t have that in this country.
Military teams used show jumping as training. There would be competitions between regiments, and any youngster who showed he was good would find officer bars on his uniform shoulders and all his expenses paid for. We didn’t have that; all we had was what we could put together.
The 1956 Games were the first Olympics I went to. Although the Olympics were in Australia, a quarantine there cause the equestrian events to be held in Stockholm, Sweden. The night before the jumping, I went to the stadium. I was young and agile in those days, and I climbed over the wall to see the course. It was scary. The fences were huge. The oxers were wide – I couldn’t believe it.
How long were you with the Team?
From 1955 to 1961. The Team had moved to Greenwich, Connecticut, on Taconic Road. We were there for many years, and that’s where I met my future wife, Jeri.
When after the Rome Olympics the Team moved to Gladstone, New Jersey, I commuted for the first year, then resigned as the Team’s manager after Jeri and I had gotten married. I was going to go to work for my father-in-law, who was the head man in this country for Michelin Tires, but he passed away. That’s when I left the Team to stay and run their family’s Harkaway Farm.
Through my connections with the Team I got nice customers like the [Walter] Devereaux family. Nice horses too.
How did your relationship with Insilco develop?
During the ’80s I was at the Ox Ridge horse show when its manager, Dave Wright, asked me to spend a little time with several visitors to the show and explain what was going on. The men were from Insilco, which was a conglomerate based on the International Silver Company. A few days later, one of the men phoned and invited me to lunch. He said Insilco wanted to become involved in the horse world and he asked whether I’d be their liaison.
I did that for years. At first Insilco sponsored AHSA hunter/jumper high-point awards, but ended up sponsoring them for all the breeds and divisions. My job took me all over the country, to horse shows and dinners. I did it until Insilco sold off its silver division.
You still follow horse showing closely, don’t you?
My daughter Tracy took over Harkaway, and I help her when she’s down in Palm Beach, which is where I retired to. I’m at the horse show almost every day.
If you want my opinion, the hunters of old were better than the ones you see today. Back then hunters were well-bred Thoroughbreds, like Cap and Gown and Spindletop Showdown. There are too many warmbloods now. I understand why: they’re easier to train.
Plus, back then you didn’t bring a horse to a horse show until it could jump 3/6″. Then too, you had to gallop – you had to be brilliant. Now it’s all by the numbers, everything is striding. Today’s hunter riders are like equitation riders.
On the other hand, the jumper horses and riders are better than ever. Why? Because the riders copy the classic style of George Morris and Billy Steinkraus.
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Bob Freels now lives in West Palm Beach, Florida. He is married to the former Patti Brown, mother of Olympic show jumper Buddy Brown.