This is the first post on my new blog. I’m all about the circus, living my life as a creative artist and how wonderful my life with horses has been. I have many stories to share about my interesting life and have finally begun getting this new blog going, so stay tuned for more and let me hear from you. Subscribe below to get notified when I post new updates.
Dale was the owner of two restaurant/bars called The Hunt Club in both Jackson and Hillsdale. He wanted gold leaf signs on the large glass windows at each store, plus a gold leaf name on the glass at his office connected to his airplane hangar at the airport.
For centuries, gold lettering and ornamentation on a glass window was utilized by upper echelon businesses and was considered the epitome of the sign makers craft. Dale commissioned me to accomplish three gold leaf window jobs.
The explanation of why gold sticks successfully to glass remains a mystery. The technique used for centuries utilized heated water with a single gelatin capsule dissolved into it. This mixture was flooded over clean glass and while wet, special handling occurred to lay the leaf against the wet glass. The first part of the procedure was to completely cover the area to receive the sign work with many 3-3/8-inch squares of gold leaf. The window then sported a quilt-like pattern of overlapped gold squares. As the water evaporated, the gold was sucked tightly onto the surface of the glass and a mirror-like effect resulted.
To prevent the delicate metal from wearing off, the gold was backed up with paint only on areas where the gold remained for the design. This part of the process involved delicate brush work. The lettering and ornamental designs were all painted backwards on the inside of the glass and acted as a protective layer over the gold. The excess gold was removed later with another delicate process involving a mild abrasive.
Achieving the level of proficiency with this particular technique of the sign makers craft elevated my standing in the community. My goal had been to become the best. With these three jobs – what became my final three jobs as sign man in Jackson – I had achieved my goal, albeit with a broken heart, having been rejected by Gail once again. With these jobs complete, I made the remaining preparations to go to Florida. At the stable, I loaded the livestock, hooked the VW bus on the back of the rig, and headed south. There was no sense waiting.
The snow had begun to fall. Every hundred miles provided an improvement in the weather. I had a busy time ahead of me.
I didn’t know it at the time but God had a different plan for my life. Even before I arrived in Florida, I discovered a segue that would rocket me into the next chapter of my life.
Hurricane showed up at the local AA club. I noticed constant sadness in his demeanor. I zeroed in on him and resumed the questioning begun during our trip to Florida.
“Are you happy with the quality of your sobriety?” I queried.
“And do you want to get well?”
“I guess so,” he looked at me with sullen eyes, “I hadn’t even thought of that.”
“The next level is available to you,” I assured him, “the purpose of the step work is to heal broken-heartedness and provide freedom from being stuck.”
I could only suspect that grief for his late wife, and an inability to let go of that obsession was part of his problem. I had no way of knowing the depth of his despair and what drove his perception. We are all a mix of what we discover, what we decide and how we see. He was not alone. He was part of the group. I wanted him to see he wasn’t the only one with challenges. Things at our home were insane. Gail had enough of my self-centered productivity. I was always going and going with yet another idea. She felt left out and finally had had enough.
Gail insisted I move out. Hurricane had a room in his house for me. This mostly became a place to store my stuff. I had lots of opportunities for paint work, festivals to attend, and my horse trailer to use as housing. I simply got busy and pursued projects I could accomplish on location.
A few weeks later, Gail and I patched things up. Each time we reunited, we experienced an incredible emotional condition not unlike a honeymoon and we rode the crest of our immense love for each other once again.
In the afterglow that followed, Hurricane knew I would return to his house for my stuff. On the day I drove over to his house, I found a note on the door; ‘don’t come in, call the police.’
I did just that. After making the call, I returned to Gail’s house. Later, I received a report that the police had gone inside to discover that Hurricane had shot himself in his bed. He had all his affairs in order including instructions for all the members of his family, and for me to come and get my stuff.
Not knowing the extent of his mental condition but being well aware of his lack of healing by working the twelve steps sent me a big message. I got the edict loud and clear. Unchecked, even while sober, this disease has the power to kill. Without recovery from a hopeless state of mind, the end is the same whether the alcoholic is drinking or not.
His example became a motivating prompt for me, as the lingering residue of the turbulent relational discord with Gail and myself needed to be processed. We entered into our attempt. With the help of my sponsor Ralph and his wife, Gail and I began our effort to enter into the process of healing and understanding what was going on by working one-on-one with these lovely people. Hopefully we could rise above whatever it was that kept us in this cycle of on-again off-again.
Back in Jackson, a local sound system store wanted me to decorate the large delivery truck they acquired with flashy sign work. This gave me an opportunity to develop a technique of blending colors that went through the entire spectrum for a central rainbow sound track design. Also portrayed were several logos and speaker depictions. I worked on this project, outdoors in the warm autumn months in Gail’s driveway.
One lumber company in Jackson had a custom woodworking shop out back. I made friends with the fellow who worked there and discovered we could collaborate on special projects.
A lawyer wanted a three-sided pedestal sign with elements from the architecture of the elegant home he converted into office space. Recreating some of the features, I designed a wooden project that we constructed at the lumber yard. I carved incised letters for gilding with gold leaf and finished all the woodwork in Gail’s basement.
The deadline for completion loomed. The finished pieces of the project were almost ready for me to load up and go on location to install. When I returned from a quick errand, I found Gail’s car locked and parked up against the lift garage door preventing my opening it. I went up into the kitchen and saw two empty coffee cups on the counter but no Gail. Not knowing what to do and having a deadline to meet, I took a chain and my truck and pulled her car back far enough to open the door. I then loaded the pieces that would soon be another great sign in town.
When she returned and found me loading the components to the sign, she hit the roof. She had an issue with me and wanted me to slow down enough so she could talk to me about it.
She had provided me with housing for two years and had yet to receive any compensation. Not knowing how to initiate a conversation about what would be appropriate, the attempt to force the issue only promoted division and more frustration for both of us.
Among the responsibilities of being a home owner were projects that she needed help with. Her house needed a coat of paint. This was a specialty I knew nothing about. Now that I was getting a hint about what would be appropriate for me to do, I entered into getting this done for her. I purchased extension ladders needed to reach the second story and ladder jacks to support a work plank. I figured these would also come in handy in my role as sign man around town.
I did have a guy available to do grunt work as needed. With this newly acquired equipment, my workman had the ability to go to work. I set up the ladders and plank in front of her house and sent him up to scrape the loose paint off the eaves, two stories up.
An area of the side of the house over the garage had clap-board siding. I used the mentality of a sign painter. I realized making lateral strokes with a wide brush would take forever. I found out about a thick-nap roller. Using lots of paint, I rolled on a heavy coat and covered this stair stepped surface rapidly.
Regardless of the progress, Gail was not impressed with any of my efforts. As my industry continued, I felt unappreciated. This project commanded time and was not my area of expertise.
She finally called a professional house painter to complete the easternmost side which also was covered with clapboard. When I saw how the pro did it, I realized removing every tid-bit of loose paint and making sure that every square foot of the surface received a thick coat of paint was not priority. He had a pressure spray system, thinned paint and a wide brush, he put on a questionable coat of paint but the entire end of the house was complete in one day.
My mom and dad enjoyed traveling in their Transvan camper van with their little dog Choco. Gail and I visited them in Arkansas earlier that summer. They were proud of my accomplishments and liked Gail and wanted to visit us in Jackson. They arrived to see us when tension was at its peak. My dad inspected the paint job I put on the house and commended me for the healthy coat of paint. But while there they did not receive an audience with the human being I loved.
Tension was thick at Gail’s home. The fall of the year was upon us and the logical thing for me to do was to once again load up the livestock and head for Florida. An opportunity waited for me to work with John Herriott prior to the circus festival and this time I would compete. I also planned to pursue opportunities for sign and mural work at the luxury RV resort I discovered the previous winter. I had work in Jackson to finish first.
I saw Duane Zwick and his wife Mae Jean at breakfast one morning. They had exciting news. They had driven their Wanderlodge to Georgia, to the place where it was manufactured. During the annual rally, an old friend saw the mural I painted and noticed my name in the corner.
Robert Luce, whom I had met at Shiloh years ago, said to them, “next time you see Dave, tell him to stop by and see me”
Back in Jackson I resumed my routine as a sign painter. Each morning started with breakfast at Virginia Coney Island. The business had been owned by Craig’s dad and his partner but had been handed down to Craig now that he was done sewing wild oats as a concessionaire on the carnival. I met Craig during previous summers with his T-shirt transfer booth that went to the county fairs. He was also delighted with the opportunity to purchase the wooden merry-go-round horse I brought back from Kansas.
By parking in the back and going through the back door, I could greet Craig who was usually in the kitchen making the Coney sauce that Michigan is famous for. He occasionally provided me with the name of a contact who wanted some sign work. One of his friends had a company that built the Consumer’s Power lineman and maintenance trucks. Duane had heard about my talent and wanted something special. I called on him to find out what he had in mind.
Duane Zwick asked me to create a monogram with a fancy “Z” flanked by olive branches for the back of his brand-new Blue Bird Wanderlodge. When I met with him, I drew a sketch of my idea. He was delighted.
I went to his home in Brown’s Lake to accomplish the job. While there he asked me about an airbrushed mural. He wanted a composition of several typical Michigan scenes all arranged in one work. I made a list of the features he sought, accumulated the reference pictures needed to accomplish the work and prepared an elaborate sketch.
On one side of his luxury motorhome, a large blank area became the logical place for the depiction. Since the airbrushed artwork would receive clear-coat upon completion, I masked off the surrounding area, cleaned the surface with solvent, and scuffed the surface to ensure the new paint had tooth. Then the time came to accomplish the artwork.
I use a logical sequence to produce such projects. After the layout, the sky with sunset colors was painted first. The state flower was featured in the painting along with waterfalls, shoreline, and the state bird. Then foliage, birds and trees were next. The items in the foreground were painted last.
With the artwork complete, I sprayed on the clear. In those days, lacquer was on its way out but the new urethanes were unproven. Wanting to provide the best quality paint I could, I used Ditzler clear as the protective coat. I achieved an admirable sheen with the final flow coat.
Duane was pleased with the result and told me an elaborate story about an upcoming excursion to the place where his coach was built and where he would show the work to other Wanderlodge owners who congregate at their annual rally.
While expanding opportunities to set up my T-shirt stand at festivals, I became reunited with Red Woods and Tim Bors who were among my favorite people in the world. They acquired the Elliott Amusement Company from Jim Elliott. They were also pleased with my new-found sobriety. They quickly commissioned festive and entertaining artwork for various carnival pieces, and once again, I enjoyed being part of their extended family. I was at home painting animated imagery on their equipment and participating with my T-shirt painting booth at their festivals.
In contrast, my relationship with Gail swung from incredible closeness to regular break-ups. I was mystified at her professionalism in the joint and frigidity at home. Apparently, this is a typical pattern of the child affected by the trauma of abandonment; to proactively reject her partner first, due to fear. We were ideally mismatched. My independent nature and tendency to withdraw to embrace opportunity escalated her sensitivity to abandonment and did little to provide a remedy for her challenge: comfort, security, understanding and trust.
The good news was that Gail joined Alanon, the fellowship for those in relationship with alcoholics. In her group, she had access to people who had found a spiritual remedy for relational turbulence and a different way to live.
For those who know very little about this disease, afflicted alcoholics share characteristics that typically keep us separate. These characteristics include an obsessive fascination with whatever the focus of our attention is on, often to the detriment and frustration of those around us. While never the intention, this tendency often promotes a perception of neglect.
The Alanon program is a fellowship of people who encourage and teach various methods of coping with perceptions (and misperceptions) of how others behavior affects them. My response to life, adopted when I perceived my surroundings as a child as not being safe due to seeing bullies pick on my older handicapped brother, was to become self-reliant. Now in relationship with a woman I love, when her behavior appeared threatening, I withdrew. Then, my withdrawal triggered her fear of abandonment, established when her father walked away. We were just learning these things in our groups. I was glad she went. We found a place to grow in many ways.
With green (rookie) animals, an introductory season was needed to get them acquainted with performing in the midst of the distractions and rigors of the road. A lesser quality show understands an entry-level price is appropriate to compensate for mistakes that occur with young animals with little experience. The least known of the Garden brothers was taking out a show. Between Gail and myself, we would provide two acts and announce the show.
I had the horse and mule working pretty good by late winter. Gail made the trek to Florida for both respite from the cold and to see the progress. She hit it off with Gee Gee and went on a road trip with her to see Jimmie Douglas of prop and costume fame.
I finished up all the sign painting projects for Allen Hill and made plans to head north mid-April. The mass exodus of northbound RVs also took place. After the long trip, I landed with the livestock near Jackson and resumed life with Gail on Washington avenue. It didn’t take long to find some sign work but part of our energy was focused on our mutual goal.
Back in Jackson, Gail got ready for the upcoming circus tour. This included ending her job at Jacobson’s. I built two portable wardrobe closets and she filled them with a variety of jackets, skirts, hats, boots, headpieces, accoutrements and accessories. She could combine these items in any number of creative ways for when she stepped into the spotlight to take command of the audience’s attention. Our local newspaper caught wind of her plans and interviewed her for a story. Her assuming the significant role of announcer on the upcoming tour freed me up to concentrate on training my rookie animals.
The animal trainer, like a parent, wants every possible mistake to occur so that the child can be guided to provide the desired behavior. Among the distractions during a performance that can distract the animal are the other animals on the show, performers with their apparatus, noises, props and the sudden changes that take place with the band, especially the drummer. The concession salesmen that frequent the venue with trays of treats and bouquets of novelties also represent a threat. The constant unpredictability of the actions of any member of the audience is also a source of surprise, especially children with balloons.
Because I wanted my horse to get as much experience as possible during this tour, I agreed to make an appearance as the opening ringmaster on horseback to start each show. To begin each performance, I rode Souveran into the arena and down the carpet in front of the rings while acknowledging the crowd. Then after I arrived in the center ring, I started the show with the standard “Ladies… and… Gentlemen…” announcement.
After this opening, I handed the microphone to Ringmistress Gail, who took over. Later in the show, I returned on horseback to perform my act in the ring. This gave me an opportunity to expose the horse to entering and exiting the venue twice per show.
My little mule also performed her liberty act in each show. We had developed a themed act, with a reference to the good old days. Gail got busy and transformed an old wig into a beard for me to wear, along with a goofy hat and a sarape to make me look like a cantankerous old prospector.
As the opening date loomed, preparations continued at a frenzied pace. I brought the rig over to Gail’s house to load her stuff. As she placed the last of many items on board, at last, ready or not, it was time to go. We climbed into the truck, left Jackson, loaded the livestock at the farm and immediately headed for Canada. Our circus host met us at the port of entry and once inside the country, our adventure began.
The tour took place primarily in the hockey arena buildings in abundance throughout the province of Ontario. Typically, performers use the rear entrance to the arena. This was where the Zamboni was usually parked, over an iron grate to drain melting ice. I took the animals through this doorway. Although there was little live ice during the tour, the rear entrance, with these industrial features, was always of concern to the livestock.
Souveran did get used to the iron grates, but Betty, being small and sure footed, often scrambled around the sides of the scary iron feature when the time came for her to enter and exit the building.
The floor on which we performed was covered with several layers of carpet carried by the show. Clamp-on rubber shoes helped Souveran with the compromised footing on this hard surface.
For the sake of this tour, the routine with the horse began with a trot around the ring. Then we reversed direction, walked sideways (or two-tracks) through the center of the ring to resume the trot in the other direction. After we repeated in the other direction, we stopped to bow and styled for applause.
Being a sorrel (red/brown) horse, I covered his lower legs with white leg wraps to accentuate the appearance of his motion. I also had a white bridle and white saddle pad. While grooming him, I checkered his rump with a comb. I wore white breeches, black boots and a tuxedo covered with glass jewels with a matching color Mississippi riverboat gamblers hat.
Next came the three-step. After a compete revolution of the ring, we three-stepped up through the center of the ring, reversed direction and commenced to march the other direction. Around the back, we continued to march every stride and went through the center and up to the front. From the front we backed up and did the double-backwards three-step. At the back of the ring, I let him relax into what is called the camel stretch where his front feet were planted in position and he leaned his whole body back until his chest was just inches off the ground. We held this pose for a style and applause.
After that, the prop man set my pedestal with the revolving top in the ring. Souveran walked up to it, placed his feet on the top to assume an elevated, standing position. Then his back legs began to move sideways to turn 360 degrees, facing every direction as we turned.
Due to the unsure footing, I did no canter work. The conclusion of the act was to simply trot around the ring twice more and bow in the center of the ring. Then I took a bow and ringmaster Gail gave our concluding announcement. I backed him out of the ring, continuing to face the audience for the exit. This was a showy and impressive conclusion rather than turning our backsides to them.
The rigors of one-day-stands on the road commenced at the start of our tour. We had the usual cast of talented entertainers, jugglers, balancing acts, trapeze, dogs, plate spinners, hula hoops, clowns, trampoline and Risley. One character was a TV personality – Rumpy the Clown. Gail developed a special introduction for the Canadian audiences familiar with him, using her theatrical prowess and the special way she emphasized parts of the intro with exaggerated inflections in her voice.
As a team, our contribution to the show had great contrast. I turned inward to concentrate on my role as animal trainer and Gail became sparkling, proficient and connected with the rest of the cast. We had a mutual difficulty relating to each other’s challenges. We danced the dance of perceived hurt. I responded with distance rather than seeking to understand and be proactive with loving behavior. This produced a continual strain on our relationship. Not knowing how to address what was going on, I simply withdrew into the security of oneness with my animals and remained obsessed with my ambitions. This did not affect my love for her. My affection for her remained immense. Unaware, I suffered from compound ignorance; I didn’t know that I didn’t know.
One morning after loading the animals and warming up the engine for the trip ahead, I looked for Gail but could not find her. While I waited, my internal thinking went berserk. I wondered what happened. I did not know where she was and it was time to go. After what seemed an eternity, I finally gave up and headed to the next town. Later, I saw her at the next arena. She caught a ride with one of the other performers that day. I was mystified with her behavior. A silent defiance seemed to fill my partner. Something blocked the flow of communication that would have been apropos.
Living and working together as a couple on the road was perhaps the most difficult of all relational situations. I admire many couples in this business who produce sensational acts together and enjoy successful marriages. This goal seemed to elude Gail and me.
The highlight of the tour was an extravaganza at the giant coliseum at the Canadian National Exhibition grounds in Toronto. Here, everything was big. To augment the shows line-up, the circus hired Albert Rix and his daughter Jeanette to bring their caged bear act for this one engagement. Among those large bruins were several gigantic polar bears. I had a concern because my horse had never been around these animals before.
Prior to each show, their cages were lined up end-to-end to form a tunnel that connected to the big cage erected at one end of the large interior of the building. Albert had canvas draped over the cages to hide them. During show time, I had a new challenge. To open the show as usual, while riding my horse on the track around the three rings, I would pass very close to the bear cages.
I used caution. The first time I entered to do my one-horse parade, I reassured Souveran as we passed by the cages. All went well. He stayed calm. But upon reaching the end of the row of cages, he looked over the last cage and spied something. Mid-stride, as we rounded the last cage, he suddenly jumped into a wide track stance and stood there snorting at the pile of juggling props that waited near the ring. He had trotted past these items twice a day for the entire tour. I don’t know why he waited until that moment to be startled by their sight. Such is the life of surprises in show biz with a wonderful animal.
The tour went well, the animals became proficient performers but the experience put a strain on my relationship with Gail. When complete, we returned to Michigan to resume our contemporary duties. I would again flourish as a sign painter. First, I wanted to stop and visit Chuck Grant and show him how well Souveran was doing. I camped in his driveway for the night and spent the next day with him.
Chuck was 76 at the time. I watched him work five horses before lunch. I realized I had a decision to make that day that would determine what I would be doing when I was 76. At that age, I could be riding horses each day or gasping for my breath. That epiphany prompted the sequence that resulted in my stopping smoking.
Ah, the French sidewalk café is famous for its own special romantic ambiance. The colorful umbrellas provide comfort in the outdoors as diners enjoy the sights and sounds of the region. A beautiful dark-haired young woman guides a fruit cart, creating in all who behold her, true desire.
Adjacent to the wrought iron fence that delineated the perimeter of the eatery, a large earthen flower pot with clever ports in the sides has an ample crop of strawberries growing out and over it. A handsome young man sat at one of the tables. He consumed a large waffle cone filled with sculpted frozen custard teased with alternating swirls of chocolate and vanilla. I step back and think: ‘surely this image will fascinate all who see it.’
I am in the midst of painting a much larger than normal project. Not only does the job entail the creation of numerous pictorial elements but there is also a tight deadline. The mural work described was painted on the sides of a vending trailer. The images were created to entice the passersby to purchase either a fruit cup or an ice cream cone.
The upscale concession trailer not only caters to carnival venues but also attends events where the consumers’ awareness and consumption habits are somewhat healthier. This caterer attends events such as art festivals and conventions rather than the usual fairs. She wanted an upscale image for this elite concession that would reflect the healthier, high-quality product served.
The trailer had large panels that fold up from the roof and on either end, so that when all were fully extended, the piece has the look of a gabled building. This was my canvas. I was instructed that the serving window in the center was to be framed by a scene that would suggest an exotic and romantic deviation from the normal hawkers of foodstuffs. All this and with it came a deadline. Could I get it done? Time would tell. As the days went by, my vista came to life.
Attention to detail was important with all jobs, especially this one that contained a plethora of design elements. Upon completion, the usual visual inspection took place to make sure that all was well. With the customer’s approval, our transaction was complete and the painted panels were folded up for travel. She hooked onto her trailer with her motorhome. As I watched, she pulled away to go to her first engagement.
A few days later I received a call. “You know the little spike that sticks up from the middle of the top of an umbrella?” she asked.
I affirmed, “yes, I know what you are talking about.”
She continued, “Well, you forgot to paint one of them.”
My heart sank. Not only would this interrupt the current job, but the inconvenience of having to travel to a faraway job site meant loss. There was only one response for an artist building a reputation based on cheerful integrity, and that was to comply with the request now. I loaded the step ladder along with the paint I needed into my van and headed for the fairgrounds. When I arrived at the gate, I explained my mission and was granted entry.
I found the concession trailer, parked my van nearby and made preparations to complete the project. A few strokes of the brush from atop the ladder were all that was necessary. That simple. I had a blend of feelings. Somewhat miffed, I still felt that the minor flaw represented a major inconvenience didn’t justify the frustration of all that travel. After all, I had received her complete approval several days ago. But what else could I do? It was at that moment that a man on a bicycle noticed what I was doing. He took in the entirety of the painted scene before him.
He waited for me to come down the ladder for an opportune moment to ask a question.
“Will you come with me?”
The next thing I knew, I walked with him through a seemingly endless display of motorhomes. It just so happened that the RV Super Show was the event taking place at the fairgrounds at that time. Pete had just purchased the brand-new Blue Bird Wanderlodge parked in the center of everything. His desire was for me to paint the name ‘Happy Ours’ on the front flanked with depictions of champagne glasses.
Soon, with paintbrush in hand, I was back on my stepladder. I accomplished his request. The result of spending the rest of the day on the stepladder painting on a half million-dollar motorhome in the midst of a throng of RV enthusiasts proved to be a huge boon to my career.
By the end of the day, I had answered a variety of questions from the cross section of America that loves to RV. I secured quite a few leads for other jobs. One man wanted me to come to a dude ranch in the middle of the state to paint a depiction of an antique automobile on the back of his coach. I didn’t have enough money at the time to consider getting over there with my rig, so I sheepishly requested a down payment.
“You look like a trustworthy fellow,” he said as he reached into his pocket.
Back at the farm, I made arrangements for my stock to get fed and got ready to go. I took my rig to the destination he had indicated. After driving into the large complex, I found a lively place landscaped with fresh flowers, hay rides going on and plenty of motorhomes rolling in and out. This luxurious campground had a hotel, golf course, skeet range, saloon and lodge situated in the middle of many old growth oak hammocks. I was in the middle of motorhomes at a dude ranch turned luxury RV resort named River Ranch.
I found my customer, set up my step ladders, work plank and got to work. A few days later the beautiful painting of his favorite automobile was complete. Requests for many other creations overwhelmed me. Many opportunities awaited. I fielded questions about painting murals, inscriptions, dog portraits and many other things for Ma & Pa USA. I painted as much as I could while there, but I had other obligations. I had to get ready for the upcoming circus tour. Plus, I was making new concession stand signs for Allen C Hill’s Great American Circus.
Once imprinted with how this place put me in the proximity of lots of work, I made plans to return the following winter season to provide my custom sign lettering and airbrush painting services. I vowed to return next winter. I would find a place nearby to board my animals.
My eyes had been opened to an incredible opportunity. I then drove west and returned to the remote farm to resume my current quest. For now, I had to get my livestock trained.
The experience opened my eyes to a huge market that existed. This provided a perfect starting point for my talents to flourish with these soon-to-be dear-to-me customers.
I really can’t take any credit for the humble beginnings of my motorhome painting career. Call it serendipity, karma or destiny, the dramatic turn that catapulted Letterfly the artist into this select clientele, was all the result of a happy accident.
We pulled into the Sarasota Fairgrounds just in time to participate at the International Circus Festival. This was a contest venue and all kinds of acts were here to perform in front of judges for awards and to impress the talent scouts in attendance. Since my livestock didn’t have a complete act yet, this was an opportunity to crowd break, or expose them to the chaos of large masses of people. My animals had never been away from the farm.
I pulled onto the grassy fairgrounds amidst several big tops in the air. Flags flew, elephants swayed and the rhythmic roar of lions could be heard in the distance. The purpose of being here was to get the livestock exposed to the strange sights, sounds and smells of the circus, and for me to get the horse and mule to do everything they learned back at the barn.
There is a joke among animal trainers, “it’s easy to get them to do it at the barn,” (and quite another feat to get them to do it in front of an audience)
I parked my horse trailer, with all the comforts of home in the small living quarters, amongst the myriad rigs that brought apparatus and accouterments for various flying acts, tumbling troupes, jugglers, thrill acts, bareback riders, clowns, musicians, and of course every kind of trained animal act under the sun. I set up my canvas awning/stall arrangement on the side of the trailer for the horse and mule. Hurricane made a comfortable bed for himself with several bales of hay.
The livestock had never seen such a collection of strange sights and smells like this before and were quite reluctant. It took time for them to settle but being tired after that long trip soon promoted sleep.
Although competition among the performers took place during the many shows that were underway throughout the week, I was here to practice. A spare circus ring had been set up at the front of the festivities area for this purpose. The first morning here, I saddled up my horse and attempted to ride him around the grounds and up to the practice area.
Due to the long, tedious training processes that had taken place back in Michigan, I discovered willingness as one of the strongest attributes of my equine partner. I had never known him to refuse or to be extremely fearful. In this environment, he experienced terror. Regardless, he did have to go to work and had to learn this lesson now.
Once mounted in the saddle, I coaxed him forward. Due to the level of fright in my horse, he refused. I did not dare allow him to learn he could refuse. To fortify my request for him to move forward, I used aggression. I would not be satisfied with any response except what I asked. He moved forward.
On the way to the practice area, my horse attempted childish behavior. I insisted he go forward. He didn’t want to. Suddenly, he reared up. His awkward rear was so aggressive that he went up, up and up and then over backwards. He busted one of the reins in the process.
Thank goodness, my first horse was a lay-down and sit-up horse with the ability to rear. I developed a reflex as the result. As Souveran went up, I threw my leg out and stepped off the horse.
While he laid there with me standing over him, I commanded him to get up. He was shaken. Once up, I sternly told him to stand there. While he stood there, I rapidly tied knots in the busted leather and re-mounted. I commanded him to move forward while he was still in a daze. As he responded with a few steps forward, I relaxed and comforted him with encouragement and affection on his neck. While still stunned he became somewhat compliant. We progressed to the practice area. I guess he learned something that day. He never tried that dangerous stunt again.
As we approached the ring in that isolated, grassy area adjacent to the midway, Souveran noticed everything. Concession trailers, ticket boxes, inflatable playgrounds, elephant rides and the old-time automatic music machines shared the area with big tops, thrill show rigging and a multitude of animals on display.
Reluctantly, he approached the first set of ring curb he had ever seen in his life and passed through the entrance gap of the circle. I recalled our earliest training criteria and made it simple for him to comply by just asking him to walk. As soon as we quietly made a few revolutions of the ring, a few of the curious attendees of the festival saw a man on a horse and gathered around to watch.
Souveran had only seen a large gathering of people one time in his life. During a training workshop at Vi Hopkin’s place, a guest instructor had a gathering of students in the class. Prior to that day, Souveran walked alone down the corridor between the stalls at a leisurely pace and went through the doorway into an empty riding arena. But on that particular day, a semi-circle of people was eager to see the guest instructor work with a horse. Vi asked me to go get mine.
Souveran casually walked down the aisle as usual but upon turning the corner he saw a frightening sight – a multitude of people. He was startled. He snorted his surprise. This episode happened again. The memory of that experience came back. I attempted to get him to move forward in the middle of another scary scene.
Soon the circus ring was surrounded by people standing three deep. They commented, waved, talked and gestured. As I rode my frightened, snorting horse in this scary situation, a gentleman cowboy, who I did not know, came to our rescue.
“As you can clearly see,” a soothing voice began, “this is a young horse who is in the early stages of the training process of becoming a performing horse with the circus.”
The man in the cowboy hat continued his talk to the crowd in a confident, reassuring and gentle manner.
“Part of the training procedure,” he continued, “includes getting the animal used to the sights and sounds that are unfamiliar to a horse who just came from living on the farm.”
I tried to disguise my frustration with the horse’s seeming unwillingness to cooperate. Souveran was scared to death in front of this audience. As I tried to coax him to walk forward a little, my new friend continued.
“Watch as the trainer gently reminds the horse of his earlier training and encourages him forward. When he feels the time is right, he will ask for another desired response.”
By this time, all I could manage was to get Souveran to walk around the ring and reverse direction through the center. My self-appointed announcer kept up his soothing explanation. When Souveran calmed down a little, I felt this might be the time to try to get him to bow, something he had taken to nicely at Chuck Grant’s. I coaxed him into the center of the ring and, being in no hurry, gently asked him to relax and then bow.
When he finally began to allow his posture to relax and began to lift his foreleg to give me what I asked, the crowd noticed this new behavior and abruptly began to applaud, startling him back into an upright position. He snorted displeasure. Thanks to the non-stop patter that came from my volunteer announcer, the crowd appreciated the efforts being made. This was Souveran’s first experience with applause.
Once the practice session was over and the horse was back under the awning, I had a chance to meet the man who came to our rescue. Hub Hubbell was a rodeo announcer who saw an opportunity to lend his talents to help make the best of an awkward situation.
Part of the reason Hurricane rode with me here from Michigan was so he could go see his shrimp boat. Now here at the fairgrounds, he didn’t seem to be making any plans to do anything. We went to the local AA club for meetings and as the reality of his situation settled in, I began to ask him about the quality of his sobriety. This was a new concept for him. He thought that being sober was enough.
I invited him to consider the qualities of peace, joy and freedom from our self-inflicted suffering has different levels achieved through our honesty, willingness and working the steps with the help of another. I attempted to describe my experience. His condition was complex, amplified by untreated alcoholism and remaining grief for his dead wife. After a few days, he contacted an old friend nearby who came and got him. I wished him well. We vowed to get back together during the upcoming summer, back in Jackson.
The festival culminated a few days later with a parade on Sunday morning. The gathering marching bands, floats, wagons, vehicles and animals added to the frenzy of this already hectic situation. Souveran was dripping with an anxious sweat and pranced with a rebellious attitude while we waited in the line-up.
He was nervous, and as the result, could not stand still. When I asked him to move towards the mix of parade features that slowly left in single file, he refused and went backwards. When the parade floats we were to follow began to move into position, rather than to hold up the already slow pace of a parade, I turned the horse around 180 degrees and made him walk backwards to stay in the flow.
I chose a group of cowboys and cowgirls on horses to accompany through the parade route. I thought the herd instinct would provide him with some comfort. He was too flustered to notice the other horses. I had my hands full that day.
Once en-route, the parade features spread out in a single file line between the sparse crowds on either side of the blocked off streets that led downtown. The start of the parade allowed things to quiet down for my horse. The cowboys in the group gave me plenty of room. They let me take the lead with my hot, excited horse.
My first circus boss was a fan of old-time cowboy movies. Melvin Timberlake was on horseback too. Mel confided to me after the parade that he did not think I was going to make it all the way through the parade route on my horse. There were times when Souveran walked forward for a while but each time he refused to continue forward, I simply wheeled him around on the spot with my legs and had him walk backwards up the parade route. My horse probably walked backwards seventy percent of the parade.
The environment changed as the procession entered downtown. Tall buildings on either side of the parade route reflected noise. The crowd was packed onto both sides of the street up to the curb. My horse saw the most terrifying element of the route thus far – hawkers with shopping carts laden with tall bouquets of bags of cotton candy, blow up toys, balloons and confections. They walked between us in the parade pushing those monstrosities up to the people at the curb and, often times, this stuff brushed against the parade participants.
I had the thought, ‘this is surely the point of no return.’
There was no plan B if my horse went ballistic. I had no escape route – and no option except continue. Souveran walked backwards through most of that area, too. We did make it.
Of the myriad things to be fearful of, we somehow made it through to the very end. The parade route was four miles long. When complete, we walked that distance back to the fairgrounds. All the participants had to walk back.
During the return trip, Souveran was tired. Among the participants headed for the fairgrounds was an elephant that belonged to a friend of mine. I rode my horse close to this elephant. Souveran, at that point, was so worn out that he quietly walked alongside the large gray animal on a similar trek back to our digs where he could get some rest.
Once the stock was bedded down and fed for the night, I had a chance to go to the Show Folks Club of Sarasota to fraternize and celebrate our accomplishments with many of my circus performer peers. Especially memorable that evening was an opportunity to jitterbug on the dance floor with my favorite circus friend Joanne Wilson.
With the festivities over, I moved my rig and livestock over to the farm of John Herriott, who had a training facility and a background of schooling everything from horses, ponies, elephants and camels. His specialty was Liberty horses. During the next few weeks, I resumed the training of my horse and mule at his farm while he trained a liberty act of eight horses.
Soon, in addition to the bow and the camel stretch, Souveran mounted a pedestal and did a 360 degree turn on the forehand, the three-step and march, plus the double-backwards three-step.
Many times, while accumulating knowledge of the training processes of performing animals, I found trainers zealously guard their secret techniques. John was helpful with my aspiration to learn. With his help, I received additional pieces of the puzzle, even though he was first to claim being a liberty horse man, not high school (as it is called in show business) or an Haute E’cole horseman.
Mid-winter he had to go north to work some Shrine dates. I moved my stuff over to the farm of Russ and Doris who had a barn with stalls and a circus ring.
While I perfected my riding skills, training Betty the mule also continued. She was a novelty at most of the barns we frequented. A bright student, her growing repertoire became quite admirable. She now had a handle on liberty work, ran around the ring, reversed direction, halted at the back, mounted the ring-curb with her front feet, walk the curb, bow, laydown, sit-up, and what became her greatest attribute of all, the waltz.
Betty the mule, whom I’d had for two years, had quite a repertoire. I would use this routine on the upcoming circus tour. Gail thought securing a contract to perform prior to the acts being ready qualified as some kind of crazy plan. She didn’t know that this sort of insanity was standard procedure for show business. With a looming contract for an upcoming tour, I had a goal with a deadline.
Training both animals progressed. In an effort to develop a themed act, I started to experiment with mouth tricks. One popular trick I had seen others use utilized a blanket. I took a towel and painted ‘mule for sale’ on it to use. Once laid across her back, Betty would crane her neck to reach it and pulled it off for a funny effect.
Soon, the choreography and deftness in the ring with my two animals became apparent. There were other responsibilities to take care of. One was earning money. There was plenty of sign work to do in the area. One opportunity lead to a project that opened up a whole new world to me.
While painting for the local showmen, I met a lady with a frozen custard and fruit cup concession who wanted a spectacular front. That project rocketed my career into a significant chapter of my life, but only after a mishap.
Fascination with classic horsemanship brought me to this barn fifteen years earlier. My first riding instructor, Clarence Hastings, had a hunt-jump background, and provided a good foundation for my ambition with my first circus horse. As I expressed a desire to become even more finesseful on a horse, he realized I would need a specialist. Clarence knew where all manner of upper level dressage work took place and encouraged me to observe at the barn of Chuck Grant in nearby Brighton. Clarence was the director of Chuck Grant’s Horse Capades. At first opportunity, I drove over.
The indoor riding barn had a low set of bleachers at one end for the guests. I found my place to watch. Chuck’s sense of humor was evident by the items hanging from the rafters and various signs that decorated the walls. I noticed a pair of riding boots that appeared to have been left behind by some hapless horseman who sailed through the rafters, among other interesting artifacts. I didn’t have long to wait to see the rehearsal.
At the appointed time, a group of horses and riders entered the arena and began to follow Chuck on his horse. Once they became organized, he began to bark out orders, military style, to the group who then complied with their best efforts. Arranged in a neat single-file row the work began.
Trot work started the session. Shoulders in, shoulders out and small circles on the middle of one side required the horse parade to be spaced out just right. The half-pass across the diagonal line was spectacular to observe, after which they were all asked to walk the perimeter to cool down a bit while Chuck went to the center. He shared what he saw and enlightened them on what they could do to improve.
Next, from the walking procession of ten tightly-spaced horses, individual canter departs from the lead position gave each rider a chance to perfect his skill with this gait and travel half the arena distance to make the transition back to a walk at the rear of the line.
Countless other movements followed as I watched this group of dressage aficionados practice aspects of horsemanship I was interested in, all for the sake of visualizing and developing my show business aspirations.
Occasionally, the entourage lined up across the center line to practice the bow or the stretch. Then, after those exercises, with everyone adequately warmed up and dialed-in to their horse, the finale began. Chuck had the entire group follow spontaneous directions for a rapid military drill that resembled square dancing, in which orders were barked out for immediate execution.
Volte meant a small circle. While all of them were on the long side, the sight of eleven horses all turning at once to reverse and complete a small circle, to conclude into the forward moving single file line was spectacular. Having the group space out and increase speed created an opportunity for a giant figure eight pattern. This allowed them to ‘thread the needle’ between their fellows as they traveled the diagonal lines and reversed direction.
The visual experience expanded my awareness of goals achievable with a horse. When that first night was over, although I waited outside for some time, I didn’t make contact with Mister Grant. He was busy with jovial interactions with participants and the duties of putting horses away for the night.
I later mentioned this to Clarence. With a knowing smile, he encouraged me to continue to go regardless. I became a regular visitor on Wednesday nights. Eventually, as the result of seeing a familiar face in the seats, Chuck realized I was interested in what was going on and came over to initiate conversation.
Once he understood my ambition, and that I was already a liberty horse trainer taking riding lessons from Clarence, he enlightened me with little facts about the movements I was interested in and how they were facilitated by the rider.
Over the years, Chuck remained a special friend who helped me when he could. He knew my circumstance – I had to fund my horse ambitions between performing opportunities with artwork projects for a variety of customers. He became a special mentor. The occasional circus tour gave me a goal to work toward and, in spite of the vacillation from training to painting, progress occurred. At best, I could only invest occasional spurts of time to horse training and lessons. Right when I began making progress at the barn, funds would run out and I’d have to go hustle some sign work. Fortunately, there was always plenty of sign work to do.
We clicked on several levels. When my work called me away, we became pen pals. I wrote to share stories that occurred during my stints on the circus. His response was how I found out about my hero.
Chuck was a brassy fellow with a background in the U. S. Cavalry. Part of his unique military background was to do numerous exhibition demonstrations as a cavalryman. The entertaining manner of handling men, women and horses was evidence of his ‘show business’ inclination.
This mixed with what he learned later while running a stable in Chicago. The Konyot family of circus high school riders (who brought dressage to this country) wintered at his barn. Chuck watched as they practiced during the off-season of performing with various circuses. A friendship ensued. Arthur Konyot became the source of Chuck’s dressage knowledge.
Chuck’s barn ran the opposite of Vi’s, who stopped a lesson to pick a flake of shavings out of a horse’s tail. Chuck took a saddle into the stall to prepare to ride while the horse was still eating his oats. He didn’t wait until the horse finished eating. He took the horse, often with a big manure stain on one side, over to the arena to put him through his paces. Most mornings, seven horses were worked, assembly line fashion, prior to lunch.
His barn was very tall, with stalls on two floors. A roomy attic high above was for the hay. An unused antique silo stood alongside. The riding arena was added when Chuck transformed the property into a riding academy.
His stalls were confined, not cleaned as regularly as Vi’s, and used a variety of door latching systems that often required a particular procedure to get them to work. The wooden floor in the aisle had a worn pathway that lead to each stall.
When the Shrine Circus came to Detroit, when possible, I made a special trip to take Chuck to see the show. He welcomed the opportunity to get away from the farm. We made a day of it. After lunch along the way, we bought tickets and found our seats in the coliseum. One of these excursions was extra special.
At the beginning of one show, once the Shrine Color Guard was done with their routine, the grand fanfare began with the introduction of Ringmaster John Herriott, who rode into the arena astride his Appaloosa horse Apache Bandolero. They did a nice passage that commanded the attention of everyone in the arena. John acknowledged the crowd with one arm extended toward them as the horse maintained the slow elevated gait in time with the music. They encircled the three rings all the way around the track. Once the grand entrance was complete, he dismounted, took the microphone and started the show by introducing the first display. I leaned over and told my friend Chuck that I knew this man.
The entire circus performance was filled with traditional spectacular acts that we both enjoyed, especially the bareback riding act and the performing animals. After the show, we went backstage. I introduced him to John Herriott. I became filled with awe while standing backstage in the midst of these talented men. Another time, I introduced Chuck to circus horse trainer Gaylord Maynard who presented another fine act. The conversation was rare as we discussed nuance that only horsemen with our experience are aware of.
Chuck admired my aspiration to perform and wanted to be my patron with the training of my new gelding, but his partner had a business head and insisted that I provide the customary fee for board and training. So, while Souveran was at his barn, I spent more time pursuing sign work back in Jackson, and less time at the barn than we wanted.
I emerged from my day dream. The light snow continued to fall. With the task of loading hay complete, my summer of sign making in Jackson, painting T-shirts at the county fairs, and helping Gail with her house was over. The time to head to Florida had arrived. With these preparations complete, I savored the boost received over the years at Chuck’s place. From a humble beginning, he encouraged my progress and became a trusted mentor.
I thanked my friend Chuck. He encouraged me with my ambitions again and wished me well on my trip to Florida.
I then loaded the American Saddlebred named Souveran. Next, the little jet-black mule named Betty walked up the ramp to get in the trailer.
I remain grateful for the all the help received with this horse, I bid adieu to my friend as the snow continued to fall. I climbed into the truck to start driving. The year was 1989.
The spring of the year was a time with plenty of sign work to do. The stockbroker downtown wanted a face lift for his building. That project required scaffolding which I rented and stacked onto my truck. When I got to the job-site and onto the sidewalk in front of the building, I erected four sections of scaffolding on top of my truck. That way I could drive back and forth on the sidewalk and reach all the areas that required new paint. This project also led to the neighboring photography store sign and also a gold leaf on glass logo for the entry door of Butterfield’s.
Gold leaf sign work on glass was considered the epitome of the sign trade. With my ambition of becoming the best sign man in all of Jackson, receiving this commission brought me closer to that goal. I was fortunate to have Ken as my mentor who helped me get a grasp on this specialty.
Among the plethora of sign jobs accomplished in Jackson, the auto glass company soon sported a cartoon image of a man holding a windshield on an exterior wall. The tire repair place got a clever design made out of tire shapes.
Still obsessed with producing on many creative fronts, Gail introduced me to another aspect of contemporary life – occasional leisure. After the long cold winter, one beautiful spring day the sky was clear. She wanted to drive up to Eaton Rapids to have a picnic in the park next to the water.
I asked “what will we do?”
She answered, “just relax”
When we got there, the first sunshine of the year warmed us to just the right temperature. We laid on the grass bank that flanked the river. Her lovely hair glowed as she took command of this opportunity for sunshine and quiet. Still unsure of myself during this mysterious ritual, after fidgeting once we were reclined and quiet on the blanket, I had a question;
“Gail,” I asked…, “am I relaxing right?”
She turned to encourage me and revealed a secret smile, “just keep doing what you’re doing.”
By this time, I had built a new improved T-shirt stand to take to the county fairs. Gail, at first, did not understand why I was doing this with all the sign work available and Ken with plenty of work for me to do for him. But that summer, after seeing how much money we made, she understood perfectly. As the professional she was, she stepped up to help me.
When the time for the Jackson County Fair arrived mid-august, I had an arrangement with Herman Gumpertz for my T-shirt stand to be on the midway. At home Gail had been chewing on a resentment for my obsession with getting ready and had withdrawn. At fair time, she stepped up to be my assistant. She provided me with outstanding service, to resume our spat after the fair was over. That impressed me.
The most admirable characteristic Gail possessed was her dedication to being professional with whatever she was involved with; her demeanor at the Department store, among her fellow thespians at the theater, and with me in my T-shirt booth as my sales persona. I could always count on her.
Although not immersed in the horse training process as much as when I worked with Vi, when I did get to Chuck’s barn, the one-on-one lessons about the higher levels of horsemanship were intense. Perhaps the most important piece of the advanced horsemanship puzzle I received from Chuck was understanding the importance of forward impulsion. At Grant’s barn, work with the horse progressed rapidly. Winter approached. In true show business fashion, I put the cart before the horse, so to speak.
Through a circus contact, I secured a six-week contract to provide both my horse and mule acts and announce on a circus in Canada the following spring. Now I had a goal. Gail thought this was crazy because I didn’t have the stock doing anything yet. My plan was to spend the winter in Florida. I knew I had the entire winter to train and perfect two routines.
The final sign job of the year was a twenty-four-foot wooden sign for the face of a shoe store building in Mason. I installed this with the help of two guys while large snowflakes came down.
The end of December became the perfect time to resume my pattern of making the annual trek to Florida for the winter. In the warmer climate, I would train my acts and paint signs for nearby showmen and Gail would join me briefly at one point.
Hurricane wanted to ride along with me. I heard his story again about the shrimp boat, plus his explanation about how he wanted to go see how things were going.
When I had all my loose ends intact, I left Jackson with my rig. My Ford pulled the horse trailer with the VW bus hooked behind. Hurricane rode shotgun. We headed for Chuck’s.
At Chuck’s the threat of snow made the last task, loading hay on the roof of the horse trailer, necessarily expedient. The rich, nutritious, Michigan variety of sustenance for the horse was better than anything available in Florida. I had the long horse trailer backed up to the giant old barn, with ‘C W Grant’ in big block letters across one gable end. Underneath the sliding door of the loft, high above, the hay was stacked inside.
Hurricane stood in the doorway. He tossed bales down as I created neat rows on the roof. As I received the bales of hay being tossed down, my mind went into a day dream. I remembered how it all started and what brought me to this place years ago.
Ken Soderbeck always had work for me helping him with the antique fire engine restoration projects underway but my sign business was more lucrative. Spending half of each week at Violet Hopkin’s barn consumed time. In each locale, I stayed busy.
The time away from Gail might have actually helped us both. The dynamic between us resembled a yo-yo. She wanted me at her side yet pushed me away. Relational stresses prompted me away more than once. After one breakup, once we were back together Gail confided that, not knowing where I was, she drove all over town looking. When she saw my van at friend Craig’s she was relieved. She then went home and was able to get some sleep.
At one of my meetings, I met a wiry old skinny man with a worn-out voice. He had the largest plastic coffee mug with a lid I had ever seen. The picture of him dwarfed by this coffee mug still conjures up a smile. He introduced himself as ’Hurricane.’ I soon found out about the appropriateness of this nickname. He could talk and talk and talk. None of what he talked about had much depth, he just liked to talk. He told me about his shrimp boat in the Keys, his CB handle and plenty of stories from road trips. One story was about when he drove nonstop from Florida with a load of fresh shrimp in the back of his Monte Carlo.
He wanted his nick-name painted on the back of this car so the truckers would know who they were talking to on the CB. In Gail’s driveway, I lettered his name in script on the trunk and created a little cartoon of a twister next to it while he watched. When Gail came out to see what was going on, she recognized him. I found out later that his wife had taken care of her grandmother for years. Now both his wife and her grandmother had passed away. He was glad to see Gail but those memories of his wife came back to promote an unresolved grief.
The routine of half of every week at Vi’s allowed for a perfect segue prior to winter. This became time for a completely different range of tasks than I was used to from my circus days. I hadn’t been north for the winter since high school. The list of duties at Violet’s barn soon became endless when she discovered I had handyman talents.
Vi’s method was to get every aspect of what we were working on at the time absolutely perfect prior to going to the next step of the training process. When I finally became willing to have faith in her strategy, I began to see evidence of its value.
Vi never made an upper-level horse. Due to her thorough nature and the amount of time required, she never made it that high. A third level horse that performed in the upper percentile of test scores was as admirable a feat as she ever achieved. A horse needed a longer lifespan for her to get him proficient with the upper-level abilities.
One day, her head groom took me into the tack room to show me something. She pointed at her saddle. I saw the wear in the seat of Vi’s personal saddle. Two distinct worn places the shape of her seat bones told me her seat was impeccable. From that evidence, I knew her seat always maintained the same position. Vi had achieved perfection with the classic and proper posture in the saddle.
Once I set my sights on becoming just as proficient as she demonstrated and received all she had to teach, I became highly motivated to accomplish the stringent list of requirements she had for my aspiration to become a classic dressage horseman. The length of time invested, and her relentless attention to many miniscule facets of my demeanor with the horse became valuable.
The winter living with Gail required flexibility with my schedule due to the influence of nature that affected my ability to work outdoors. One day I was scheduled to make the drive from Jackson to Tristen Oaks. The sky grayed up and began a gentle spitting of rain as the temperature dropped. The result was a thin coat of ice on virtually everything. The sight of this ice on everything was beautiful.
I actually attempted to start the trip in the old dodge but after slipping and sliding as I attempted to reach the edge of town, I realized the attempt to make the long trip would be dangerous. I returned to Gail’s and called Vi with the news.
I had to refrain from teaching my horse to bow while at her barn because she frowned on making animals do tricks. I secretly aspired to begin teaching him leg extensions and the passage but in order to remain in harmony with her strict criteria for my guidance, I refrained.
This training exchange lasted for eight months. We started in autumn. Our work progressed through a Michigan winter, emerged in spring and into early summer, during which the gelding named Souveran and I progressed into a harmonious working partnership.
The reason Vi had to cut off our arrangement was because the annual USDF Instructors Clinic was coming up and she needed room. Paying attention to every little detail of the task at hand was clearly the most valuable of the teachings acquired from Vi Hopkins. Paying strict attention and using diligence to apply myself with scrutiny has turned up in all areas of my life.
I was responsible for chores at Vi’s barn that included feeding and watering, bringing in the tractor with the manure spreader through the aisles between the stalls for the early morning muck, grooming horses, tending to various aspects of maintenance around the property and sweeping. A micro manager, Vi had a peculiar way of removing only the stained sawdust and manure and stressed the importance of not wasting a single flake of shavings. Every aspect of the tasks I was responsible for had a concise way to be accomplished and she provided clear instructions for me to follow for each procedure.
Not at all eager to use the registered name of my horse; ‘Long Shot Deuces Wild,’ as a moniker, I called him Bud for a while until I found a suitable name. While perusing a German/English Dictionary in Vi’s tack room, I found a word in German that meant extremely good … ‘Souveran.’ Delighted with this find, I set out to find exactly how a German pronounced that word and I began using his new name “Zoo-vel-rain”
With the horse introduced to and responding to the series of verbal and visual postural commands that take place at the lunge, the time finally came to begin ground driving. I still had the bitting rig used in the preliminary work with Sassy, and the long lines. In the arena, once the horse was accurately fitted, he began to respond to bending, holding and driving effects to prepare him for the next stage. With plenty of time working together with my horse, Vi noticed areas of my understanding that required more of her tutelage.
One particularly valuable lesson took place in the tack room while I held the bit in front of my face. Vi, behind me, held the reins. She signaled and clucked the way I did. I began to empathize with the signal coming from the rider’s hands and the horse received this information. My attitudes had been misdirected. The result of this session was that I became a finesseful communicator with my horse.
The ground driving took three months, during which the horse responded nicely to the aids at all three gaits; walk, trot, canter. Finally, my horse was ready to begin work under saddle. Not being in any hurry, I learned the importance of having a strong foundation of remaining calm at the walk. I later realized the value of this strategy.
I thought Vi’s slow and thorough manner of going about every facet of the training process approached being silly but looking back I see how effective and memorable the long-drawn-out experience is for the horse. With the slow introduction of everything that lead up to carrying weight on his back, there was no surprise at any point. The animal willingly accepted each new request and as an additional positive result, also learned a good work ethic.
My mentor had a background as a teacher and had been imprinted with an interest in teaching horsemanship as the result of attending the circus where she saw the Konyot family perform on their horses. Soon thereafter, she began to study under Arthur Konyot, the patriarch of the family. Although she learned from circus performers, she made me promise I would never use this horse for circus-style performing. I modified my goal while in her presence to become proficient at contemporary dressage and all aspects of trot work under saddle, bending the horse around the circle, two tracks down the straight line; Travers, or shoulder-in, and Renvers, haunches-in, halt and back up were all perfected under her watchful eye.
About two months into our exchange, I became aware of having a chip on my shoulder in regard to resisting her long, tedious manner of teaching. The thought occurred to me that this was silly. I was investing time to be in her proximity while I resisted and was mentally belligerent. So, I lifted the dynamic, whatever it was, up to God. I even admitted these faults to Vi. I then entered into what became a close relationship with her. Soon thereafter, we became good friends.