Fascination with classic horsemanship brought me to this barn fifteen years earlier. My first riding instructor, Clarence Hastings, had a hunt-jump background, and provided a good foundation for my ambition with my first circus horse. As I expressed a desire to become even more finesseful on a horse, he realized I would need a specialist. Clarence knew where all manner of upper level dressage work took place and encouraged me to observe at the barn of Chuck Grant in nearby Brighton. Clarence was the director of Chuck Grant’s Horse Capades. At first opportunity, I drove over.
The indoor riding barn had a low set of bleachers at one end for the guests. I found my place to watch. Chuck’s sense of humor was evident by the items hanging from the rafters and various signs that decorated the walls. I noticed a pair of riding boots that appeared to have been left behind by some hapless horseman who sailed through the rafters, among other interesting artifacts. I didn’t have long to wait to see the rehearsal.
At the appointed time, a group of horses and riders entered the arena and began to follow Chuck on his horse. Once they became organized, he began to bark out orders, military style, to the group who then complied with their best efforts. Arranged in a neat single-file row the work began.
Trot work started the session. Shoulders in, shoulders out and small circles on the middle of one side required the horse parade to be spaced out just right. The half-pass across the diagonal line was spectacular to observe, after which they were all asked to walk the perimeter to cool down a bit while Chuck went to the center. He shared what he saw and enlightened them on what they could do to improve.
Next, from the walking procession of ten tightly-spaced horses, individual canter departs from the lead position gave each rider a chance to perfect his skill with this gait and travel half the arena distance to make the transition back to a walk at the rear of the line.
Countless other movements followed as I watched this group of dressage aficionados practice aspects of horsemanship I was interested in, all for the sake of visualizing and developing my show business aspirations.
Occasionally, the entourage lined up across the center line to practice the bow or the stretch. Then, after those exercises, with everyone adequately warmed up and dialed-in to their horse, the finale began. Chuck had the entire group follow spontaneous directions for a rapid military drill that resembled square dancing, in which orders were barked out for immediate execution.
Volte meant a small circle. While all of them were on the long side, the sight of eleven horses all turning at once to reverse and complete a small circle, to conclude into the forward moving single file line was spectacular. Having the group space out and increase speed created an opportunity for a giant figure eight pattern. This allowed them to ‘thread the needle’ between their fellows as they traveled the diagonal lines and reversed direction.
The visual experience expanded my awareness of goals achievable with a horse. When that first night was over, although I waited outside for some time, I didn’t make contact with Mister Grant. He was busy with jovial interactions with participants and the duties of putting horses away for the night.
I later mentioned this to Clarence. With a knowing smile, he encouraged me to continue to go regardless. I became a regular visitor on Wednesday nights. Eventually, as the result of seeing a familiar face in the seats, Chuck realized I was interested in what was going on and came over to initiate conversation.
Once he understood my ambition, and that I was already a liberty horse trainer taking riding lessons from Clarence, he enlightened me with little facts about the movements I was interested in and how they were facilitated by the rider.
Over the years, Chuck remained a special friend who helped me when he could. He knew my circumstance – I had to fund my horse ambitions between performing opportunities with artwork projects for a variety of customers. He became a special mentor. The occasional circus tour gave me a goal to work toward and, in spite of the vacillation from training to painting, progress occurred. At best, I could only invest occasional spurts of time to horse training and lessons. Right when I began making progress at the barn, funds would run out and I’d have to go hustle some sign work. Fortunately, there was always plenty of sign work to do.
We clicked on several levels. When my work called me away, we became pen pals. I wrote to share stories that occurred during my stints on the circus. His response was how I found out about my hero.
Chuck was a brassy fellow with a background in the U. S. Cavalry. Part of his unique military background was to do numerous exhibition demonstrations as a cavalryman. The entertaining manner of handling men, women and horses was evidence of his ‘show business’ inclination.
This mixed with what he learned later while running a stable in Chicago. The Konyot family of circus high school riders (who brought dressage to this country) wintered at his barn. Chuck watched as they practiced during the off-season of performing with various circuses. A friendship ensued. Arthur Konyot became the source of Chuck’s dressage knowledge.
Chuck’s barn ran the opposite of Vi’s, who stopped a lesson to pick a flake of shavings out of a horse’s tail. Chuck took a saddle into the stall to prepare to ride while the horse was still eating his oats. He didn’t wait until the horse finished eating. He took the horse, often with a big manure stain on one side, over to the arena to put him through his paces. Most mornings, seven horses were worked, assembly line fashion, prior to lunch.
His barn was very tall, with stalls on two floors. A roomy attic high above was for the hay. An unused antique silo stood alongside. The riding arena was added when Chuck transformed the property into a riding academy.
His stalls were confined, not cleaned as regularly as Vi’s, and used a variety of door latching systems that often required a particular procedure to get them to work. The wooden floor in the aisle had a worn pathway that lead to each stall.
When the Shrine Circus came to Detroit, when possible, I made a special trip to take Chuck to see the show. He welcomed the opportunity to get away from the farm. We made a day of it. After lunch along the way, we bought tickets and found our seats in the coliseum. One of these excursions was extra special.
At the beginning of one show, once the Shrine Color Guard was done with their routine, the grand fanfare began with the introduction of Ringmaster John Herriott, who rode into the arena astride his Appaloosa horse Apache Bandolero. They did a nice passage that commanded the attention of everyone in the arena. John acknowledged the crowd with one arm extended toward them as the horse maintained the slow elevated gait in time with the music. They encircled the three rings all the way around the track. Once the grand entrance was complete, he dismounted, took the microphone and started the show by introducing the first display. I leaned over and told my friend Chuck that I knew this man.
The entire circus performance was filled with traditional spectacular acts that we both enjoyed, especially the bareback riding act and the performing animals. After the show, we went backstage. I introduced him to John Herriott. I became filled with awe while standing backstage in the midst of these talented men. Another time, I introduced Chuck to circus horse trainer Gaylord Maynard who presented another fine act. The conversation was rare as we discussed nuance that only horsemen with our experience are aware of.
Chuck admired my aspiration to perform and wanted to be my patron with the training of my new gelding, but his partner had a business head and insisted that I provide the customary fee for board and training. So, while Souveran was at his barn, I spent more time pursuing sign work back in Jackson, and less time at the barn than we wanted.
I emerged from my day dream. The light snow continued to fall. With the task of loading hay complete, my summer of sign making in Jackson, painting T-shirts at the county fairs, and helping Gail with her house was over. The time to head to Florida had arrived. With these preparations complete, I savored the boost received over the years at Chuck’s place. From a humble beginning, he encouraged my progress and became a trusted mentor.
I thanked my friend Chuck. He encouraged me with my ambitions again and wished me well on my trip to Florida.
I then loaded the American Saddlebred named Souveran. Next, the little jet-black mule named Betty walked up the ramp to get in the trailer.
I remain grateful for the all the help received with this horse, I bid adieu to my friend as the snow continued to fall. I climbed into the truck to start driving. The year was 1989.