Horse Hero Neal Shapiro

horse jumping champion neil shapiro

An outstanding show jumping rider as a junior, Neal Shapiro went on to great international success on USET squads, culminating with his winning the Individual Bronze Medal at the 1972 Munich Olympics.

When and where did you first become interested in riding?

I must have been 10 years old or maybe even younger. – that would have been around 1953 or ’54. My family went pleasure riding, renting horses for trail rides at Ed Fisher’s Riding Academy at Hempstead Lake State Park on Long Island, New York. It was a family affair, and I just liked horses.
The only lessons I ever had were at a stable in Old Brookville, on Long Island’s North Shore. A man named Jimmy Miller gave them to me before a horse show. Otherwise, I had no formal lessons before riding with Bert deNemethy on the Team. I was pretty much self-taught. I listened to whoever I could listen to and watched everyone – I picked up information whenever and wherever I could.
I started going to local horse shows, then moved up to the Long Island circuit that included North Shore and Piping Rock. I rode jumpers, and some hunters too. I did the Medal/Maclay, all self-taught. Of course equitation was much simpler than today. A course might be once around and down the middle. The Medal and Maclay would have had a broken line or a diagonal line. Striding and turns weren’t so demanding as they are today.
I got to the Maclay finals twice. Considering that I rode the horses that I was riding later that night in jumper classes, I didn’t do very well. But actually, one year – probably 1962, I did manage to make the cut.

Who were the riders you watched and learned from when you were a junior?

Bill Steinkraus, Frank Chapot, Kathy Kusner, Dave Kelley, and Ben O’Meara.
Benny O’Meara was very bright and clever. He spent hours thinking about how to get horses to jump better. He too was self-taught. He’d watch other riders and pick people’s brains. Benny liked horses with lots of impulsion. They weren’t going fast, but they sure were in front of Benny’s leg and on the bit. He’d tie their standing martingales really short to get them back on their hocks.
I’d watch these riders school and ride, and then I’d go out and compete against them. I tried to do what I thought they were doing. I was so erratic; there was no consistency on my part. I never understood what they did to their horses to make theirs work, or why they did it.
Whatever it was, things went right more times than not because there were a lot of good rounds and a lot of wins. There certainly were a lot of good times, but I wish I knew then what I know now.

Your first important horses were Uncle Max. Is it true Uncle Max was a rodeo horse?

Uncle Max came out of the Cowtown Rodeo in New Jersey where he was a saddle bronc. He always remembered that when the saddle was put on and the girth tightened – his job was to get the rider off. Getting on was always a problem. There were times I had to take flying leaps to get into the saddle or drop down from a car hood or roof or even drop down from the hayloft of a barn while Max was led underneath. He wasn’t a mean horse or was he difficult to ride once you got on. – it was all show, but he put on quite a show in the schooling area and going into the ring.

Then came Jacks Or Better and your trying out for the USET.

After years of Uncle Max competing against Jacks Or Better, my father bought Jacks for me from Ben O’Meara. That was quite a powerful one-two combination. In 1964, people asked whether I was going to the try-outs for the Olympics. I hadn’t thought about going because I thought I wasn’t good enough; I had heard that jumping in Europe was a lot different from over here. Why bother, I thought – I might as well go to a horse show instead.
But people convinced me to go. In those days the trials were a four-day proposition in front of selectors such as Bert deNemethy, Billy Steinkraus, Frank Chapot, and Generals Burton and Wing. On the first day, the selector observed riders free-riding. The second day was a dressage test. The third day had gymnastics in series of lines; the selectors were interested in how you warmed up and which lines you chose to ride. Finally there was a stadium jumping course.
I had Max and Jacks. Max would never be a dressage horse, except maybe for the airs above the ground when I tried to get on him. Nor would Jacks, who never had a pure canter – he’d shuffle. But a few people came to my rescue. They not only encouraged me to go, but they lent me a horse that could do the flat work and the gymnastics cavaletti. I took Jacks for the jumping.

The procedure went well enough for you to be selected to train with the Team.

Working with Bert at Gladstone the winter of 1965 was quite the eye-opening experience. It was just Bernie Traurig and myself. I had no idea I was that dumb! I listened to everything he said and did whatever he told me to do, which often included my putting my body into positions I never dreamed of. I hurt everywhere.
Then there was Bert’s Hungarian accent. Half the time I didn’t understand a word he was saying, but I just went along. There were several occasions when he indicated he felt he had no accent at all and that he spoke perfectly good English.
After a while, the training sessions became boringĀ¼ nothing but flat work and lunge line work. At first I wasn’t even permitted to ride my own horses. Bert rode Jacks, and he was going to “fix” Maxie and make him a normal horse.
It was at least three or four months before I could my horses. Until then, I rode horses that were at Gladstone: San Pedro, San Marcos, and San Lucas.

1966 was your first trip to Europe, wasn’t it?

Yes. I took Jacks and a Team horse called Hopeful. Bert, who had been less than successful in his efforts to “fix” Uncle Max, refused to take him, saying he didn’t want the horse to embarrass the United State. Hopeful was 15.3 and with little show experience, but he could jump. However, he couldn’t handle the European courses, so I ended up with Jacks and with Night Spree, a mare that Chrystine Jones [Tauber] was riding. Europe was another education. I never thought there could be such courses. The size of the jumps, the lengths of the courses, the distances… what a difference from the very elementary grand prix’s in this country.
I rode Night Spree at Aachen on the last two days. The first time I rode her, she planted me at an oxer. The second time , I was second in the farewell speed class. Then I rode Jacks in the Grand Prix of Aachen and we won that class, one of the greatest days of my career.
The next summer’s tour wasn’t the most successful for me. Jacks was hurt, and Bert still wouldn’t let me take Max. I rode San Pedro and Night Spree. Pedro was one of the Team’s schoolmasters. He wasn’t a winner, he was a four-faulter at best – clear rounds weren’t his specialty.

But 1988 was an improvement.

It didn’t start out that way. I had no horses to ride. Night Spree was coming back from an injury, and Jacks also had to remain at home to recover from an injury.
I told Bert, “let’s make a deal. If I could prove to you Max will be okay, can I take him?” Out of desperation, Bert agreed. Bert set the standards. Max and I met them, and Max went. And the horse improved with use.
Someone at Hickstead made an offer to buy Max. When I told Bert that Max was the Team’s horse for as long as Bert wanted him, Bert said I should sell the horse, which I did after the Hickstead Grand Prix.
The next year wasn’t high point. I had just gotten the ride on Mr. and Mrs. Patrick Butler’s horse Sloopy. The Team was going to Europe by air. The horses were loaded onto pallets and were just about to hoisted up and loaded when someone spotted that one of the latches needed adjusting. Making the repair took quite some time , and the horses became a little antsy. Then they had to change runways. Planes were coming in over the cargo area, and the sounds of the jets flying so low overhead frightened the horses. By the time the horses were lifted off the ground to be loaded, the tranquilizers had worn off. Sloopy began thrashing. Bert said, “Take him down,” and that was it.
That was a real quiet summer for me. Sloopy was to have been my horse, and I didn’t have a lot to ride. In fact, I can’t even remember what I rode that year.

But 1971 was an improvement.

That next summer Sloopy and I went by ship. I’m not a sailor, and I’d never do that again! Peter Zeitler, the groom, and I had left with Sloopy earlier than the rest of the Team. We met the others in France when they arrived, and I told Bert “I don’t care what you do. You can fire me, never take me to Europe again, send me home now – but I’m not going back by boat!” Fortunately, I didn’t have to – I went back by plane with the rest of the Team.
Easily the highlight of that trip was Sloopy’s winning the Grand Prix of Aachen. Talk about tough European courses — the first fence was a triple bar going away from the In gate, followed by a turn to a 7′ wall. The class got down to a puissance after Marcel Rozier of France and I were tied after five rounds.

The following summer were the Munich Olympics Games.

The summer started out with Sloopy getting a fever in Aachen. One morning I was awakened with the news that Bert wanted to see me down at the barn. I put on my riding clothes and went. Sloopy was sick, and I had to ride Triple Crown, Kathy Kusner’s horse (affectionately known as Dumpy). I got on and jumped a few fences. That afternoon we went in the Nations Cup. It was not a pretty sight. I don’t remember the score, but I do recall ending up on the ground in the first round. I managed to hang on in the second round.
By the time we got Sloopy’s temperature down, he had lost a lot of weight and conditioning. He missed Aachen and the two horse shows in France that led up to the Olympics in Munich. He also lost training time.
When we got to Munich, we were schooling about five days before the Individual Show Jumping class when Sloopy cut himself jumping the water. He had taken a funny step, and took off a flap of skin that required 30 stitches. That posed a real question about whether he’d be sound enough to go.
But Sloopy was sound enough, and he was really brave about it too. He had to jump three rounds that day, which included a jump-off for the medals. He was pretty tired by the time he reached the jump-off and had two fences down for the bronze medal. Still, Sloopy had enough energy left to nip at Prince Philip’s blazer buttons during the medal awards ceremony.

It was after the Olympics that you turned to training and driving Standardbreds. When did you first become interested in harness racing?

In 1966, after coming back from Europe for the first time. I drove my first horse that year. I really started to like racing, and I started to hang out at the track during show jumping’s off season. In 1969, the year the Team didn’t go to Europe, I got my trainer’s and driver’s licenses; I had been an apprentice driver until then. Starting full-time in 1977, I was a full-time driver and trainer until 1998.

What brought you back to horse showing?

The decline of the parimutuel business. I didn’t see much future in racing, so I returned to my first love.

What are your observations about horse show then and now?

Horses in general are much more talented. Some are wonderful – they baby-sit the riders. With regard to the jumpers, courses for juniors and amateurs are much more technical. Everybody gets around, and everybody is having fun, but I see accidents waiting to happen, and that makes me nervous. Why? Many people have jobs and other lives, and they want to come out to the shows and do it, but they may not have the time to put in the training.
The numbers are phenomenal: who would ever have thought that classes in the United States would have 120 or 130 horses? And with three or four major horse shows going on across the country.

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