In the spring of 1965, I was 12 years old and starting to win lots of ribbons with my horse, Hootenanny, at the Delaware Valley Horseman’s Association (DVHA) horse shows in Lambertville, New Jersey. The club was still newly formed and mostly made up of average working people. The members took pride in taking care of the show grounds and running the horse shows. The food stand and secretary stand were little red and white buildings built by the members themselves. There was one ring and off of that ring, a second, outside course.
The shows took place on the third Sunday of each month and featured both English and Western classes. There were not a lot of classes to choose from, but there were always enough. Members could show all day for $2 and go in as many classes as they desired. Non-members could show for $5 a day. DVHA was a friendly place where newcomers were always welcome and everyone knew your name.
My father was my trainer. He had no formal equestrian education but he understood the mind of a horse. He had purchased Hootenanny two years before as an act of kindness. One night, he was at an auction at the Cowtown Rodeo and caught sight of a young girl crying because she did not want to take her horse to the auction.
“I am afraid that he will not go to a good home,” the girl was telling a group of cowboys. My dad overheard the conversation. He reached into his pocket, handed the girl $200, and promised to take good care of the horse, a Belgium draft-cross. The horse was average in height, but he had a thick neck and broad chest. Despite his confirmation, Hootenanny had a beautiful gold-chestnut coat with a blonde mane and tail that glistened in the sun. I was also a stocky kid with blonde hair. That made us match in confirmation and coloring! Hootenanny was only two years old, untrained, and ornery. It was a rough road, but despite everything, and with my dad’s help, we trained him to be a good jumper.
My father had his own plumbing business and at that time, he received a lot of work from the local Mercer Hospital. It happened that the hospital was having a horse show that June and my family felt we should be there to support it. It was far more expensive then DVHA, but it only came once a year, and I thought it would be fun to go someplace different. In hindsight, we had no idea what we were getting into.
The show ran for three days with many classes to pick from. We decided to pick one class from each division because that was what we were used to doing at DVHA. The competition was held at the field artillery in Lawrenceville, New Jersey, not far from our farm. We pulled into the parking lot in our little green pickup truck and old horse trailer with a canvas top. Then we looked around in awe.
The grounds were manicured to perfection. There were two large arenas, each with jump courses set up inside. Everything was freshly painted and decorated with flower pots. The secretary stand and food stand were housed in big, blue and white tents that resembled castles.
“This is nothing like DVHA,” I quietly whispered to my dad as I was getting out of the truck. “Everyone is dressed up and the ladies are wearing pretty hats and jewelry. I don’t see anyone here that I even know.”
We parked next to a big shiny horse van. The inside of the van looked dark from where I was standing, but I could see white pine shavings on the floor. I took in a deep breath because it smelled so good. Then a man led a horse out of the van and helped a young woman mount. The horse’s coat was the color of a shiny copper penny. The man helped the woman get her feet into the stirrups and then started rubbing her boots with a towel. Her black boots gleamed and almost looked like patent leather. Everything sparkled: silver bits, stirrup irons, and spurs, all gleaming in the June sunshine.
We took Hoot off of the trailer and he immediately put his head down and started eating grass without a worry in the world. He did not look anything like the other horses there. I remember feeling the butterflies start to flutter in my stomach.
The morning was starting to get warm as we began tacking up. I put on my red plaid show coat (that I was so proud of) and my black velvet hunter cap for my first class, Jr. Horsemanship on the Flat. My mother arrived just in time with my two younger siblings. All of the other riders in the class were riding ponies or small horses. None of these had a thick neck like Hootenanny. None of the other riders were wearing red plaid show coats.
I rode Hootenanny around the arena with the other kids and I thought I did a pretty good job. I kept my hands and feet perfectly still; my heels were down and I maintained good posture. Then, the class was asked to line up. The judge walked up to each child to talk to them, but when he came to me, he just nodded his head and walked by. The class was pinned, and just as I thought, I did not get a ribbon.
The Open Jumper class that we had picked to ride in next was about an hour later. The jumper classes were my mother’s least favorite. She would pretend to watch me jump, but she usually closed her eyes out of fright.
My dad walked with me to the warm-up area. It was then that I looked around and noticed that I was the only child in the ring. Adults on big, fancy horses were soaring over the large practice jumps with their trainers. I rode around the ring a few times and then approached my first jump. I could feel everyone’s eyes on me. I was a little embarrassed, but I wanted to show off at the same time. I knew Hoot could jump those big jumps just like their horses.
“Look at that horse jump!” one man said. Then he elbowed the man standing next to him and said, “That little girl sure puts you to shame. Both of the guys chuckled as they smiled and watched me.
“Geez, I would have guessed, that horse couldn’t even get off the ground,” I heard another man say. “He looks like he should be pulling a plow. Maybe he is another Snowman!”
When it was my turn to enter the show ring, I could see everyone stop what they were doing to watch our round. Hoot felt bold and brave under me as I made my opening circle. I knew that he sensed my nervousness and would not let me down. He had never seen jumps like that before, but I trusted him.
Hootenanny flew over the first couple of jumps without batting an eye. Then all of a sudden, straight ahead, Hootenanny saw something that did not agree with him—black and white stripes covering a fence of 2’8″ planks. I could feel him start to hesitate, so I tapped him gently on the shoulder. “Come on Hoot, you can do this!” I pleaded, as I felt my heart starting to sink.
Hoot knew it was wrong to stop at a jump, but the black and white stripes looked very confusing to him. “Please jump!” I begged him. Hoot did as he was told, but instead of jumping the black and white planks, he turned and jumped out of the ring, almost into the bleachers.
“Hoot, where are you going?” I screeched, as people standing nearby scrambled to get out of the way.
The announcer called, “Off course,” and the next horse entered the ring as if nothing ever happened. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. Seconds later, my parents were at my side making sure I was okay. Dad didn’t have too much to say to me as he was as embarrassed as I was. We quickly walked away from the bleachers and headed back to the trailer. I dismounted, then buried my face in Hoot’s neck and wanted to cry. Hoot managed to sneak a few mouthfuls of grass.
While my father was untacking my horse, he gently spoke to him. “I guess you don’t like black and white stripes.”
My father nonchalantly looked at me. “I will make you a jump just like that so he can get used to it,” he said.
“I never expected him to do anything like that,” I confessed and rubbed Hoot’s head.
“I am just glad that no one was hurt,” my mother said while keeping an eye on my younger brother and sister. “This horse does love to jump.”
“I think he jumped out of the ring because he does not like it here. He would rather be back at DVHA where everyone knows him,” I said assertively.
My mother sighed. “I think this show is out of our league.”
“It is,” my father agreed, “but we still have one more class.”
That class was Working Hunter Over the Outside Course. An outside course is in an open field with natural jumps such as post and rail fences, chicken coops, hedges and picket gates to simulate a fox hunt.
“I think we have a chance to get a ribbon in this class,” I told my parents. “Hoot loves the outside course and everyone at DVHA tells me Hoot would make a great fox hunting horse because of his sturdiness.”
My dad sighed and put his hand on my shoulder. “Ride him like you mean business.”
He helped me up on my horse and I rode up to the starter.
The entry numbers were posted and I noticed that there were only seven horses in the class. I realized that with six ribbons offered, even if only one of the other horses made a mistake, I would win a ribbon for sure. This thought gave me a sudden boost of confidence as I entered the field.
Hootenanny galloped around the course and sailed over all eight jumps in perfect rhythm and harmony. He tucked his knees and rounded his back over each jump, performing in the best style he could.
“Perfect round!” I told Hoot as we came off of the course. I dismounted, loosened the girth, and let Hoot eat grass as we watched the rest of the class.
The last horse to jump was a slick bay thoroughbred mare with a black mane and tail. The horse had four white socks that made her even more attractive as she galloped across the field. She jumped the first three fences in perfect form and then something distracted her as she approached the fourth fence. Her striding was off and she knocked the rail down. The horse and rider pulled it together and continued on course like nothing ever happened.
I smiled up at my father and gloated while nervously stroking Hoot’s mane. “It’s too bad for that horse and rider,” I whispered to my horse. “They won’t get a ribbon for knocking down the rail.” My father smiled back at me as I knew he was thinking the same. I took a deep breath while watching the judge hand the results to the announcer. Slowly, we walked to the secretary stand where the ribbons would be handed out.
The first five places were announced and I held very tightly onto the reins, believing that my number would be called for the sixth place ribbon. To my surprise and to everyone else’s, the sixth place ribbon was given to the pretty mare who knocked down the rail and not to Hootenanny. I stood still in disbelief, staring at the green ribbon in the ringmaster’s hand.
The mare’s rider was a tall, thin man wearing a navy blue coat. He hesitated as he picked up his ribbon. Then, he turned to me and said, “Honey, I am very sorry. This ribbon should be yours.” He looked at the judge and looked at me again. Then he put his head down and walked away with the ribbon.
My father kept his cool and approached the judge and asked why the horse that knocked down a rail was pinned over Hootenanny. The judge laughed at him and said, “There is no way that your plow horse can gallop across the field and be as pretty as any one of these horses.”
My father mumbled something in Italian under his breath and then walked away. I put my arms around my horse, “That judge is stupid, you are the most beautiful horse in the world,” I told him. The next week, we were back in our element at DVHA, where everyone knew our name.
Two years later, Hootenanny and I were the recipients of the Henry Bergh Medal National Championship, sponsored by the ASPCA. This was a horsemanship jumping class where points were accumulated in unrecognized horse shows throughout the country. DVHA held the class at all of their shows, and most of the winners were members of the association.
Today, the Henry Bergh Medal class no longer exists, and the backyard horse shows, as I have known them, have become almost extinct. DVHA is still in existence and has since relocated to Stockton, New Jersey. The showgrounds are made up of two large show rings and two smaller rings. Shows are held every week from April through October, and they feature hunter shows and jumper shows, draft shows, western shows, dressage and driving shows. Membership and entry fees have increased significantly over the years, but DVHA is still the place where everyone knows your name.
About the Author
Peggy DeForte Vurgason began teaching horseback riding at the age of 15 and later went on to ride professionally. Today, Peggy competes in Western Dressage and trail riding on her horse, Homerun Joe, and along with her husband George and his mule, Billy John.
Peggy is the author of The American Riding System, a book for elementary equestrian students and teachers, and Long Ears and Short Tales, fiction stories for the Brayer magazine. She is also the author of Hootenanny Spirit, a soon to be published novel about her beloved childhood horse, Hootenanny, and how he has returned to her in Homerun Joe. Peggy and George reside in Newberry, Florida.