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.
Gee Gee was on the line. She had a colorful history that started with the Cole Bros Circus in the forties where she rode a roman team of sixteen horses in spec and adopted the gruff demeanor that brought about success in this tough industry. She had recently retired her husky dog act where she dressed in a revealing furry Eskimo outfit and made an entrance on a dog sled pulled by huskies that caused a sensation everywhere she performed. She still had three elephants. They toured the show circuit with her handler while she stayed home and ran the office. Gee Gee was a savvy operator. From her desk surrounded by 8×10 black and white photographs of circus performers, she coordinated acts with engagements and served as an agent.
“God dammit, Dave,” she shouted over the phone, “you just got to come see these mules.”
My first thought, what in heavens name am I going to do with a mule?
Betty was a jet-black animal with an animated trot and a pretty face. It was love at first sight. There was also a pink-skinned white one with a juggy looking head that did not impress me.
As I studied this black mule, I came up with justification for having her around; ‘She’ll make a wonderful companion for the horse.’
One more mouth to feed wouldn’t be too much trouble. Gee Gee came out from her house, told me the story of how this baby animal came here and soon thereafter, Betty became part of my family.
I was encouraged by Red to meet this man considered a legend in the carnival culture. He also knew Mel would be interested in some of my creative artwork talents. Arrogant and feisty, he considered only his ideas and made hasty judgments. After our introduction, he wandered over to look at my horse trailer.
“Stupid,” he snarled, ‘such a waste of space.”
He referred to how the horse industry had engineered the best way to provide a safe area for a horse to ride in a trailer. Instead of the trailer body taking every bit of allowable width, my trailer only had floor between the tires. Wrapped up in his thoughts, he was oblivious to the fact that this industry standard was perfect for this type of cargo. I learned that this sort of contempt for anything outside of himself was part of his peculiar persona.
Red was right about him wanting artwork. Mel built his motorhome out of an old milk truck van by splitting it and adding extra metal down the middle to make it extra wide. A clever machinist, he took three rear-ends to make one that was wide enough. The interior had railroad car features like a hinged sink that went up against the wall and ornate cabinets, bunk beds and lighting. He wanted Indian motifs on the sides.
I had an idea to improve my one-ton truck: A custom rack over the cab to carry ladders. I also recognized an opportunity with Mel. Yes, he could build that for me so we engineered a swap. I traveled to York later that summer to do the work.
A clever man, he seemed driven by contempt. His agitated state prevented him from being a good listener and having regard for others. I visited his shop in Pennsylvania and saw many innovative ride trailer-mounting processes underway, made with Red’s guidance.
Mel was difficult to deal with. Unknown issues drove his demeanor. In my newly found sobriety, being around such turbulence was perhaps not appropriate for me in this fragile condition. In my confused state, my inability to speak around aggressive behavior surfaced. As he built his concept of what I wanted, I was unable to voice observations of what he was doing that would not work.
He went belligerently ahead with his plan for two metal pans on hinges that, in addition to being too small, the galvanized metal surface was inappropriate for a horse ramp because it was hard and slick.
Intimidated by his manner, something had my voice. I was powerless to insist on what I wanted that would work. I felt as if I were in the twilight zone: an area with no syllables. I was unable to verbalize what I wanted. The exchange concluded. Unsatisfied, I withdrew. I resigned to the waste of effort and the resources gone. I hadn’t yet learned to use the fellowship as a safe place to sound off with the vagaries of life and get helpful advice. I left with my useless contraption and headed south to a farm of some friends. I eventually had to discard the useless pieces he made.
I didn’t know it at the time but the scattered mental syndrome that accompanied my new-found sobriety was a normal condition that would eventually pass. I hadn’t yet developed the sensitivity to notice and trust intuition in such matters. As I seemingly trudged along without direction, this fog that impaired my usual diligence would follow me around for a while.
“And they lived happily ever after.”
Little did I know when I heard those words in my youth that this story conclusion actually set me up for a lifetime of separation. Let me explain.
When I was born, I was at one with the entire universe. Then, as an infant, my somebody training began; “this is your nose; these are your ears.” – you know the drill; eyes and ears and mouth and nose, head, shoulders, knees and toes. A little at a time I learned about me, that I was unique and that I was separate from my surroundings.
Then my dualistic training began; I learned about light-dark, tall-short, cold-hot, good-bad, on-off, up-down, win-lose, love-hate or indifference, etc. These concepts expanded as I grew; Broncos-Bucs, Republican-Democrat, Christian -Jew, American-Russian, gay-straight, Buddhist-Hindu, etc.
The church actually set the stage for promoting self-centered arrogance with deep separation; “I’m sure glad I will be going to heaven instead of where those heathens are going.” “Our religion is superior to all the others.” “We are the chosen ones.”
I began to notice things that didn’t make sense. The dynamic of duality just forced people to take sides. This tendency to find opposition didn’t resemble the message Jesus wanted us to get. As I grew, I was on the lookout for something outside the church that made sense. I was influenced by the concept of Zen, read the teachings of Carlos Castaneda and became immersed in the power of now.
Fortunately, grace intervened. I was set upon a simple path and found a practical relationship with God. I found an easy to understand spiritual foundation through Alcoholics Anonymous. This is the basis upon which I built my ability to appreciate my surroundings. I learned to relate instead of compare. Gratitude became priority.
This year Covid interrupted our regular routine of service to Harley-Davidson clientele. When the dust settled and we were given the go-ahead, tragedy occurred. While enroute to our first pinstriping engagement in Maryland our RV caught fire and burned to the ground. While attempting to put out the fire, I sustained burns on my arms and hands. Our lives changed in an instant. We lost everything.
Instead of arriving to assume my role as pinstripe artist at my first Harley store, I had to deal with the insurance system, heal my injuries, duke it out with a selfish Wrecker company, buy new clothes, console my partner and start to rebuild. Candyse had it worse, we had packed everything for our summer on the road. She lost everything. A mind in shock wondered; why me? My usual zeal was gone. I felt like giving up.
From this devastating low point, when the initial shock began to wear off, I slowly entered into the five stages of grief. At one point I was angry enough at God to want to fire his ass. Fortunately, I confided with a spiritual friend who talked me down from the edge.
This episode coincided with the insanity produced worldwide in response to a tragic death in Minnesota. I watched in disbelief the response that varied from looting and destruction to peaceful demonstrations of encouragement and empathy.
From a vantage point in my grief, I began to wonder about the source of the variety of behavior produced by people around the world. I realized that each person’s cocktail of dualistic thinking was unique. Because each person has a different duality paradigm, their perception of the same event yielded different meanings.
I realized the ego was a major player here too. The ego just wants to be right. That means the ego often has to use a flexible moral value system in order to maintain the conclusion (or illusion) of being right.
This explains why the president can make one statement and half the listeners give him an ovation and the other half are appalled – and they heard the same statement.
I had an epiphany. I realized there was no up-side to complaining about the behavior of anyone. My complaining was a product of my ego in conflict with the truth. By not taking sides I could enter into acceptance for the way things are. This was my portal into the next level of spiritual maturity.
While I inventoried our material losses due to the fire, I began to become aware of my relationship with things. In my grief I wondered if my attachment with things would also have a growth curve. I did some research.
I found out that many people who went through major trauma had dramatic realizations that changed their lives. Ten-year olds who went through cancer emerged with an attitude that did not compare with other ten-year olds. Combat veterans who experienced near death often maintained an admirable attitude for the rest of their lives. And the elderly with their share of challenges either suffer in decline or rise graciously into the next echelon of spiritual understanding and maturity. I realized there was something significant in front of me the result of going through this tragedy. I had an opportunity to get bitter or better.
I am already familiar with the victim mentality; nope – no self-pity for me. I also didn’t want to get caught up in passing judgment, the propagation of opinion or the creation of fantasy scenarios in an effort to explain the unexplainable. A mind that wants to pigeon-hole and compartmentalize everything into categories is actually an attempt at control and involves twisting the truth. There is arrogance in needing to know.
I was hungry for an upgrade. I wanted more of the peace and serenity tasted in sobriety. I would have to let go of the duality of the right-wrong, us-them, true-false, being in control paradigm.
To stop doing this dualistic tug-of-war requires mindfulness. This is not a contest but a doorway into integration and freedom. I must retrain my mind to seek balance and develop unitive consciousness.
I must balance knowing with not knowing and not needing to know as the portal through which to enter into contemplative awareness. The space around not having to know allows a place for inspiration, intuition and unity with the moment to occur. Those who don’t make any claims as to what is right or wrong have access to the light.
I realized there is nothing to fight about; there’s nothing to prove. This whole experience on earth is a dance – a dynamic flow of attraction and grace and our mission is to awaken the inner contemplative mentality.
Plus, when we grant mutuality, oneness and dignity to everything in our universe, we are never alone again. Plus, there is freedom in using a non-duality mindset. We are restored to the place from which we came at birth. I find peace and acceptance that everything is just the way it is supposed to be.
I invite you to re-enter your life, discard dualistic thinking, start anew and create new possibilities for finding harmony with the universe. I invite you to start your new story now.
Open your heart and mind and recite with me; “once upon a time”
Before I headed back to Michigan, I enjoyed an excursion to the Chesspeice Morgan farm as a welcome respite from the rigors of show business and another opportunity to celebrate. I enjoyed a quiet afternoon while watching the processes going on with their young horses. The hospitality of my new friends and their quaint operation planted a seed for my future and a model to hope for.
I heard from an old acquaintance who was sober. I told her about my experiment prior to the horse show of not drinking. I was developing a desire for a life without alcohol. She encouraged me to attend a meeting. In the resulting conversation, I found out Mary from Maryland had found the rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous.
In Michigan I began to occasionally attend those smoky gatherings and listen. One of the many things I heard while sitting in the back row was that some people could not stop. These concepts infected my thinking during the following days and nights and as I continued to paint. I monitored my consumption. My pattern had become to drink the same amount every day while I worked. I had found a way to settle my nerves with beer. Now while doing so, I reflected on what I heard.
Oblivion occasionally took over. The next day with cobwebs in my head, I returned to the meetings to hear some more. I spent several months doing this cyclic, getting nowhere – running like on a mouse wheel. I alternated sipping on a beer or listening at a meeting. Something grew inside but not before I found resentment and frustration as I learned more about the disease.
I became especially infuriated at the concept of personal powerlessness. After all, I have historically been able to accomplish whatever I set my sights on. I became frustrated with the back and forth inability to leave the stuff alone for any length of time. Four months passed. The threat of snow prompted my annual journey south.
First, I headed to see my folks in northwest Arkansas but I had a stop to make along the way. My friend in Missouri horseman John Wallen had invited me to visit.
After I arrived at his barn outside of Springfield, once Sassy was bedded down in a comfortable stall, we headed out the door. We stopped at a few places to talk to girls and drink beer. I shared my ambition of finding another horse. Fueled by my recent success at the horse show, I had the idea of making another dancing horse. John was considering the purchase of an all-around lesson horse that he would also have the option of selling. We had a mission and he knew where the horses were.
Each day we headed a different direction. By day we were in the various barns of people he knew. We saddled up and got acquainted with the animals we found for sale, and at night we found another beer joint along the way. Although we inspected and rode much horseflesh, nothing seemed to fit the bill.
At one place, I saw a horse trailer much nicer than the one I had and asked the man about it. He was grieving due to the death of his wife and the trailer held too many memories of the grand times they enjoyed. The horse trailer was an eight-foot-wide, three-horse, slant-load gooseneck with living quarters in the front that represented a big improvement over the narrow two-horse version I had now. I also discovered this unit was priced right.
One evening at a bar, John was engaged in a conversation with a love interest and I was pretty much alone, lost in thoughts of grandeur. I waited for the evening to be through.
On the ride back to his stable, he said something to me that had a tremendous impact; “you don’t drink like most people.”
His observation echoed in my mind and mixed with what I had heard at the meetings. When the time came to leave, I loaded my mare, thanked him for the fun and friendship, and headed the last leg of the journey to mom and dad’s home.
Although having grown up in the Midwest, my parents had found a piece of property in a pretty corner of the Ozarks on which to build a house. My folks originally came here attracted by a lively charismatic commune that taught spiritual principles, baked sprouted grain bread and shared information about nutrition for health. In this enlightened place filled with like-minded people, they found an answer on their quest for direction for retirement and a place to feed their spiritual hunger.
Excited to see me, my parents were also eager to help with the upgrade of the used horse trailer I had found. This purchase would help with my quest to perform as a horseman and be my rolling home as I worked as a sign painter on location. The owner of the trailer and I came to an agreement.
Once the trailer had been purchased, it was taken to a welding shop to stretch the hitch so my truck could hook on to it. I soon had a new project. I then brought the trailer to my parent’s place. Sassy grazed each day in the pasture I had fenced in years before. She was cross-tied under the awning affixed to the side of the trailer at night.
I knew the procedure at the commune called Shiloh from previous visits and accompanied my dad for the early morning spirituality lessons. Then we had a hearty breakfast. I began the tasks of converting the trailer to suit my needs. I rearranged the horse hauling area from three slant-load spots to make two side-by-side stalls.
Pleased with this upgrade, I had the ability to take the dividers out of the back and give Sassy all the room in the back. She could have almost a whole stall to herself. This was just the beginning. I improved closet space, built cabinets in the bedroom, moved a bulkhead in the saddle closet and created storage for the props used on the road. These modifications transformed this trailer into an efficient, portable self-contained horse-care facility.
My dad was glad I was home at that time. He had the framing of the house almost done and needed an extra hand with the plywood sheeting for the roof. Having been disappointed with the original contractor, he took over the task himself with the help of two carpenters. Although the pace of construction was slower, he was able to control the installation of his many innovative ideas for energy efficiency including; super insulation, solar baseboard heat, extended eaves and triple pane windows.
While completely immersed in these activities during this chapter of my life, I had a new thought. This thought had never been in my mind before.
That thought was; “hey, I don’t have to drink.”
While being useful to my folks on an otherwise uneventful day, the compulsion to drink was lifted with no effort on my part. As I look back, I wonder how this happened. I had been struggling to find the gimmick for not drinking and discovered I could not stop.
I have to give all the credit to God. I recognize my sobriety as a gift. I haven’t had a drink since that day. That doesn’t mean I willingly entered into the process of recovery from the disease.
This was new territory. The experience of sobriety, as my brain cleared, seemed one of being disoriented. Not knowing that while I learned skills in the past, brain synapses had grown in a plasma of alcohol. I now tried to use my brain the way I was used to. It was different now. It seemed slow.
I heard at the meetings: “time takes time.”
Those same synapses had to re-grow as my body went through the same motions in this new state. On one level, I was grateful for the change but on another, I felt as if I was going in slow motion. I made it wrong. My brain seemed foggy, my thinking was slower and as I went through the motions of routine, I seemed inefficient.
I spent what I thought was way too much time fashioning the cabinets inside the new trailer. I attempted to communicate this blend of confusion to my dad. He was focused in the midst of his industry and not able to relate. He did not have experience with withdrawal from alcohol. He did not know what was going on in me and the changes took place. In an effort to be helpful, he encouraged and commended me on the great job I was doing.
I was thankful but confused. I kept up what seemed to me to be a snail’s pace. In this new lost feeling, I felt as if everything had come to a stop. I was being cautious about moving forward an inch at a time. I made it to the local meetings. I met men who coached me but I just wanted to stay home and be cautious with this delicate gift of sobriety. I was grateful for this safe haven, the nutrition each day and work to do.
When the roof was sheeted and Christmas was near, my dad encouraged me to move along. Leaving was not something I wanted to do. I was reluctant. I wanted to stay here where it was safe. In hind-sight, I realize a lengthy fallow-time to allow the fog to clear and attend meetings would have been helpful. Still cautious about this new-found sobriety, I really wanted to stay. In response to my dad’s strong urging, I hesitantly began the trip to Florida.
I did not realize it at the time but the mental processes taking place while finding balance with my newly found sobriety had ran amuck due to beliefs adopted as a child that interfered with the adoption of this new paradigm. My strong independent and self-reliant nature found flaw in the suggested procedure. I resisted the qualities being taught. I was separate. I compared myself to others.
The thought ‘I wasn’t that bad’ occurred while I listened to the others testimony of what they lost to alcohol. The cautious nature adopted in childhood did not promote the relatedness with others necessary for the process of recovery to begin. I was not drinking but I was lost in a self-induced quandary. While completely unaware, I had become stark-raving sober.
Through Society horse contacts across the country, conversations occurred for performing opportunities in that demographic. A producer in Chicago explored options for a performance show at the Big D Saddle Horse Show in Dallas. I received a phone call with an invitation to perform at that major horse show. The Big D included not only Saddlebred horses but Morgans, Hackney ponies and Tennessee Walking horses with plenty of categories for each breed.
The four-day event took place annually at the coliseum on the fairgrounds in Dallas. The reason for the special program of acts was to add entertainment as an attempt to appeal to an outside audience, sell tickets and fill the seats. She wanted my act as the performance feature. Class n Sass received top billing among the other performing acts that included Paso Finos, roman riders, rope spinners, a cowboy square dance team on horses and a girl that had a horse that did some tricks.
I recognized this as a major opportunity in my career as a dancing horse trainer and intended to do everything I could to do an especially good job. With plenty of time to prepare before the autumn show, training sessions with my horse took on a new dimension. I had extra energy and motivation with this goal in sight.
An awareness grew in regard to my alcohol consumption and how it might interfere with this professional aspiration. I had developed the pattern of drinking every day. This awareness mixed with my desire to do the best possible job, so I quit all beer intake three weeks prior to the event. The advance publicity efforts designed to generate excitement in Texas did also in me. I enjoyed hearing the news and seeing ads with ‘Class n Sass’ billed as an equine ballerina.
When I arrived in Dallas prior to the event, I had ample time to assess the situation, collaborate with the announcer and the music and lighting fellows. With this team, we came up with the criteria and agenda for presenting my act. The following is what we planned.
Prior to my entrance, the building went dark by killing all the house lights. I was poised in the entrance chute. Our announcement came next.
“Ladies and gentlemen, calling your attention to a special presentation,” the ring announcers voice echoed throughout the cavernous building, “the one and only equine ballerina; Class n Sass, the beautiful American Saddlebred dancing horse.”
“Brought to you here for the very first time for your entertainment pleasure, trained and presented by Dave Knoderer,” he continued, “please welcome this dancing duo.”
Synchronized to start at the end of the introduction, the organist played the theme music from Star Wars. Two follow spot lights came on at precisely the same time. This illuminated one specific area in the pitch blackness and revealed the horse and rider as we entered the arena floor doing the spectacular, elevated trot known as the passage.
We began to cover ground in the cavernous arena with a path that included several voltes, or small circles, along the way. Her gait in perfect time with the music, showcased just one ability Sassy was proficient with. This manner of starting the act also allowed me to acknowledge the entire crowd while we moved in front of the seating to eventually arrive front and center to begin our usual routine.
At the circus, I used every bit of the forty-two-foot circle called the ring. Here, the vast expanse had an obstacle in the middle; a latticework, extensively decorated arbor-like area for the officials, trophies, their attendants, a photographer and the organist. I modified the path of my routine to present all the features of the act in front of as many in the audience as possible. As the loopy path of alternating voltes yielded to the lateral side-passes, the announcer made his running comments about the training of the Haute E’cole or High School horse.
After the final side-pass, the first of the leg extensions began. The first movement was the triple-three-step – three strikes with the same leg followed by two forward steps. The movement looked like left, left, left, walk, walk and then right, right, right, walk, walk etc. The nice thing about this introductory extension exercise was that forward momentum was established and continued as we changed to the other variations that included the three-step, which was similar.
The three-step looked like; left, walk, walk, right, walk, walk, left, etc. The path of the three-step encircled the entire arena so everyone could see. When we once again arrived at the front side, the three-step changed into the march – leg extension every stride – up the front straightaway. We marched forward up the front side and eventually reached the place where we changed direction from a stop.
Our backwards-extension movements were next. The backwards-double-three-step looked like: strike, strike, back, back, strike, strike, back, back, etc. We backed across the arena in this fashion. This preceded the spectacular breakdown bow where I gave her the cue to plant her front feet and she leaned backwards until her front feet were well out in front of her and her chest was just inches off the ground. As she held this position, the organist played a long chord and I made my sweeping style gesture that promoted applause.
We rose up and came out of this pose. The organist did a tease with the staccato opening notes of the popular show tune ‘New York, New York’ and Sassy began her elevated, hesitation-trot gait known as the passage, seemingly in time with the music. She could do this movement all day long. The stunning animation of this exercise was the strongest feature of our presentation. The horse aficionados in the audience really sat up to take notice of this. The focus of their training was typically elsewhere as they perfected rapid animation and speed with their horses.
After the passage around the entire arena floor, we took a bow. She raised one fore leg and curled it underneath her, leaned back until her knee rested in the sawdust. Again, I styled to the crowd as I insisted she hold this position. When we came up and out of this pose, the organist struck up the lively tune ‘Runaway.’ This tune fit as Sassy coiled up and exploded into a canter depart.
We galloped across the front area and around the north end. This animated gait stood out in contrast to the graceful and elegant demonstration of the recently completed passage. When we were halfway down the back side the time came to begin the canter rears. On cue, she stopped in her tracks, reared straight up and struck out with her front legs as I leaned back in the saddle to assist her with weight distribution. Upon landing on all fours, another canter depart transitioned her back into the gallop, but only for a few strides. Then it was time to stop and rear again.
Several canter rears took place across the back of the venue and then several across the front. Racing around the north end, we cantered the last leg of our routine up to a location adjacent to the announcer’s stand where we stopped. Sassy then bowed and when she was down on one knee, I asked her to curl up the other leg. She kneeled on both knees for our conclusion.
After the final announcement, we rose from our pose and began to make our way to the exit gate at the passage. At the last moment, we turned around to stop. We faced the interior of the arena. We made one last acknowledgement to the crowd while the parting announcement took place. I bowed my head with my hat in my hand. I extended my right arm in the fashion that a formal dressage rider uses to conclude his ride. With my head bowed in gratitude, the spot lights went off. I exited in the dark. That was the routine we provided each day of the event.
During dress rehearsal, everyone involved did great job learning and doing their part. The presentation of our act went smoothly. Once cooled out, I put Sassy away in her stall. I Thought I was done until showtime the next day. A couple came to me with a special request. They wanted me to perform that evening at a saddlebred stable north of Dallas in Plano. Prior to the horse show each year, Milligan Stables had their annual Open House and Fish Fry. Their event was scheduled to take advantage of the visiting horse folks who arrived to participate at the Big D Horse Show. The aficionados could see their farm and their livestock. I recognized this request to perform in front of their guests an endorsement of sorts. Instead of relaxing, I had to get ready.
A few miles north of town, I found their horse farm in the affluent suburb of Plano. The party would be for just a few hours. Upon arrival, I was introduced to their plan. I would show my act to the crowd during the only time they would be assembled. That was when they stood in line for the meal provided. In sharp contrast to the high-tech rehearsal now complete, the demonstration I provided here had no announcement, no music and no lighting, Although the horse and I were dressed to the tees, this was a high-grass presentation that took place on the lawn alongside the long line of people who waited for food.
We performed the side-pass, three-step, passage and all the other elements of our routine and received applause from the patient yet hungry crowd. Once Sassy was cooled-out and cross-tied to the side of my horse trailer, I had an opportunity to get some grub and meet the other folks who enjoyed the festivities. By the end of the evening I was back at the stable at the fairgrounds and settled in.
The horse show coliseum was surrounded by metal roofed buildings that contained a labyrinth of concrete walls, a web of metal plumbing, a network of electrical and commercial lighting fixtures combined with rolling wooden doors and barred dividers that made up row after row of horse housing in a maze of stalls. Dirt throughways for horses and their companions covered with sawdust sliced through these areas.
Depending on the size of the participating stable, whole aisles were devoted to a single enterprise as evidenced by the color-coordinated canvas valence with the barns name affixed high on top of the entire length of the stall row. Fancy signs were mounted at each end of this arrangement with a main display in the center. Tack trunks and color coordinated folding director chairs peppered the aisles between stalls along with tables covered with veggie snack trays, small sandwiches, plastic stemware, coolers full of drinks and the occasional coffee pot.
On many of the main intersections of these sawdust arteries were extensive displays brought in by the major stables that included water fountains, floral arrangements, potted plants, stunning horse sculptures. Mounted photos of the exotic features of the faraway stabling facility and their featured stallions inspired awe.
Some of the stalls were completely canvassed off and used as dressing rooms. During the frenzy of the horse show, participants of all kinds were primped into impeccable condition by the many attendants who, like devoted servants, combined efforts to get horse, rider and all the leather, metal and fabric accouterments in pristine show shape. Many of the horses had matching color, false wig pieces that were woven into the horse’s tail to add pure luxury.
The traditional saddlebred tail was surgically altered to prevent clamping down over the bung. Under saddle, this modification caused the tail to assume an elevated position and the augmented, carefully picked out massive feathery appendage undulated while the horse ran through his gaits. It really did add to the appearance in a beautiful manner, especially in the breeze caused when the order was given to rack on, the most rapid of the five gaits.
Two stalls were provided for my needs. I had plenty of time to care for and prepare my horse for our daily presentation. This also gave me ample time to meet the folks around me. As I became familiar with my fellows, I noticed a vast demographic I was not familiar with. These were society horses, referred to as such, for a reason. These equine status symbols were historically considered an appropriate pastime for royalty, and in this case, the very rich. Being around this segment of the demographic, I shared a secret amusement with the professional horse trainers and workers who knew their way around a horse and were here to make a living, and that was that we sometimes watched the obviously inept on incredible horses.
The resulting connection with a portion of the populace who had a handle on how to function and gracefully interact with a horse prompted several friendships in the stable area. During the early morning hours, the grooms, handlers and individual private horse owners were the only ones who stirred, many of whom also slept here. I learned long ago to attend to my animals immediately upon waking and these people were of the same discipline. Stalls were being cleaned and picked out while the peaceful sounds of chewing, nuzzling the bottom of a bucket and the occasional snort added to the meditative state. For the humans, percolators added a refreshing fragrance to the mix.
As the morning grew, the wealthy participants arrived from their hotel rooms and became involved in myriad activities. Special tailored saddle-suits were donned, boots were polished and hair arranged in a bun. Tack was shined, the horse shoer quickly nailed lead weights onto the soles of a horse’s feet, while muzzle whiskers and ear hairs were trimmed. The skin surrounding the eyes were rubbed with oil to produce a deep shine and a special spray sprinkled a slight metal-flake sparkle went on the horse’s slick, curried finish.
I was busy with the grooming practices learned on the circus. I checkered Sassy’s haunch. With careful short strokes using a short comb going against the grain in the slick hair on her haunches, I created a special effect; a checker board pattern on her rump. Next, I glued small mirrors in alternating squares of the pattern.
White leg wraps were securely and accurately wrapped onto each leg between the knee and ankle to accent the visual effect of the action from a greater distance. A special white saddle pad with gold tube edging went onto her back before I laid my dressage saddle with straight flaps down onto her back. The martingale, or breast collar, went over her head and onto her neck next, and then the whole affair was lovingly secured.
With the mare pristine, it became my turn to dress. My dad was a perfectionist and a sharp dresser. His neatly arranged closet was his testimony. Special cuff-clamp hangers held his pants inverted to hold the crease sharp. Padded hangers for his suit jackets were arranged in an orderly row and when he tucked his shirt tail in, an even overlap occurred in precisely the same location on either side of his girth, a technique he learned in the military.
I carried on this family tradition albeit far from the uniform of the clergy. First, I put on the ruffled front formal shirt with a bowtie, tucked smartly into white breeches. I covered my waist with a cummerbund. Then I pulled on my black Dehner boots and strapped on my spurs. Then I reached for my peach colored tuxedo jacket with glass jewels and gold piping sewed onto the lapels, cuffs and tails. After I slipped on this heavy jacket, I snapped into the proper posture and the costume assumed its position. I finished off my look with a matching color Mississippi river boat gamblers hat.
The time then came to introduce Sassy to the double-bits of the full-bridle. I slipped the headstall over her ears, guided the bits into her mouth, attached the throat latch and hooked the delicate curb chain. I circled her one last time to make my final inspection of every detail. The time came to lead her into the aisle and ask her to bow on one knee as I placed my foot in the stirrup. She held this pose as I rose and swung my leg over her. Then she rose. My posture settled straight into the classic seat developed under the tutelage of my many mentors. From this position, we were ready to make our way to the warm-up ring to prepare mentally and physically for our performance.
Lavish parties took place all around these activities as each day morphed into evening. A jovial atmosphere permeated the long days filled with, not only animal care but grooming the horse and rider to impeccable condition along with handling the pipeline of various personal incidentals and necessities consumed by this cross-section of humanity. The variety of age groups attending combined their enthusiasm and were regarded as an important contribution to showmanship.
One couple had a talented Morgan stallion who participated in several classes. They had the same number of stalls I had. They also had all day to primp one horse. They had lots of time during the day to visit. Their home-spun manner of handling the related tasks of life at the show combined with their appreciation of the peers who became friends over the years. Their interest for what I did with my horse prompted much conversation.
The genuine regard apparent in their demeanor was the perfect segue for a shy guy at a new threshold. I was careful in this situation to make a good impression. In this strange new world, Billy and Joanne made me feel welcome, accepted, and significant. They went out of their way to include me in their ever-growing circle of acquaintances. We became friends. After the show, they extended an invitation to visit their farm nearby, called Chesspeice Morgans, to see the operation, the other horses in the barn and camp out for a while.
In the midst of all this conviviality, I refrained from the ongoing offers to have a beer or glass of Champaign but I certainly enjoyed the food and especially the lively rapport. The topic we all loved – horses – spurned many stories from all around. As I listened, I learned much about this facet of horsemanship.
They were curious about my passion too. Encouraged to share anecdotes, we sat on trunks, bales of hay, chairs or simply leaned on a stall door. Nuance of our experiences while training the horse or personality quips of our equine individuals sparked other stories of the past and present from everyone. This heightened the feeling of being accepted and part of this genre.
A nice red-head who was a friend of Billy and Joanne became a regular part of these daily get-togethers. She piqued my interest. Soon we created a welcome excursion for just the two of us. We walked through the many thoroughfares of stalls and acknowledged the many parties underway throughout the facility. We paused at each stall to inspect magnificent horse flesh.
We enjoyed the wonder of the moment, the magnificence all around and especially the sparkle in each other’s eyes. I welcomed her presence each day as I prepared for my act. Her interest in watching me perform while I found my place in this fascinating industry opened up an avenue of hope in my heart.
I learned the discipline of being ready one act before my time to perform on the circus. This habit was necessary for a smooth uninterrupted show, especially when an emergency occurred with the act before. Here at the horse show, my slot to perform was after a different class each day. The length of time a class took was influenced by how many horses were in the class and how long the judges took to select a winner.
With this previously learned way of participating, I was under saddle, warmed up from the session in the outdoor ring and waiting by the rail with the current class underway for differing amounts of time each day.
The first dancing horse performance that took place at the Big “D” Saddle Horse Show was interesting. With the routine in its beginning segment, as I did the three-step around the back of the officials stand, I noticed the mare acted funny. I discovered she was being spooked by one front leg wrap that had come loose and was flapping around. I immediately jumped to the ground and removed the rest of the wrap. With this dangerous situation handled swiftly, to resume the act, I had her bow, then put my foot in the stirrup iron. With the graceful remount that followed, I got an applause that was not planned. I realized this way of getting on a horse was novel to these people.
The emotion that accompanied being on an impeccably groomed horse in front of this large horse-loving audience who peered from their seats and over the rail along the sides prompted the feeling of having arrived. This over-wrote any lingering damaged esteem issues that accompanied me through life and gave me an image of myself that I approved of.
Motivated to excel, I learned long ago that I get my value from what I produce. The acceptance, applause and approval that came from this community pumped a new elixir into my bloodstream as I became a handsome prince on a beautiful and talented steed.
When the first performance was complete, I cooled Sassy out, wiped her down and put her away clean and dry. I had arranged with the video service at the show to capture footage of our routine each day. My new friend and I made our way to the commercial booths in the foyer section of the building adjacent to the main seating area. There we found booths filled with horse related products and information about services.
We saw brand-new tack and saddles, tailored wardrobe, boots, hats, custom barn builder displays, breeding lineage information services, plaque makers, portrait painters, equine books and magazines, truck and trailer brokers, wagon, cart, harness and buggy makers, along with every horse trinket and clever device to make life easier at the barn from the top of your wheelbarrow to the soles of your feet.
As we threaded our way through these hawkers and merchants, we eventually found the video booth of the crew who filmed all the horses and riders to see the recently captured footage of my act. My perfectionistic desire to be the best horseman I could possibly be was aided with the footage I now obsessively pored over.
The first session revued, I discovered the bow had occurred in a place hidden by the central latticed obstacle in the middle of the floor. Now I knew where the camera operators were and calculated the angle they shot from. During the next performance I made a special effort to play to the camera so my footage included all the features of my act.
As each day passed, another performance occurred in the midst of horse classes of every type and filming my act continued. The captured footage became a visual record, a valuable training aid to me and an all-inclusive memento of this highlight of my life.
Early in my relationship with this stunning mare I noticed a mean streak when the time came to cinch up the saddle. I could lay the saddle on her back as she stood calmly but when I started to buckle the girth and tighten up the straps, her ears went back. With teeth bared she tried to reach around and bite me. I realized this was probably the result of a negative experience that occurred in her past. I made a vow to never reprimand her for this behavior and instead respond with pure love, especially because she was so willing to excel with everything else I asked of her.
Gradually, over the years this conduct turned into a game. The cinching process was not painful to her and because I loved her through the process, gradually she changed. After her ears went back and she tried to reach me, she then tried to affectionately lick me. I gradually became able to put my hand in her mouth and she lovingly gummed me. As this behavior became consistent it also evolved into a source of fun around strangers.
One evening after the horse show was quiet, I was alone. I walked from stall to stall and looked at horses. I saw a couple at the other end of the same row headed my way. Sassy’s stall was halfway between us. We stopped and looked into each stall along the way. As they got closer, I was near my mare.
I looked into her stall, feigning not having any familiarity with her.
I said “Wow, this is a nice horse.”
Then thrust my hand and arm between the bars of the stall and up to her face and said, “I wonder if he bites?”
I placed my hand into her mouth. She lovingly gummed me. I acted in a ridiculous manner. I flailed my other arm and acted as if I was being eaten alive. While I secretly laughed at the stunt, I’m sure these stunned people continued their walk thinking I was very strange.
My cousin and her husband lived in the area and planned to attend one of the shows. I hadn’t seen Phillis since we were kids at the annual family Thanksgiving get-together back in Ohio. I was delighted with their presence in the seats on the third day of the show. We were reunited after umpteen years. After the show they invited me to come over for dinner. When I drove over that evening to see their lovely home, Fliss had no way of knowing about my personal non-drinking experiment.
After turning down her offer of a cold beer, she said “one won’t hurt.”
I then went ahead and enjoyed a wet green bottle full. Back at the coliseum, before bed, I found a party still going on and had more.
The next morning, the resulting compromise to my physical and mental prowess was apparent in the video footage taken that final day of the show. Seemingly caught in time lapse, I lagged a moment behind what Sassy was doing. I lost my sensitive feel and the adept ability developed as the result of relentless practice and sobriety.
Taken by surprise, I bounced ungracefully in my seat during the canter rears. This was just one consequence of the fog that impaired my brain. In spite of this, true to form at the horse show, much pomp occurred at the end of the act. In a gesture of appreciation, we were awarded a blue championship ribbon and a silver tray for our unique contribution to the show.
That night with the performance contract honored and having received accolades from legions of horse folk, there was no reason to refrain from the consumption of this accepted and widely available beverage. The final celebration took place with my new friends during the load-out of unneeded horse accouterments while the mare enjoyed one final night in her stall.
Advertising in any proximity that the locals gather is a strategy many businesses utilize. A sense of community dedication associated with civic groups is created with these gestures. Hand painted paper signs with the names and ads of local merchants hanging in the big top is one way of making extra money around the traveling circus. Becoming the banner salesman on the Royal Bros Circus season of one day stands in 1973 was an enterprise that required my sister’s participation to fit into our routine. Our custom was already up early each morning. Paula would wake me and crawl into the cab of the pickup to resume her sleep while I drove to the next town. When we arrived at the next town, I would jump out of the truck downtown with my steno pad and begin to visit the merchants in all the stores. Paula would then drive the pickup truck with camper pulling the calliope trailer to the edge of the show grounds where the big top was being set up. There she would recruit the canvas boss to drive the rig into position on the lot near the back door of the tent.
At the beginning of the season, John Frazier gave me a spiel to use and sent me downtown to do my best. I simply found the decision maker in each store and rattled off my memorized pitch, wrote down the particulars of each sign and announcement and collected eighteen dollars for each one. Downtown, my role took me in and out of each store and business to give the spiel for buying a banner ad that would hang in the big top. The accompanying announcement would give merchants presence during the afternoon and evening presentation of the circus. I was learning presentation skills and also how to get around the employee in charge of intercepting disruptions. I learned to not disclose my purpose until I got to talk to the boss. As the circus banner salesman in a new town every morning, I had the opportunity to meet an endless stream of interesting people.
In Perth, at a candy store, I entered an old-time glass store front through a heavy wooden door that triggered a bell that rang each time it was opened.
After listening to my memorized spiel, the elderly woman who otherwise beamed in response to my presence responded with “I’m not going to buy one of your banners.”
After asking me about my role with the circus, I was then invited to listen as she told me about herself and sat down at the piano. Prior to World War I she had been a piano player for the silent films shown in the local theater. Emotion, drama, excitement, danger and elation were communicated through the flavor of the music created by a live piano player in these theatres. As she played, I heard these examples of how music enhanced this genre of entertainment. My mind was transported to a time when this was state of the art. During the war, she became a bus driver for the war effort and when the war was over, talkies had arrived on the scene. She had to pursue another vocation. This was just one of the many encounters with interesting people that imprinted my heart.
While I was in town selling banners, Paula had one duty during set up, and that was to take two pullies with long loops of rope and snap them into the lace lines of the big top while it was going up. This facilitated hanging the paper signs later, and was a duty that forced her out of her shell to interact with the crew during set up.
When I got back to the lot with all the orders, I had to scramble to get the rig backed into the tent and the drums set up. Paula got busy painting signs on large pieces of white paper with a shoe polish applicator and hung in the big top before the show.
Paula never did become an enthusiastic showman, partly due to her reclusive nature and partly because I had become a hot-headed teenager who had never learned to be gracious as we attempted to get all these tasks done together on a daily basis. Perhaps I was following the example of our father’s strict perfectionist manner of wanting everything done just right, and that added to the already frustrating situation of her being in the turbulent outdoor entertainment business. All I could see was the perfect way it could be done.
Our comfort was at the mercy of the weather and plagued with egoic whims, moods influenced by situation and selfish ambitions of others, which was more of what we had found on the playground of our youth, yet on a grander, rawer scale. The rigors of one day stands, relentless demands from me and the multitude of twists that occurred in this turbulent lifestyle began to wear on her. Something in my sister had been hurt. She could not show enthusiasm. She remained frustrated and became referred to as poor Paula amongst my trooper friends.
One morning after having a successful series of banner sales, I returned to the lot to begin with the process of setting up and getting ready for the show, but I could not find the rig on the lot anywhere. I asked the canvas boss if he knew anything, and he sent me to see the elephant man.
When I asked Dick, he said, “The rig is over there” and pointed north of the lot.
So I began to walk.
About a mile from the lot, I found my sister completely frustrated, sitting on the ground. The truck was stuck up to the axels in someone’s front yard. Apparently while driving the rig from where she dropped me off downtown and heading for the lot, she missed the entrance. Thinking she could just go around the block, Paula continued down the road and instead found it went straight for miles with no place to turn around. Exasperated, she pulled up someone’s driveway and attempted to make a big loop in their front yard. But the lawn was soft, and the truck sank up to the axels.
When I got there, I was not the loving, supportive brother she needed at that low point in her life. I became a hot head and screamed and yelled at her. I had to hike back to the lot and recruit the help of the elephant to pull the rig out of that situation. As I look back at my behavior that day, I realize that my response did more to damage my sister, who already had the tendency to shut down and withdraw. That event caused her to retreat even further into the security of isolation. If I had it all to do over again, I would have become comforting, compassionate and lovingly explained to her that we all make mistakes. The damage of that event set the tone for the rest of our lives. My sister never saw an admirable trait in me from that point on. When I did see her years later, warmth and regard was gone.
Holding a grudge seems to be a sin of our father, who had his front teeth knocked out on a family water ski excursion by his brother (interestingly, who became a dentist). Making amends or entering the procedure of forgiveness, as taught by Jesus, was not exampled in our family in spite of our father being a minister. Resentment that persists can become depression.
After an otherwise busy and fun summer season across picturesque Ontario, we had much to relish and savor from our adventure but a contemptuous not knowing for both of us, forced self-reliance to the front and we grew apart. My sister and I survived a turbulent childhood not knowing safety. We were exposed to a vast spectrum of behavior coming from others. We began to prefer a smaller circle of influence. At the end of that season on the circus in Canada, we trucked back to the Quad cities where, after dropping her off, she began her next semester of college. That was her only experience on a circus.
I headed east to pursue a fall tour on another show. I joined a small circus with a five-week season in Michigan that performed in school gymnasiums. At the end of that tour, I ventured to Indiana, gathered up the new crop of pony babies at the Palomino farm, picked up the liberty harness commissioned at Shipshewana and headed for Michigan.
At Hayes farm, I unloaded the weanling babies and gathered up the yearlings. One colt had died.
Hayes told me the story of Lewis Bros Circus, a show owned locally that thrived during the thirties and forties that wintered east of Jackson on Fox Road. He had gone out there in the past to snoop around but the owner of the farm wasn’t keen about visitors. Fortunately, the farm had changed hands again and Hayes made friends with the new owner. He saw the left-over equipment that had sat for several decades but not before many of the rotting wagons had been burned.
Since he was friendly with the current owner of the farm, during one of my visits to Clarklake, he suggested we drive up there and look around. We went to Fox Road in his green station wagon. Behind the large white home in a rural part of the county, a sunken driveway lead past a row of tall trees up to the back where two large barns stood. Inside the first one was a low ceiling and a labyrinth of aisles and stalls, obviously where the animals for the show lived during the winter.
The other barn was a massive, high ceiling structure with sheet metal on the floor where the elephant was housed. Up on the second floor, a large room was where the wardrobe, canvas repair and other preparations took place.
As Hayes and I explored the barn we saw an inverted elephant tub being used as a coal hopper and recognized other pieces of equipment strewn around. The owner told us to take what we wanted. I found a complete set of liberty horse harness and an elephant bracelet.
Part of the challenge of living on the road involved an inability to collect things. My choice to keep something usually meant that another belonging would have to be discarded, but this find was too good to pass up.
After some additional artistic projects Hayes had accumulated for me to complete, I headed for Oklahoma with four yearlings to begin the creation of my new palomino liberty act. I was about to begin the experience that would positively imprint my life in many amazing ways.
This business I had selected in an effort to make an improvement came filled with extremes; from encouraging friends that became a positive influence for my life, to crooks with agendas that inflict selfish devastation. Instead of receiving wisdom from the lessons learned on the road, my response was more of what I had established as a child. I sought on my own to utilize self-reliance and independence for surviving in this turbulent society. The ponies would teach me something vastly different.
My Kingdom for an Elephant
Jimmy Silverlake had created an efficient moving under canvas circus for season 1974, and the arrangement of canvas tents and the rolling components on the lot were quite pretty to look at. The image of this tented city on a grassy field conjured up awe, curiosity and intrigue. Yet one element was missing. How could this be a circus without an elephant?
In the spring, Jimmy heard about an opportunity to buy an elephant from Tony Diano, a rogue that couldn’t be let off her chain. The deal came with an old rusty trailer and an antique tractor to pull it but Jimmy had room for the elephant in his animal semi. Soon the elephant was transported to Michigan, tethered and out on display. The rig that came with her was then empty. Bert Pettus was contacted and he became our elephant man.
Having this large empty trailer on the show gave me the ability to pick up the remainder of my ponies from Hayes farm and get them used to traveling on the show. This meant I was tending to eleven ponies.
Sunshiny afternoons with my ponies on their picket line proved to be a magnet for the little girls that lived in each neighborhood. I had a bucket full of brushes that I would place near the picket line and the girls would find them and figure it out. Get a brush and groom a pony. The palominos loved the gentle attention and I had the livestock curried by show time.
Later in the summer, Bert Pettus and his wife Marie had their daughter and her family visit between performing on shrine dates. Jack and Sandy Fulbright had two children, two appaloosa high school horses and a six-pony liberty act. For the brief times they visited, we had a tremendous population of ponies on that little circus. They were happy to show me how they tended to and performed with their ponies. This accelerated my understanding of this specialty.
As the season progressed, so did the proficiency of my pony act. But the show didn’t fare well. It is never good when the circus catches up to the agent. The rhythm of one day stands became erratic, with gaps during the week when the show would lay dead for a day at first, and then with alarming frequency. The tour ran out of route late-summer in the Upper Peninsula, due to the lack of advance personnel. On the last school grounds, where the circus played its final engagement, all the investors that had helped Jimmy launch this show arrived to divide up the assets. I had lent him some money too, but due to the hierarchy was last in line for anything.
Sitting dead on that final lot, the group bounced ideas back and forth for dissolution. They figured out what each one was going to get. Then they had an idea.
“Let Dave have the elephant,” I overheard.
That statement prompted a flood of concerns. The surprise prompted my imagination to dream several survival scenarios. My mind entered a cycle of thinking trying to figure out, like the rest, how, when and where I was going to manage travel from this place. Sitting on the lot with no way of my own to haul eleven ponies and an elephant, I wondered how I was going to proceed. These thoughts occupied my mind the entire night. I was relieved the next day, when they announced other plans had been made for the pachyderm. But this brief episode does qualify me as having the ability to claim being an elephant owner for a day.
Billy Griffin invited several of us to regroup at his family home in Princeton, Indiana. Jimmy let me use the old dilapidated bull semi to get the livestock to southern Indiana while Audrey from the cookhouse drove my pickup and camper. I had to do something to get equipped to tour with my ponies. I needed a truck. Billy helped me find a truck through the dealers he knew in the area. We found an International Loadstar in Poseyville with an eighteen-foot box that would serve me quite well to carry the ponies.
Once this rig was secure, I began the process of getting it equipped as my pony truck. I rigged up a ramp that hinged down from the side door and fashioned mangers inside for the comfort of the ponies. The truck also needed a trailer hitch welded on the back for the calliope. I could sleep on the bunk in the trailer for now and have plenty of housing for the three ponies, hay and equipment in the truck body.
While we camped in Princeton at Billy’s mother’s home, everyone was making changes. A clown from the show who made the trip with us lived in an old dodge van and wanted to buy my pickup with the camper. He drove his old van like a daredevil clown would, often screeching to a stop from a tight turn that gave him a thrill. The living quarters inside would be a big improvement for him but he would have to learn how to be careful while driving this top-heavy vehicle.
One at a time the kinkers left for other digs. The clown found another show to perform on and headed that direction. Audrey planned going with Billy to south Texas. I learned about an upcoming job, a several weeks tour of one-night stands through Michigan on a circus that performed indoors in school gymnasiums.
I could leave seven ponies on a pasture nearby for six weeks and pick them up when my tour was over and head for Hugo. We all said our goodbyes and the headed different directions.
At the end of this whirlwind preparation session, enroute to the school house circus tour, I took frail Teddy to Hayes house in Clarklake where he lived the remaining weeks of his life in his backyard. I often think that celestial beings come to us disguised with hoofs. Knowing and believing this is proof enough that I was visited by an angel. Teddy blessed many children while on the circus during his brief life.
Everything that I knew to do to be ready was done. I thanked my friend Hayes and started the trek towards Detroit. Nothing would adequately prepare me for what I would discover when I made it to the next circus.
The Liberty Act
“If you get up the courage to begin, you have the courage to succeed.”
The daily routine of liberty pony training in winter quarters at the fairgrounds in Hugo, Oklahoma had progressed to my being in the ring working the three ponies proficiently. I had just a few weeks until the time arrived to go open with a circus. The final step, prior to this deadline was to get the ponies crowd broke, or used to the noise, music and the applause they would experience in the show. During our training sessions Bob clanged trashcan lids, played a record player and created other distractions in the barn while I took them through their paces. This introduced them to working amidst chaos and disruption but nothing would get them used to the real thing.
As the new season loomed, Bob did his best to prepare me mentally for what to expect when I began performing in an actual ring on a real show. As I continued accumulating my understanding, Bob explained to me that the horse trainer actually wants the animal to make every conceivable mistake. It is during guiding the pony through these mistakes into the behavior that is desired, that the pony learns thoroughly.
He told me that the first time a colored circus balloon would land in the ring the ponies would probably be terrified and may bolt out of the ring. He went on to tell me that I would have to remain calm and guide them through all these circumstances because every conceivable thing that can go wrong will go wrong. With each episode I had an opportunity to teach my steeds again. Little did I know that all this coaching and the encouragement would not completely prepare me for what was actually going to happen. As a perfectionist dealing with the immense variety of combinations of mistakes possible, I had created a future with a cacophony of confusion, blunder opportunities and a performing career that would provide industrial strength frustration.
I made a deal with Jimmy Silverlake to present my 3-pony act on his circus. He had left the family and launched a show called Lewis Bros circus with a partner the previous year. Now as the sole proprietor of his own circus, he was willing to give me a position where I could present my unproven act. Typically, special consideration is given to a rookie animal act due to the training that will continue as the animals settle into their routine. With a green act and no truck to haul the ponies, I also needed a situation where I could expose these rookie ponies to the pandemonium of working in front of an audience and also have a place for them to ride. Jimmy had room in one of the show trucks for my livestock. Additional preparations were taking place at winter quarters for the upcoming season and he appreciated my painting talents being available prior to opening.
In the spring I moved my camper, ponies and calliope trailer from Hugo to Medora. I was welcomed again to the familiar Silverlake family winter quarters from my Clark & Walters and Fisher Bros Circus days. My ability as sign painter kicked into high gear, as he made other preparations.
The Barnes & Daily Circus opened in the spring of the year in a nearby small town in southern Indiana. I put up the small tent purchased from Buzz Barton as my stable. I provided many skills for the two inaugural performances. Perhaps, as a hint of the unpredictability to come, I had a rude awakening the next morning. Although the show was torn down and loaded, the location where I had the ponies stabled was in a low-lying area on the lot. After a late-night rain and resulting flash flood, my ponies were standing in knee deep water. After sloshing through the water to rescue and load the ponies in the elephant trailer and tear down my little tent, our 1974 season began.
The series of one day stands began their relentless rhythm and each day ran a little smoother. Our tour opened in southern Indiana and the route took us north through farm country to Michigan. This show was a testimony of efficiency, designed by a man who knew how to move a circus. Traveling on three trucks and trailers, the big top was a bale ring top, as opposed to the push pole tents of previous shows. That meant the poles went up first and the canvas was hoisted up the poles. This method of handling the canvas makes it last much longer. This circus was conceived, built and created by the brother of my original mentor. This was clearly an efficient, attractive, and in my opinion, neatest little circus anywhere.
Each day on a new grass lot, I put the ponies out on the picket line and would turn frail little Teddy loose. He would just hang around. Little children gravitated to his peaceful presence and enjoyed petting him. Although too weak for any other role, Teddy remained loved as our mascot. Three green liberty ponies were a manageable size group for a novice to handle.
Having my ponies on display in their little stable tent on the midway, along with my Calliope, added to the visual appearance on the lot. I played the calliope before each show as a preamble to the performance and for the blow off, or when the patrons leave after the show. I played old time tunes like “Daisy Daisy” and “Bicycle Built for Two” in the afternoon prior to and between shows. While the ponies were on display, I observed their magnetism and the kind air that the children enjoyed. Through this exposure to the public, the ponies developed acceptance, tolerance and love for people.
Inside the big top, my drum bandstand went alongside another calliope. Bobby Green provided the music for the show having migrated from the defunct Clark & Walters. Dot and Sonny Burdett added a touch of class to the show with their presence. Sonny always dressed to the tee assisting his tall, lovely wife with her rolling globe act. Billy Griffin worked in the office and dressed as a clown for the performances. Jim’s wife Marilyn performed aerial web and ladder.
Even an ideal social environment is complicated. This is especially complicated around a circus. Egos get fed by the approval of the crowd. The narcissistic tendency that is inside all of us sometimes gets inflated far beyond its intended purpose. Blind to the origins, sometimes tension develops between personalities. Egos clash. Without interruption or intervention, the caustic condition infects others. Sides are taken and chaos reigns.
I had been on circus seasons when the personnel combined seamlessly to form a team that worked well together and the experience along the entire route was heavenly. Then there are seasons where individual agendas take precedence over what is best for the show. Bickering and back stabbing took on a life of their own, resulting in an unhealthy experience.
Jim Silverlake radiated a sincere regard for everyone present. His pleasant, altruistic mindset influenced others and regard prevailed on his show. That season came close to qualifying as heaven on earth.
At the beginning of this tour, I went through a major learning curve. The pony act was pretty. The animals had the color of a new penny with contrasting red leather harness and feather plumes. But the act suffered visually when a mistake occurred and I became frustrated and it showed. I would learn to develop skills in my new role as an animal trainer. I had to mix acting along with training as I guided the ponies through each mistake. Visible frustration was not received well by the audience. The procedure of correcting an animal in the public eye needed a fixed smile. With some encouragement from the circus owner I began to learn finesse. I became quick to maintain my smile and keep my discipline discreet. As the weeks went by, the ponies caught on becoming more consistent each time we performed. That freed me up to concentrate on acting, the presentation and connecting with the audience during the act.
A few weeks into the season we had a major calamity. The dreaded balloon I had been forewarned about drifted into the ring during the act. I watched in horror as the lead pony “Buttons” went up to it. He sniffed it. He then jumped over it and continued the routine. I was surprised and so proud of him. The other two ponies “Buster” and “Tex” concentrated their attention on following and doing whatever “Buttons” did. So, although they shied away, they didn’t think much of the balloon either. What a relief.
The circus wandered north, crisscrossing the Great Lakes state. I was already familiar with this territory due to my first two seasons on the road. In a very picturesque town on Lake Michigan called Harbor Springs, I took a walk into town to enjoy the splendor of the quaint old vacation homes. I enjoyed the tree and streetlight lined avenues and the beautiful natural setting overlooking the water. On the return hike through utopia, I found a path that went through the woods. The natural beauty of these surroundings elevated my emotions to an unprecedented height of gratitude. Around each turn on the path, my feelings took flight.
The quiet nature walk among fernish greenery and chirping wildlife allowed me to find a secret place within that promoted oneness and joy. As if in a dream, around the final turn that lead out of the woods, I found a lush grassy field with a pretty little circus set up in the middle. This lovely picture remains unforgettable in my mind. The one ring, two pole big top with flags flying, an appropriate sized marquee to welcome the patrons in front of it, and the highly decorated trucks and travel trailers efficiently arranged around the lot made a pretty picture. I walked into this scene and four little yellow ponies looked up at me and nickered from their picket line in the grass.
This was a jewel of a show, the masterpiece of a man who, not only knew the logistics of how to properly put a show up and down each day, but how to load equipment efficiently on a minimum of trucks. As a finishing touch on the lot and to add an interesting feature, my calliope trailer and ponies were situated at the outside edge of the midway to greet the patrons as they arrived each day. As the rhythm of up and down each day combined seamlessly with the pleasant attitudes of the personnel, a feeling of oneness grew inside me. I was truly proud to be part of this show while simultaneously entering a new chapter in my life. Some of the best artwork created to date was on this fleet. I felt that this must be what is referred to as the piece de resistance or quite possibly the “magnum opus” of circusdom. As the season progressed, I thought; what could go wrong?
I left that curious mix of animal trainers and ventured east. With my livestock on board and the orange bus in tow, I headed toward my role as show painter at an amusement park to help them get ready prior to their annual opening in the spring. After the final bend in the road, I found the entrance to the quiet park.
Being familiar with the components of a working carnival, what I found at this amusement park expanded my understanding of this unique business. First, I found Glen Bergathon who was not only the manager but a gracious host. He gave me a tour of the quiet park and pointed out several projects for me to work on. He also found a place for me to keep the livestock. I housed the horses in one of the many picnic shelters.
Lake Winnie, as the locals lovingly refer to her, was a quaint, folksy place. A regional favorite, the park had many permanent attractions in buildings. The park had both features that did not exist on a traveling carnival and old favorites found on every midway.
Among the permanent attractions at the park were a flume ride alongside the lake, a large dark ride in a building with two roller coaster-like dips across the front, an elaborate forty-horse carousel and the wooden roller coaster. Portable rides and park-model rides were set up all around that made an impressive line-up.
Off the main thoroughfare was a road that went behind the attractions and up to several large metal buildings with a variety of equipment, park components, trucks and trailers all parked haphazard.
The shop in the middle was where the work took place. The men handled projects for both the park and the working carnival that were parts of the Floyd and Baxter operation. Although I never painted on their traveling show – called Cumberland Valley Shows – I did decorate rides that came to the park for rejuvenation and repaint. When these were complete they resumed their role on the road.
Inside the dark shop building the crew accomplished various tasks. One old man had a comfortable work station in the corner. Old George rebuilt bumper car motors full-time. Floyd and Baxter had several bumper car rides touring and in stationery locations besides the large one here at the park. All the worn motors were sent here to old George to rebuild. They usually needed brushes and bearings. A friendly fellow, as he worked I heard colorful stories of when he was a young ride man around the Olsen Shows.
I found an area in the shop to make patterns, create designs, cut out fancy shaped sign boards and plaques. I coated-out these boards and decorated them to give the attractions personality. I studied old time advertising examples and created period looking signs for the old-time railroad station, the carousel, rides in Kiddie Land and created an Alpine themed sign for the Sky Ride that took passengers across the lake.
I also airbrushed scenery on several spectacular rides. The Himalaya was one. I painted snowy mountain scenes with skiers in abundance on all the panels. The Rotor had been renamed the Black Hole. That ride received my painterly touch with images of the galaxy and dimensional lettering.
Over the years the park provided me with a great place to break up the jump from Florida back to Michigan. I left eighty-degree tropical weather each year and found the chilly spring time in Tennessee. Because of the permanent situation here, my signs lasted a long time compared to the beating my art received on a traveling show.
Mary joined me that spring in Chattanooga. We had a plan. She would help out and when the sign work was complete here at the park our T-shirt painting service would resume on the carnival midway in Michigan.
We entered into our rhythm of horse care, sign making and living our lives together. We were very much alike. I was a workaholic who found satisfaction with my accomplishments. I aspired greatness with my horses. Mary wanted to belong more. When my work was over she wanted me to teach her how to ride Bingo.
The process of learning to ride a horse involves correction before the student starts to produce commendable behavior. I learned the hard way that my attempt to teach the skills of horsemanship to my love interest was not always a good thing to do. After listening to me point out flaws and make demands for her to comply with, Mary became sullen and retaliatory. All I could see was the goal she wanted and what was needed to get there. Those sessions contributed to our not getting along. Apparently, I was suffering from compound ignorance; I didn’t know that I didn’t know. I was not effective with cheerful support. Encouragement and reassurance would have been helpful. We also became aware that our drinking may contribute to the unrest. We had the pattern of drinking every day.
In the midst of this tension we actually agreed that our beer consumption was what interfered with our finding harmony. So, we agreed to not drink but we did not know how to not drink. Regular consumption had a stronghold.
As we attempted to be with each other and not drink, tension mounted. We did not know what to do. After several hours of this tension, we relented and went to get a six pack. Then we experienced an immediate sense of relief. The tension melted away as the amber beverage did its magic. Years later we learned about the typical symptoms that exist with alcoholism. This was one of them. We must have been in an embryonic stage back then.
As Memorial Day loomed, the park prepared to open. We moved the horses out of the picnic shelter to an area where the public did not go. I moved the horse trailer behind the roller coaster and set up my canvas awning on the side to rig up a stable. This placed the horses near an area filled with grass. The coaster ride was silent most of the time I was there.
Because my two animals had bonded, I simply tied one of them up and let the other wander around to munch grass. They stayed in proximity of each other all day while I worked elsewhere.
As opening time for the park grew near, Jack and the coaster crew had to get their ride ready. The steel track had a thick coat of rust from lack of use all winter. Jack explained to me that when the train went around for the first time each year the rusty track slowed it down. If the train was too slow to make it over one of the hills, he had to climb up with a come-along and winch it over each hill. During the first coaster run of each year, Jack always kept his fingers crossed.
In preparation for the first run of the coaster train, I tied Bingo along the coaster fence and let Sassy walk free. At first, the roaring sound of the coaster train going down the first hill terrified them. Bingo strained at his tether and Sassy ran away. A moment later the sound came from the other side. Jack was glad. The train made it all the way around. The horses resumed their grazing. As the days went by, the horses actually got used to the noise. They remained calm in the midst of this unusual racket.
I finished up all the sign work about the same time as the park opened. Lake Winnie turned into a bustling center of activity. Busloads of kids and cars filled the parking areas opening weekend. I enjoyed seeing my finished work adding to the fun. I enjoyed this time at the park and all too soon, it was time to go. We bid adieu to our friends and loaded out. We headed toward my parents in Arkansas prior to going to the next work situation. The concessionaire in Kansas wanted me to create graphic paint jobs on his ice cream trailers and get his fleet ready to go.
During the winter of 1973/74 I was in Hugo, Oklahoma the understudy of Bob Grubb, who had a background of performing with circus liberty horses for many years. Now he was teaching me while training my pony liberty act. Out of the original ponies purchased the year before, four matched up nicely. Once introduced to this group of palominos, Bob began to observe minute distinctions that existed between them and comment about what he saw. He began to name them, talk as he handled them to find out about their temperament, and began to visualize a logical sequence for them to assume.
He named “Buster” first, who had the most handsome conformation of the whole group. I named “Buttons,” who had the color of a new penny after my beloved first grade teacher. “Tex” had a long back and Bob had a concern about his being juggy, whatever that meant. “Teddy” was a willing animal but seemed frail compared to the rest.
We rigged tie-stalls for the comfort of the ponies along one side of the ring barn and parked my camper and trailer nearby. Anticipating this project, Bob had his ring curb already installed in the central area of the barn. He was eager to begin training. We quickly adopted a routine. After chores and breakfast every morning, training took place.
The universal attitude among the community of animal trainers around the circus is that animals always come first. As I woke each morning, the first thing I did was go into the barn, grab a foot tub, fill it with water and offer each pony a drink. When they had their fill, it was time to feed. Nose bags received a scoop of feed each, a blend of oats and sweet feed. The ponies anxiously nickered and cavorted in anticipation while I slipped the strap of each nose bag over their ears. The animated scene transformed as each pony became content to chew the sustenance that now hung conveniently under their lips.
Now I could retreat and fix myself something to eat. In the interest of efficiency, I developed a way to fix a Hearty Breakfast and only have to wash four items when complete. First, I would boil a potato in the coffeepot. When cooked, I would mash it in a frying pan and move it out to the edges. In the middle I put a few strips of bacon. A pot of coffee would then get prepared in the coffeepot and I would break two eggs on top of the mess in the frying pan. When the food was ready I would eat it right out of the pan. After my meal I only had to wash the coffeepot, one coffee cup, a fork and the frying pan. Then it was time to get the chores done before Bob arrived to begin training.
Bob arrived each morning with an agenda that was clear to him. As I watched, one at a time, Bob would gently coax each young pony into a sequence of actions at the end of a tether rope or lunge line. The pony was first encouraged to walk around the ring out against the curb. Bob constantly talked to them with a gentle demeanor that proved to be very effective. “Walk,” “git up,” “there now,” “whoa,” “come in line,” “good boy,” were all soon part of each ponies understanding and my verbal repertoire.
The whip was used to communicate with each animal as an extension of his arm and was only used gently as an aide to help push or suppress forward motion when needed. Introducing each animal to the whip involved letting them get acquainted with it. He touched them with it and let them sniff it. While in the ring he used a variety of specific body gestures like pseudo semaphore signals that became part of communicating and asking for responses from each pony. Bob was careful to not scare the animal needlessly and was quick with a verbal reward or a lump of sugar when any youngster responded willingly to his cue. As the days went by, each pony began to grasp what Bob was teaching and the lunge line was discarded. Soon, two ponies were working together in the ring. Only three weeks into the process he had the whole group of four in the ring.
Repetition teaches. The sessions were at the same time each day, every day of the week except Sunday. The result of this consistency was a tremendous amount of progress in a short time. The correct response was also fortified with another form of reward. When they did a great job, he would often simply end the session. The understanding each equine accumulated soon proved Bob’s technique as being effective. Those hours of observing the tedious training process would prove valuable when my turn came to do the training.
The most important concept for any liberty horse to grasp is something that is not visible when the audience watches them perform and that is to stay in the ring. This is taught by never allowing them to have the experience of being outside of the ring or, when they do jump over the curb and get out of the ring, make sure they have a negative experience while on the outside to cause them to desperately want to get back into the ring. Bob had a rope barrier elevated around the outside of the curb, at shoulder level to a pony, for them to run into if they did jump out of the ring. I was outside of the ring. My job was to be the bad guy. During one point in the training, one of the ponies got the notion planted in his head that he was going to go somewhere else and jumped out over the ring curb at the same place in the routine every time we rehearsed. I was on the outside of the ring with a whip in my hand. I would yell, chase and swish the whip in an effort to strike terror into the heart of this cute but misbehaving equine. The moment the pony jumped back in the ring, I stopped with my terrible animation and Bob was quick with an assuring word. He appreciated the fact that I was there and he didn’t have to be the bad guy. I was learning how these little guys became predictable and how important it was to interrupt negative behavior as it happened before it became established.
Another important response to establish with each animal is to halt whenever asked. This is especially important if the horse should become rattled, because from a halt, the trainer has a chance to personally connect, calm down and reassure the horse. Sometimes I couldn’t believe it. Here I was in a dusty ring barn with aspirations of glamour and excitement, taking Functional Relations 101 from an old cowboy. Learning these functional strategies would prove helpful in other arenas later in life.
The circus ring is a special, highly regarded, almost holy place. In my role as drummer for the circus, I served in a capacity that complimented the other performer’s efforts. Now, as I assisted the training of my ponies from outside of the ring, I looked forward to the time that a rite of passage would occur placing me in the limelight for the first time. Not only would the duties as the trainer of the ponies be passed to me but also the transition of contributing to the show from the bandstand to graduating as a performer and working in this revered circus ring. I still recall the moment when Bob had me join him in the center of the ring. At first, I stayed behind him, as he demonstrated how to encourage them through their paces, simply allowing the ponies to get used to me. Then the time came for me to hold the whips while Bob instructed me, first from standing behind me in the center of the ring, and later from outside the ring. This was the beginning of what became a long, rigorous and rewarding experience.
As I look back, I realize the ponies were God sent, and an opportunity for this teenager to become functionally relational in the midst of being intensely emotional, perfectionistic and self-sufficient. Ponies don’t understand anger and erratic behavior. Representational communication means nothing to them. Progress was made with kindness. The ponies forced me to become functional, aware and consistent with my behavior. This must be the source of the term having horse sense. The animals learn through intentional repetition and functional consistency. For the sake of becoming a good horseman, I modified my behavior around them. Even though with people I remained reluctant, isolated and often frustrated and angry. Over time, my role as a pony trainer became a segue that facilitated finding connectedness with others.