Big D

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.

Class N Sass

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.