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.
My head swam with gratitude for the vast knowledge and influence received through Dorita during my time in Sarasota. New Year’s Day I was back at River Ranch ready to assume the rigors of my role as resident artist. Once landed at the luxury dude ranch, I became busy. I entered into my productive routine. I had found a wonderful place to thrive. The wonders didn’t stop.
Among the amenities at River Ranch were the lodge and accompanying hotel, marina with another restaurant and the skeet and trap shooting range. A little village area had a post office and little shops that included ceramic painting activities, a beautician and a good old country store where you could get hand scooped ice cream. Throughout the property were five swimming pools with hot tubs, a golf course and perhaps what was the unanimous favorite feature of all: The Phase Two camping area.
Roads meandered back and forth in this special part of the campground beneath old growth oak forest made even more picturesque with landscaping. The coach owners planted tropical greenery and large leafy vines that climbed the tree trunks. Party decks of every description and configuration surrounded the RV sites to make the forty-foot luxury motorhomes – just making their way onto the RV scene – seem almost surreal in a Swiss Family Robinson sort of way.
The owners of these massive and fancy machines enjoyed the festive energy of this place and it showed as they enthusiastically walked their dogs through paradise and waved at one another. This was where I worked.
Each day was filled with enterprise but by Saturday night I wanted to see what was going on at the saloon. I mustered up some courage and went down to the end of the boardwalk and pushed open the saloon doors and went inside. After scoping out the situation I found a seat and sat down.
There I sat. My back against the wall in a beat-up, spindle-back chair at one of the many worn pedestal tables. I investigated this strange new world. Loud country music and smoke filled the air along with laughter. This opportunity existed for the sexes to mingle. I just sat there wishing… wishing I was up there on the dance floor having fun, line dancing with the rest of them. I had arrived to expand my horizons by investigating the saloon. All I could do was sit.
A few days later, on a typical afternoon in the campgrounds, I met Art.
While working on the stepladder I heard a voice behind me, “you’re wasting your time.”
I looked down and immediately recognized him as the dapper dressed retired gentlemen who enjoyed line dancing at the saloon on Saturday nights. Art had observed, along with everyone else, my process of applying masking tape and paper onto the back of a motorhome. In the midst of all this beauty he had watched me clean and sand many surfaces prior to the application of paint.
This man with an impish smile climbed up and took the tape and paper out of my hands. He proceeded to continue with what I had been doing.
He added with a smile, “from now on, I’ll be doing this.”
That was my introduction to Art Burch. Art was a retired manager from IBM in Endicott, New York. Art had a heart as big as a dump truck and recognized an opportunity to assist the mural making process and free me up to concentrate on the creative aspects of my service to the RV community.
Later, during a visit at breakfast, our mutual friend Gene told me a story about Art. When Gene’s family moved to a new town in New York, he went to his first day of class in the fifth grade. Gene was scared at this new school. When he found his room assignment, class was already underway. He approached the teacher with his piece of paper and she read it.
Without looking up she said, “go find a seat.”
Gene looked around and saw Art with his trademark grin waving at him. He pointed to the empty seat next to him. Gene was immediately relieved and glad to have found a friend. That was Art’s style: to look out for the other guy.
Having Art as an ally added to the effectiveness of Letterfly, now a team. Art was retired and liked the idea of what I was doing: traveling, seeking adventure and creating murals on motorhomes. Art helped me all that winter. Then he chose to spend an entire year on tour with me. Once the winter season was over at River Ranch, we headed north.
We formed a convoy. My truck with ladders pulled my gooseneck horse trailer with living area and the VW bus filled with painting gear. Art drove his jade green ‘62 Chrysler Newport that pulled his travel trailer. We soon found our rhythm of getting to the next project or rally. We found a series of artistic opportunities from Michigan and Indiana, Virginia to Louisiana, then over to Fort Valley, Georgia and back again to River Ranch during that year.
While he did the prep work, I interviewed my customers and composed a sketch of my idea for their mural. When the entire painting process was complete and the clear coat intact, Art handled the masking paper removal. He also loaded the ladders, plank, hoses and rolled up the electric cords. Then we headed out again.
Art had a gift. He was a natural as a manager of people at IBM. He was sensitive and able to zero right in on what was going on with a person. Rather than to barrage them with advice, he provided a simple word of wisdom they could translate into a solution. On several occasions while we traveled, life had me perplexed.
He would inquire, “what’s up, Bud?”
In response to a complicated explanation of the dilemma I was experiencing, he’d say something simple like, “get used to it.”
The concept he offered propelled me past the mire and into a mode of acceptance that brought about peace.
Ironic was that these tidbits of wisdom came from a man whose life was a complete mess. He had love for everyone, a perpetual smile and an ear for a stranger but seemed to be lost in regard to his own healthy needs. I have many fond memories of Art enjoying the others at pool side, teaching a group to do the Boot Scoot or watching the live entertainment at the Saloon. Art added to the fun of those in his company in his own special way.
During lulls in the rhythm on the road, he began to teach me the foot pattern for the line dance known as the ‘Electric Slide’. At first, I was very confident. Surely, having mastered rhythm in my previous vocation as a drummer and the coordination developed as a horseman gave me an advantage. But the movement did not have the regular cadence inherent in most song structures. I wondered if my good-hearted dance mentor was presenting something wrong. As my internal struggle continued, my kind-hearted teacher repeated his demonstration. I wondered, why can’t I get this thing?
I had to break through the contempt that kept me separate from what Art freely provided. The obstacle was arrogance and the assumption that this new skill would come as easily as all the other skills I possess. I would learn; this is different.
When I assumed an attitude of humility, I became able to imitate the simple foot pattern and the irregular cadence that made up this popular dance step. As we continued our travels, I occasionally practiced the dance pattern. Several months went by before I took the acid test.
In the fall of the year our trek took us through Georgia. Art met a woman in a restaurant who told him about a place with music and dancing. Later we met his friend Polly at a local country bar. When the right tune came on the jukebox and the other line dancers rose to assume their places on the floor, my trio was among them.
Surrounded by the other dancers, I was on the spot. I felt a panic that seemed to grip the back of my throat. Frozen with fear, I went completely brain-dead. While the other dancers around me effortlessly maneuvered around the floor, I just stood there. After what seemed to be an eternity, the song ended. Back at our table my friends surrounded me and offered encouragement. I internally assessed the situation and remembered what had kept me separate.
Later that evening the song came on again. The dancers assumed their positions as did I. This time I flawlessly initiated the pattern and continued to repeat it along with everyone else until the song was over. Triumphant about successfully overcoming part of myself, I left with a new feeling.
A higher sense of confidence through humility is another valuable lesson learned on the road of life. Not only do I belong but also with perseverance, things that seem impossible can be accomplished.
Dorita’s farm became an oasis spring and fall for several years as the increase in mural work among the RVers provided me with abundance. The idea of developing entertaining acts with my horse and mule remained a constant dream. I valued the opportunity to work with her. I also connected with the AA community in Sarasota and began to attend services at the Unity Church.
During the day, while at her home in Sarasota, I busied myself with rehearsals and lessons to become a better horseman. In the evening, Dorita and I would share strong coffee and talk about many aspects of classic horsemanship. These discussions rocketed my understanding and appreciation of this fascinating art form. While becoming her friend, I also found out many interesting things about her personally.
Dorita Konyot was a small woman. She was physically fit her entire life with long beautiful dark hair that was unusual for a person her age. Horn-rimmed glasses accentuated the high cheeks on her almond shaped head and a large elderly nose suggested, along with her accent, European origins. While we visited with each other, she typically sat across from the table. Cigarette smoke rose lazily into loops and shapes that eventually coalesced into the haze that stained the interior of her home.
Among the stories shared were anecdotes about her friend the author of the Black Stallion. Several eight by ten photographs of her friend Walter Farley astride a silver dapple Andalusian hung on the wall over the coach. While I listened intently, I found out more about this fascinating woman.
Dorita was born on a traveling circus caravan May 18, 1922 in Talouse, France, into a family of renowned equestrians. Her Scandinavian and Hungarian lineage blended with the flavors of all the countries that made up her playground as a child. Her father was a stern and capable trainer of horses and an outstanding rider of the highest level.
At a young age, riding instruction began with the ever-watchful eye of her mother, Manya and her father Arthur, trainers and presenters of High School horses and other kinds of horse acts.
She and her brother along with mom and dad soon made the foursome astride handsome Lusitano dancing horses that entertained European audiences from the bullrings in Portugal to the major permanent and traveling circuses across Europe. Related to a larger family with connections in all aspects of show business, her relatives had even built a large successful show before the Great War (WWI) occurred and all the equipment was confiscated for the sake of the war effort.
Her story was interrupted by the sharp bark of her canine companion. Raven, a sleek and
tiny miniature pinscher wanted attention too. His animated loops around the room and back to her side provided comic relief while we sipped our strong coffee. With Raven back in her lap, she continued her story.
Talent scouts found the Konyot family shortly before WWII and her family quartet with the command of centuries old Haute E’cole horsemanship skills came to America. In 1941, they began performing for Ringling Bros Barnum & Bailey Circus. Those audiences had occasion to witness the finest dancing horses in the world.
Incidentally, Dorita as a teenager was photographed on a rearing horse and that picture found its way into the book I found at the library when I was a kid in school, just developing my fascination with the circus. The picture showed a brilliant smile at ease under a large Cossack hat astride a large horse that stood up as straight as a candlestick on its rear legs.
The family also toured with Orrin Davenports Shrine Circus and the Clyde Beatty Circus among other shows. Years later a special moment occurred when Dorita received a standing ovation at Madison Square Garden for her performance with Bouncing Bomba her American Saddlebred High School horse.
One winter in Chicago at an exclusive riding stable, the Konyots stabled their horses during the winter break. A horseman with a background in the cavalry and a reputation for brassy showmanship befriended and became a student of the Konyots. Chuck Grant took the principles of classic horsemanship learned from them to add to his repertoire. He went on to become, as he coined himself, the grandfather of American dressage.
A school teacher who had never sat on a horse was in attendance at a circus performance in Detroit. So, moved was she by the equine choreography presented by the Konyots, that she selected to make a major career change. Vi Hopkins not only began to learn classic horsemanship and pursue a lengthy career as a riding instructor but went on to begin the unification of dressage instruction in this country when she initiated the USDF Instructors Clinic at her farm in Michigan.
Dorita’s emerging talent clearly was with the training of horses and horse people. When the Disney movie The Miracle of the White Stallions brought public awareness of Austrian Lipizzan horses to the forefront, Dorita trained a group of riders to present the Quadrille, or precision routine involving eight horses and eight riders for a traveling show that took advantage of the existing frenzy. Many of these riders went on to become stars in tier own right.
Gaylord Maynard performed the hilarious routine that her father used across Europe with his almost human equine partner Chief Bearpaw. Although the comedy routine contrasts with everything classic about this equine art form, Gaylord was another testimony of the influence and talent that Dorita brought to this country.
Literally all of my riding instructors and horse trainers had been influenced by this talented family. The Konyots are credited for bringing to America the equine art form known as Dressage. Virtually everyone associated with performing horses in this country today has been influenced by Dorita and her family. Her niece is a regular contender on the US Dressage Olympic team. In my quest to become a classic performing horseman I had been on a trail that led to Dorita.
She spent the final years of her life-giving lessons in the dressage community in addition to helping circus performers who strive to improve their horsemanship skills.
At the end of my time around the Blue birds, I loaded the livestock and made my way to Sarasota where my new horsemanship mentor lived. Lessons with Dorita Konyot before and after the winter season as the resident artist at River Ranch became a regular pattern over the next few years.
Performing opportunities with the circus were dwindling while the demand for hand painted murals on motor homes increased. This did not dampen my enthusiasm for this performing art form. I remain passionate about learning all I can. I had plenty of time to rehearse and take lessons during the fallow time after the Blue Bird rally and before Christmas.
My primary means of income shifted as I capitalized on this niche. With many RVs across the country, I had found a place to thrive. Knowing how to travel to take advantage of this huge market, due to my circus background, placed me in a position of advantage over the others who attempted to break into this itinerate market. I had the means with which to pursue my passion – classic horsemanship.
Using Dorita’s place in Sarasota as headquarters for my act rehearsals and riding lessons was handy. At the beginning circus performing was my priority and breaks between seasons were filled with painting projects. Now there wasn’t much circus work. I still sought to make progress with my acts. A new pattern revealed itself as my sign and mural painting business took center stage.
I found a place to thrive with mural painting opportunities at motor home rallies. The timing was right. This was the beginning of the motorhome buying craze. Many retired folks sold their homes to become full-timers. I discovered these rigs were clumped up at a rally somewhere almost every week. Through my new friends at Fleetwood, I found out about more of these gatherings. The new American Eagle motorhomes had arrived on the scene and because the transom was blank, just about every owner wanted a painting of an eagle across the back.
Fleetwood rallies were held in convenient locations across the Midwest. I could always stop in Decatur and get a project or two. By September, I had plans to head south with the livestock but not to Florida. In October, I headed for Fort Valley, Georgia because the Blue Bird Wanderlodge Rally was next. Prior to the big rally, every campsite at the Bird’s Nest was full. I got busy. I painted special custom inscriptions and images of all kinds for these people. When the time came for the big rally, everyone moved over to the Georgia National Fairgrounds at nearby Perry.
This huge complex had been built with an infrastructure to provide hundreds of motorhomes with 50-amp electric service. There was also a huge coliseum for formal dinners and special presentations. I stayed busy outdoors the whole time. I had found a place to thrive as a lettering man, mural artist and gold leaf gilder.
During the four-day event, I satisfied as many requests as I could. I also mentioned to these people I would be at River Ranch for the winter season. I paid attention to where my customers were from. With a little advance planning, I could visit those who lived in the Midwest next spring when I returned north. A little at a time I used the mentality of a circus man. From the requests received, I put together a logical sequence that became my upcoming route.
After the rally, I returned to the Bird’s Nest and stayed busy for a couple more weeks. As the pace changed, I had time to get plugged into my AA community and become immersed in the rich regional qualities.
During this time, I hung out with Robert and even attended the church of his family. At church I met his dad Buddy who I usually sat with.
The company Chaplin also attended this church and regularly invited me to join him and his wife for Sunday dinner. At their home I was introduced to peach pickles, pickled okra and scuppernong. Fort Valley became a regular stop for the month of October for many years. Each year I became more familiar with its vast treasures. Fort Valley and the Luce family left a positive imprint on my heart.
The fairgrounds were arranged with venue sections available for the carnival, merchants and independent concessionaires. I had reserved my spot. Efficiency reigned. The Jackson County Fair provided the perfect place for me to shine. The Letterfly T-shirt booth I built was essentially a 1964 VW bus that served as a storage and transportation situation. The parked bus became an anchor for the superstructure attached to the roof rack that placed a twelve-foot display overhead of the passersby. Corner supports flanked the counter top area where my salesgirl was surrounded by display shirts that hung overhead. Inventory shirts were in the counter boxes.
The upgrades to my booth elevated the appearance and efficiency of the custom T-shirt painting operation. Once the fair was under way, my helper handled the customers, took orders, found the right shirt and placed them in the pipeline.
I became an airbrushing machine. I’d hand the finished shirt to the customer and grab the next one. I’d slip the shirt over the platen made for this purpose and review the order blank to acquaint myself with the request. Then, while people watched, I began the process. I started with a loose layout airbrushed in a pastel color. I’d switch to black once I had a handle on the design to establish the linework. Then the shapes received fill-in colors, highlights and a quick outline. A name took three minutes. Then the process repeated with the next shirt.
In the midst of all this industry, a couple who looked out of place at a fair appeared at my booth. They wore formal attire with sparkling appointments, radiated opulence and patiently waited.
Once they got my attention, I heard him say, “we heard about you in San Diego.”
He revealed they had attended a motorhome rally where one of my murals on a motorhome was prominent.
The man continued, “we’re not leaving Michigan without an eagle on the back of our motorhome.”
This started our conversation.
I found out about a humorous occurrence that just happened. In order to find me, they drove their brand-new motorhome up to the entrance to the fairgrounds. The gate guard thought they were the grandstand entertainer Anne Murray. He directed them right into the infield and up to the back of the grandstand stage and parked them there. Once settled in their coach, they took a walk around the fairgrounds to find me.
I arranged to have them go to the campground behind the Beach Bar. I would do the work once this and my next fair were over.
The Beach Bar remains special to me. My career started there. Once tear-down at the fair was complete, I headed towards Clarklake where my customers were parked and waiting.
While I devoted time to their project – a scene of a majestic eagle flying over Captiva Island where they lived – I found out more to admire about them. They had the only garbage service and incinerator on the island. They described their life on that remote paradise off-shore San Diego. Now equipped with an RV, they planned to explore and see the many sights in the good old USA.
I was able to share with them the names of fascinating destinations I had found. I love to travel. Because of this love, I was at the brink of a huge opportunity.
Upon arrival at the large convention center, I found several dozen Wanderlodges included Duane and Mae Jean’s coach. Theirs was the first one I duded-up back in Jackson. I became immediately busy. I lettered inscriptions, monograms and images of all kinds for their friends.
Because of the link to school busses, the Wanderlodge had a flat, front-end cap over the windshield with an area for a name to go. Similar to the phenomenon with boaters, these couples each dreamt up a name for their beloved coach. That meant work for me.
I lettered names like ‘Bird of Play,’ ‘No Reservations,’ and ‘Iron Bird.’ One coach name referred to its main color ‘Mauvelous,’ and there was also ‘Blue Thunder,’ and the ‘Blue Bird Inn.’ Those quarter million-dollar coaches were pure luxury. In spite of the obvious opulence, these ego-driven folks kept thinking of additional things to make their coach even more special.
My affluent clients wanted a monogram or a fancy coat of arms on the side and often requested gold leaf. The talents developed as a sign man, antique fire engine gilder, carnival decorator and airbrush artist came in handy with these folks with their appetite for custom works.
Each evening after the long day of delicate paint work, I attended the formal dinner prepared for all in attendance. This gave me an opportunity to network and meet new clients. Many of these couples invited me to come to their home to do the work. This became an emerging pattern of my service to these people.
I found a new manner of living life revealed a little at a time as I responded to the requests I received from this group. When these projects were complete, I returned to Michigan to prepare for the Jackson County Fair.
Back in Michigan, rather than pursue sign work in Jackson, partly due to the lingering heart break, I sought the friendlier situation around the Elliott Amusement company.
By this time Red had purchased a new major ride. This gave the little show a big, elaborate piece for their summer route of fairs. Plus, Red had a nice piece of equipment to take to the big independent fairs across the country. The ’Crazy Dance’ was a round set of sweeps with tubs dangling between the ends. The entire structure was mounted on a center that had a lift arrangement that would oscillate the whole thing for a unique experience. The controls for revolution, speed, lift and center revolution were operated individually to provide the outer ring of passengers a custom undulating experience.
Red loved this ride. And, so did his crew. He had fun selecting a great song and choreographing a slow, up and down sensation in time with the music for the beginning of the ride. He simply lifted the table and activated the revolve feature with finesse. Then as the song gained impulsion, he turned on the revolve motors and gave them a fast, hectic ride.
He especially liked the Stevie Wonder song, ‘I just called to say I love you.’ While that tune played, he operated the ride in a special way that created an equally wonderful experience for the passengers in time with the music.
His annual route evolved by this time to start mid-winter in south Texas. He bought a winter quarters in San Antonio and traveled west to the big fairs in California during late winter and spring. Then he jumped to Michigan. Spending the summer in Michigan with this spectacular ride on the little show gave the show a big boost. As usual his enthusiasm was infectious and his help was filled with a similar zeal. His business partners had a similar positive attitude.
Tim Bors started in this business as a teenager with ‘Spin-Art,’ – a record turntable modified to lay a piece of cardboard on where the customers squirt paint from condiment bottles onto the spinning card to create a modern art effect. From this simple beginning, he accumulated a fleet of games and rides. He was an aggressive showman with a clear vision of what he wanted. His slogan was: bigger, better, brighter.
Every year he added another game to his line up and in his position as a full partner on the show, he also began to acquire rides. Although he revealed his request for the next painting to me months in advance, I wasn’t completely privy to all of his plans for the future which logically pointed toward owning his own show.
I kept busy creating spectacular paint jobs that summer. When the fair season began, I included my T-shirt booth in the show’s lineup. Before that happened, I excused myself and went to Nashville to attend a regional Blue Bird rally.
Because my role as a sign and mural painter took me away from the horses, I formed the idea of a mutually beneficial situation for them. A situation where my horse would receive regular exercise and somebody else shared the expense. One concept was a share, or ’lease’ arrangement. Essentially, another person pays board in exchange for the privilege of riding him. The benefit was exercise and care while the other person enjoyed him. I did not want anyone who would interfere with my specific ambitions with horsemanship. I sought someone who would simply ride.
I put an ad in a regional horse magazine. I met Rosalind as the result. She enjoyed competition trail rides and because she was tall, she wanted a tall horse. We entered into what became a satisfactory arrangement. My horse and mule spent the summer months near South Haven with Roz.
Roz had an Australian outback saddle and a two-horse trailer. She took Souveran on long rides and that helped keep him muscled up and bright while I was away creating beautiful paintwork.
During our occasional visits made between rallies and festivals, she reported things discovered while riding him. When the trail rose to a clearing and they could see for miles, if he saw another horse way off in the distance, his desire was to catch up and pass the other horse.
Occasionally she’d borrow another horse and we’d go on a ride together. There was a place north of South Haven where we could park her horse trailer, unload and ride our horses down a steep bank to get to the sandy shore of Lake Michigan. We enjoyed this opportunity to expose our horses to new sights along the shore.
At first, I attempted to ride Souveran into the shallow water, but each time a wave came in, he quickly side-stepped to avoid the scary wave that came at him. Gradually, I coaxed him into deeper water. These new sights and experiences with my new friend were fun.
Sharing my horse with Roz freed me up to pursue the emerging market I had found. Creating airbrushed murals on motorhomes was an opportunity that required extensive travel.
For several summers, the horse stayed with my friend Rosalind in South Haven, who rode the trails and kept him muscled up. Roz ran a beauty shop and over the years of continuing this exchange, we became good friends. I returned to the Elliott Amusement Company to paint festive works of art until my brief excursion to the Blue Bird rally. When their festival route started, I returned to set up my T-shirt painting booth.
I motored north with my entire entourage in the spring. I stopped in Fort Valley, Georgia and placed my portfolio of work created over the winter on display at the Bird’s Nest. Two Wanderlodge owners intercepted me and described the inscriptions they wanted on their coaches. I jumped right on those projects. I also found out about the upcoming Blue Bird motorhome rallies. I made plans to participate at one rally in central Tennessee early summer. Then I resumed my trip.
During those days I used an answering service; a company where my phone number rang. They jotted down each message received and a phone number for me to call back. Having a phone number became necessary when I launched my sign business in Jackson. Now the service became especially valuable as I served the itinerate motorhome clientele.
I received a phone call from Decatur, Indiana. When I returned the call, I discovered the caller had found out about me through a couple who visited River Ranch. Randy wanted me to stop by the Fleetwood RV plant to paint an eagle on a brand-new motorhome for one of their guests.
“Yes, I will be happy to do that,” I stated, “but I have a request.”
“I need a place to stable my horse and mule.”
“No problem,” came the reply, “one of our guys has trotting horses.”
I then received directions to an old farm south of Van Wert. The next day I arrived at Jeff’s farm, got the stock settled and parked the rig. Jeff filled me in on the details. I made preparations to go to work with my new friend. Early the next day, I made the commute with Jeff to the Fleetwood plant.
The flagship of the Fleetwood RV fleet up until that time was the ’Limited’ a medium size, gas-powered motorhome. Fleetwood had just developed their first forty-foot diesel-pusher and named the new product line: the ‘American Eagle.’ The transom of this coach had a big blank spot. Among the first customers who bought this state-of-the-art motorhome off the assembly line was a customer who wanted an airbrushed mural of an eagle on the back.
Although the vast Fleetwood operation covered hundreds of acres in several locations around Decatur, the service facility where customers brought units in for repair was a small four stall building. A dozen technicians scrambled to complete a variety of projects while I received orientation for this project. Soon my step ladders and work plank were set up behind a motorhome. I got the surface cleaned and scuffed. I made the colors I would use. Soon I was up on the plank laying out what became the first eagle of many created for this genre of coach owners.
I started with the depiction of sky and mountains. When complete I worked on the details of the eagle. When the image was complete, I had a concern about spraying clear-coat in the service bays but Randy assured me that would be just fine. I sprayed on the clear protective layer. The bays were filled with the fog of my efforts. All the doors were open anyway and the breeze pushed the cloud away. The customer beamed. He was pleased with the results and my reputation received a big jump start with this segment of the RV community that day.
I found out about a Fleetwood rally that would take place early fall in the Smokey mountains and made plans to attend. After bidding my new friends’ adieu, I returned to Jeff’s farm. I made the last of my preparations, loaded the livestock and headed north.
The winter season was over. I packed a lot of activity into the month of April. I had time to pursue my passion. One day after rehearsing my acts at the ranch of Doris and Russ, with great costuming for the act was underway, I drove to Sarasota. I did not go back to John Herriott’s ranch. He was up north working his Shrine Circus tour. I went to find Dorita Konyot, whose father brought dressage to this country from Europe years ago and, interestingly, inspired and mentored both Vi Hopkins and Chuck Grant. I wanted to talk to her about my horse and perhaps show her what I had him doing.
Dorita had a small farm outside of town. I drove the VW bus to her home. After I pulled into her driveway, I saw a short house on one side of the property, a riding arena in the center and a long horse barn stretched across the back. I knocked on her door. When the door opened, I met a short, proud woman and immediately noticed her deliberate manner. Her long hair was neatly bundled into a top-knot, the smoke from her cigarette made lazy, rising loops, and she had a little dog in her arms.
I introduced myself and made my request to show her what I had my horse doing and to possibly become her student. She thought for a moment and then suggested a time for me to return and make my presentation.
I returned at the appointed time. With my rig parked in her driveway I prepared my horse. In the riding arena on her small farm, I put Souveran through his paces. Dorita looked on as she sat in the small observation booth with a thatched roof.
After my exhibition, I cooled down the horse, removed the saddle and gave him a break. I turned him loose on her pasture. She invited me into her home for strong coffee and to ask questions about the training I had received thus far. After listening to my answers, she pondered how to proceed. She made several conclusions as the result of watching my demonstration, among them was that I did not know how to use my legs properly. To begin my training, drastic measures would be taken first.
Soon thereafter, my lessons began with Dorita without spurs. The primary emphasis stressed was the proper use of my legs to direct and bend the horse. She began with a careful explanation of how the rider’s legs were supposed to be on the sides of the horse. She used the visual explanation of pouring oil on the horse’s back and how the oil moved down each side. The oil was on the location of the rider’s legs but there was no pressure. The legs were to always be on the horse with no pressure and never lose contact. Dorita started with this foundation.
I learned minute movements had impact that influence the horse and promote impulsion. It would be two years before Dorita let me ride with spurs again, and when I did, I used them with finesse.
Our sessions continued with the lateral disciplines of Traver and Renvers. These are used to develop specific muscle groups in the horse that, once enhanced, enable the ideal engagement or stance of going. The shift in the distribution of weight allowed for a lighter more elevated forehand.
When Dorita was satisfied with how I handled my legs without spurs, we practiced the portions of the dancing horse routine that were enhanced with quiet and effective leg use.
With a minimum of signal, while my legs held the horse in the promenade, or proper posture, front leg extensions became more animated without interrupting the most important part of this movement which is the forward momentum.
Dorita learned horsemanship from her father, a gruff and demanding perfectionist. As a child, while she endured his bad-tempered conduct, she realized there must be a better, kinder way to instruct the student. As the result she became gentle and patient with her students.
While I worked with Dorita, I heard stories about her childhood trouping throughout Europe. I also heard about her years in Spain and Portugal where her family accumulated the wealth of information about the classically trained Haute E’cole horse from the horsemen who rode the bullfight ring. Those highly trained horses were used, not only as an exhibition feature but to taunt, evade and assume mastery over an angry bull. With her mother, father and brother they performed a foursome high school horse exhibition prior to the bullfights in the many arenas across Portugal.
I asked about her favorite place of all. She admitted she enjoyed her time performing in the Azores the most.
Dorita also fine-tuned my understanding of the liberty discipline used in my mule act. Among everything Dorita taught me was the last piece of the puzzle of the hind leg walk.
We perfected the hind leg walk with Betty by going up and down her driveway. Once an exact understanding was established in the mind of the animal, the result of consistent behavior on my part, the signal I provided became steadfast. I could then attend to my posture, presence and charisma while Betty mastered her role on two legs, taking each step confidently.
Working with Dorita was part of a logical progression. She did not have to teach me the fundamentals adequately covered by my previous mentors. She concentrated on the aspects of the training that needed fine tuning. She provided me with many pieces of the complex puzzle that yielded a clearer understanding of the art of classic horsemanship.
With this introductory phase of our training complete, the time came for me to motor north to assume my sign painting duties back in Michigan. It didn’t take long to get ready as the temperature had assumed a constant ninety degrees. Before I made it back to where I call home, a surprise request provided a detour.