I’ve been thinking lately about a mentor of mine, an exceptional old-time horseman, and the incredible depth of his knowledge of horses. His was a knowledge borne from experience training and caring for a wide range of breeds and disciplines, a level of knowledge from a lifetime of devotion to the horse.
So many of the things he imparted to me more than 30 years ago have stuck with me, and I have tried to pass them on to others, over the intervening years. But I often find it a challenge, because we just don’t seem to have the time to really spend with horses these days. Plus I think that life in our so much more suburbanized culture often means that we usually lack the understanding of horses as creatures different from us, an understanding that was inherent in most of our predecessors.
My mentor’s name was Champ Clark, and he was about 80 years old when I went to work for him 33 years ago, at the end of my freshman year in college. Champ was the stable manager for the Essex Fox Hounds in New Jersey, and I worked for him for three summers and on school vacations, until I graduated from college and began my journalism career. (He would die a year later.) By the time I started working for him, I’d already earned my A rating in Pony Club, but I discovered I had so much more to learn.
Depending on the time of year and whether it was a hunting day or not, I was to arrive at the stable between 3:30 and 6:00 a.m. My day generally started with mucking stalls, but on hunting days in the summer (when hounds met at 6 a.m.) I’d usually begin by grooming the three to six horses going to the meet. Then I’d ride one to five horses, then in the summer I’d cut grass or weed-eat, and my day’s work would conclude (usually at about noon) with me cleaning the tack we’d used that morning (which could be a whole lot of tack if we’d taken five or six horses hunting).
We had about a dozen horses at the stable, for the huntsman and first whipper-in and for the MFH, Lewis Murdock. About half of the horses were former steeplechasers who had raced for Mr. Murdock’s wife, and while I was there one of my main responsibilities was to retrain three or four of those horses to be foxhunters. I don’t recall Champ giving me a great deal of direction about what to do with those horses, or any others, when I rode them. What I remember is talking about those horses, sort of analyzing their strengths and weaknesses (physical and mental) and their quirks and how to approach and deal with them—trying to think like the horses were thinking. We would talk about what they needed us to do and how to approach them, not about specific exercises to do with them.
I also remember watching closely how Champ handled all the other horses in and around the barn, how he was like an elderly Marine master sergeant and they calmly marched at attention alongside him. He quietly insisted on their complete attention—it was that simple.
My overall memory of my time working for Champ was the attention to every detail of the horses and the stable. Everything—the feeding, the stall cleaning, the grooming, the tack care, the shipping to the meets or elsewhere, even the raking of the barnyard—was done a certain way, in a calm, planned and predictable manner. It was done that way to be sure everything was done correctly and to ensure that the horses’ environment was kept reassuring to them.
But what I most remember is Champ’s stories about his life with horses, which he usually told me while I was cleaning the tack. They were fascinating, primarily because he’d ridden and trained such a wide variety of horses since he was just a little boy—draft horses, fine harness horses (Saddlebreds and Hackneys), racehorses, show hunters and jumpers, foxhunters and more. And since he’d grown up in the early part of the 20th century, when cars and trucks were still a novelty and horses were still an integral party of people’s lives, I found his stories especially fascinating.
The events of every day reminded Champ of another experience in his life, and they were all a journey into how to train and care for horses the right way. I wish more old-time horseman like Champ were still around for us to learn from.