The National Horse Show was created in 1883 at the original Madison Square Garden. It continued to be held in New York at « Madison Square Gardens » until 1966, when the event was moved to Kentucky, where it continues today. It was more than a sports event for New Yorkers. It was always held the first week of November and marked the beginning of the winter season for wealthy families that had summer homes on Long Island and town houses on Fifth Avenue. (The National Horse Show directory had been used as the basis of the first New York Social Register in 1887.) In November 1958, its members were celebrating its Diamond Jubilee, the seventy-fifth year of the National Horse Show. The finest horses in America, some travelling all the way from California, were there. It was the one show no serious horseman wanted to miss. A journalist wrote, « Any ribbon from the Garden was worth its weight in blood, sweat and tears. »
Harry was coaching two of his students in the junior classes and riding Night Arrest for her owner. He had only one horse registered in his own name : Snowman. Last year Harry had brought Sinjohn and won fourth place, but he had left with an empty van because Sinjohn’s owner had sold him. This year, win or lose, Harry was sure that he would take his horse back home. His children would never let him sell the big grey again.
Some stables brought twenty horses to « the Garden » and as many grooms, lads and tack men. Harry was his own groom, his own lad and he took care of his own tack. He thought it was an advantage. He knew that the bandages that protected Snowman’s legs in the van were not too tight because he had wrapped them himself. He knew his tack was in good condition because he had cleaned it and oiled it himself. He knew that his horse was fit and feeling good because he had exercised him himself early in the morning.
But Harry was not alone. Jim and Joe had come to help with Night Arrest and his students’ horses. And Johanna had brought their five children. She decorated Snowman’s stall with the ribbons he had won during the summer and fall season. Few horses had a display as impressive. Snowman had many fans, people who had read about him in the papers. A famous cartoonist, Willard Mullin, had drawn his story for the newspapers. The big grey seemed to enjoy the attention and let children pat him on the nose. Some of them called him «White Beauty», the name the cartoonist had used.
At that time, Madison Square Gardens was the largest covered stadium in the world. It could hold 20,000 people and it was filled to capacity for the opening ceremonies of the Diamond Jubilee of the National Horse Show. The U.S. Army Marching Band played for the international teams. The Canadian Mounties paraded and for extra excitement a group of Cuban protestors interrupted the show when Cuba’s national team appeared. They were quickly contained by the ring stewards and grounds keepers and the New York Police escorted them out.
In Snowman’s first event he was again competing against the big German champion, Diamant. The Olympic champion was called early and finished with an excellent time and zero faults. When Snowman was called he was attentive to Harry and had a very good round, but on the last obstacle, a wide jump, a hind foot touched a pole and made it fall. With no faults, Diamant won the blue ribbon. Then the judges announced the second place. With one fault and the fastest time, Snowman had won the red ribbon !
Harry had entered both Night Arrest and Snowman in the open jumping classes, which meant he would be riding both horses, competing against himself in a way. He hoped that the mare, having had a little more experience, would be calmer. She had talent but was nervous and sometimes diffictult to control. The crowd, the noise, the strange building, its dark passages and the bright lights of the arena frightened the little mare. She tried to listen to Harry, but was easily distracted. As she jumped, Harry worked to keep her calm over the first fences. But as she took off for the oxer, she was no longer listening to him. She hit the bars in a crash. Harry relaxed and let himself fall, but a foot stayed in the stirrup. Night Arrest panicked and ran across the arena, dragging Harry behind her. Just before he slammed into the wall, he was able to free his foot.
The crowd was holding its breath, but the little Dutch rider got up, dusted off his clothes and walked up to the frightened mare. When he held out his hand, she smelled it and recognized him. He was able to pick up the reins and lead her out of the arena.
Only two other horses had taken their turns when Snowman’s name was called. Harry, ten minutes after his spectacular fall, seemed unperturbed. He rode the big grey into the ring. As usual, like a true star, Snowman looked over the crowd, as if he wanted to know who was there, who had come to see him. Sometimes Harry wondered if he was looking for someone, someone from his former life, from the time before he had ended up in a truck on its way to the slaugherhouse.
Snowman touched one pole for half a fault and on the last fence he made a pole fall. Two faults was not good enough for a ribbon. First place went to a pretty mare named First Chance ridden by Adolphe Mogavero, a veteran rider. Harry wasn’t worried. Although Snowman had had a lot of successes, he wasn’t a machine and Harry certainly wasn’t a machine. After the fall with Night Arrest, it was normal that the team did not perform at 100%. There would be other opportunities. They would do better next time.
The next day Snowman and Harry were again competing against First Chance. Snowman navigated the course beautifully and scored a perfect round. First Chance also had no faults, so they were asked to go another round to decide the winner. The workers raised the poles of the jumps to make the course more difficult.
First Chance was still only seven years old, still full of energy. Adolphe had lots of experience and knew how to get the maximum from his horse. The little mare jumped the twelve obstacles, higher now, and scored another perfect round.
Then it was Snowman’s turn. Once again the big grey flew over the obstacles without touching them. He too scored a perfect round. The workers came into the arena and raised the bars again for the second jump-off.
Nervous, the mare rushed into the arena. This time she touched one pole, earning a penalty of one point. Snowman was neither nervous nor excited. While waiting for First Chance to finish her round, he was so relaxed that it looked like he was asleep.
« Okay, Teddy Bear, » said Harry. « Do this right and we’ll have another blue ribbon for your collection. »
Snowman responded and moved calmly into the ring. There he looked over the crowd until Harry touched his heel to the horse’s flank. The big horse went into action smoothly, like a well oiled machine. He sailed over one, two, three, four obstacles, giving the impression that he was enjoying himself. Five, six, seven, eight. The bars had been raised twice. The obstacles looked the same but Snowman had to jump higher. Yet he seemed to find them no more difficult to jump than a farmer’s fence. He carried Harry over all twelve obstacles without touching a single bar, winning the blue ribbon.
The National Horse Show was a series of contests that lasted a week. Every day there was a new challenge for Harry and Snowman. The lovely mare, First Chance, and the big grey were fairly evenly matched. The championship cup would go to the horse with the best overall score. Harry scarcely slept all week. When he was not riding one of his two horses in the arena, he was cleaning stalls, cleaning his equipment, preparing the horses, feeding them, cooling them off or grooming them.
On the last day of the show, before the last competition, only two horses still had a chance to win the show championship : First Chance and Snowman. The mare had one more point than the big grey. Marie Lafrenz, the journalist who had first written about Snowman, was contacted by the Tonight Show. Johnny Carson, who was still new to the show then, wanted to interview Harry and Snowman live, in his studio. It was an outrageous idea, the kind of outrageous idea that would make Johnny and the show famous.
Harry did not have his van. Because of the exorbitant parking fees in downtown New York, true to his Dutch origins, he had sent it back home until the end of the competition. Hiring a van for the evening was possible, but very expensive. Harry decided that he and his horse could walk from Madison Square Gardens to the TV studio on Sixth Avenue. It meant going through the Broadway theater area with its noisy crowds, but Harry was sure that Snowman would take it all in stride, would act normally. The big grey always seemed ready to follow Harry anywhere.
Some pedestrians and theater-goers may have been startled, but Snowman took in the lights, the noises, the crowds and honking taxi cabs with his usual calm.
The studio itself would have terrified a normal horse. There were many bright lights, a noisy audience packed into a tiny space, technicians and cameramen with strange helmets and trailing cables everywhere, shouting orders and instructions into microphones.
The Tonight Show was broadcast live. Johnny Carson explained to his audience how Harry had bought a horse that was on its way to the glue factory for eighty dollars, the same horse that was that very night tied for the championship of the National Horse Show in Madison Square Gardens. Then Harry brought Snowman onto the tiny stage. The big grey gelding gave Johnny a friendly nuzzle and let the show host climb on his back, sitting backwards, as if he was one of Harry’s kids. The studio audience and the people at home, watching the show on their television sets, were captivated. By the time Harry led his gentle giant back through the streets of New York to Madison Square Gardens, Snowman had millions of new fans.
The next day, as Harry prepared Snowman for the last competition, Johanna insisted that the children put on their best clothes. Their father had promised to bring them along if their horse won the cup. Harry knew that Snowman was competing against the finest horses in America and that a single fault could give First Chance the trophy. But not a one of his kids had the least doubt about who would win the blue ribbon.
Harry drew one of the last places, so he had time to watch their competitors. It was a difficult course, designed to test the very best. He watched as, one after the other, his competitors failed to score a perfect round. Snowman, as calm and relaxed as his master, showed none of the nervous stress the other horses exhibited. When at last it was their turn, Harry picked up the reins and asked the big grey to move forward. Then they were cantering into the arena, the big grey’s ears pointing forward. Man and horse flew towards the first obstacle, a team, concentrated and focused. A few minutes later they were soaring over the last obstacle and Harry dropped the reins and raised his arms in triumph. Snowman had scored a perfect round, the only horse with zero faults. There would be no jump-off. The former plough horse, with scars from an ill-fitting harness that he would bear all his life, was the champion of the National Horse Show, the champion of Madison Square Gardens’ Diamond Jubilee.
Tack : horse equipment, the harness, bridle, saddle, etc.
Ring stewards : People who are responsible for security in the arena
take it all in stride : treat something as normal, without any anxiety
to honk, honking : klaxoner, qui klaxonaient
helmets : casques
nuzzle : touch and feel with the nose