Sep 16, 2007

A Horse You Should Know - Wing Commander

Yes, I'm back. I would never let my adoring fans down, now would I? Anyway, to continue with my Monday regular column - A Horse You Should Know - I was going to pick another racehorse out to profile. I have been overly obsessed with racehorses lately and particularly since I picked up a great 1970-ish book written by two sports journalists of the era that I find really enthralling about some lesser-known animals. But it occurred to me that I might be a little heavy on the racing/throughbred stuff right now. You know, because that was never the idea of this blog. I'm fascinated by all things relating to the horse and I find that many horse people tend to have their one obsession (whether it is a breed or a discipline) and don't really venture to check out the rest of the horse world. That's so bizarre. If you like horses, how can you not be obsessed with EVERYTHING horse-y? What?! Yeah, well it's called OCD, okay?

Anyway, without further ado this week's column is devoted to Wing Commander. For anyone not familiar with his name, he was an American Saddlebred and yes, he was a bona fide 5-gaited, saddleseat extraordinaire.

I'm going to pause right here and just address any of you horse people about to start rolling your eyes at the mere mention of saddleseat and the breeds generally associated with this discipline. Let me just point out that the Saddlebred and Hackney and Morgan and Arabian and however many other of these breeds you want to lump into this category were all working breeds originally. EVEN THE HACKNEY. These were cart animals, carriage horses, hunting hacks.... That's how people got from point A to point B without cars. With the Saddlebred and Tennesee Walker, any of those rare breeds that could include extra gaits, they became extra important in the 1800s in the Southern states in America. Owing to the smoothness of their slow gait, the owner of the plantation could ride all day long, comfortably, through his tobacco or cotton or whatever else kind of fields. But like any other horse, during the civil war, they were enlisted to work. Their history was not unlike any other horse's. And like all the rest their existence was gravely threatened by the invention of the automobile. Suddenly, there was a great shift in our mindset towards horses. They were no longer our comrades in work, they were these giant pets. Showy, gorgeous, flashy, giant pets. It was only natural for us to start devising big competitions around showing off these sudden luxury items. And "saddleseat" just came about as a idealization and nostalgia of those old Southern ways - I mean, geez, does anything come out of the South that isn't hung up on nostalgia for the pre-Civil War days? So, they sort of froze saddleseat in time - conjuring up the old days of the saddle suit and derby and plantation saddle. And we moved the saddlehorse from the dusty backroads of the plantation to the showrings to seek out the titles of best saddle horse to show off the famous slow gait and rack, the gaits that made them so popular in the first place.

What is shocking to me is that in the 20s and 30s and especially by the 50s, the American public was going crazy for these saddleseat shows. They were huge! Crowds flocked to them. And Wing Commander was just simply one of the greatest 5-gaited Saddlebreds ever. Luckily for him, he was bred and shown at just precisely the right time in American history to be a complete phenomenon. Born in 1943, he was a bit of a gangly chestnut colt that by all accounts took a little longer than some others to mature. Of course, it's never a good athlete story unless you talk about the hardships along the way, but it seems to me he didn't have it all that hard. It's said that he was willful and strong and it took months before he settled into a rack naturally under saddle, but if that's the extent of his hardships, sign me up for that path to fame and fortune! As a 3-year-old he was shown 7 times undefeated and was 5-gaited Champion Stallion at the Chicago International. In 1948, he won World Champion, the first of six times he would be crowned with that title.

The next year his 1949 World Champion title was not won so easily. For anyone who still has doubts as to the hardiness and toughness of this breed, think again. The judges at this particular show did not seem keen on Wing Commander winning the title yet again. They were set on another horse. They called the horses in to make them strut their stuff. (Mind you, it's about 100 degrees at the time.) No consensus. They're called back for a second workout. No agreement between the judges. A third workout was called for the animals. They showed off like pros in the heat and not one pulled out, but finally Wing Commander's rider had had enough and pulled his horse up into the center of the ring for the line-up. The other riders followed suit. In the end, Wing Commander won the title again, but not without the fight of working nearly non-stop for 2 hours in 100 degrees heat. It took all night to cool the horses down.

In all, he won 6 world championships. He was nearly unbeatable and while there are no videos of him performing, I can believe that he must have been something special. In the heyday of saddleseat, for one horse to come along and sweep it all....well, that's got to be pretty spectacular. His rack was supposed to be fluid and fast, two words you don't often hear about a racking horse. It's usually one or the other. And get this, he was the feature of a 1954 LIFE magazine article. You hear of lots of pop-culture racehorse icons and the odd jumper that is recognized by a large section of the non-horsey culture, but how many other riding disciplines have you come across that have enjoyed that same sort of success? Ummmm....not so many. He was so famous that people would come from all across America (and other countries) just to see a glimpse of him. And many avid Breyer collectors will tell you that he was been immortalized in mini-plasticized horsey-form for 8 year-olds everywhere to play with. I'll admit it - I own that model myself.

I for one think Saddleseat is pretty interesting and an important part of the American history, in general. It harkens back to a time that, hell, never really existed. I mean, not the way you see it embodied in those hot-blooded, flashy, high-stepping horses at the shows. And that rack. I don't know if I am awed by it or creeped out by it. That's probably so naughty of me to say. But really, the rack is very different. It is equal parts awesome and disturbing (probably because I have such a limited experience with this gait). I have actually ridden the rack, twice actually. Yes, it is ultra-smooth. But that's not what I was feeling when I was experiencing it - it is electricfying. Honestly. You're excited to be doing it and the horse is just exploding with tension the entire time. It should be said that the rack is extremely strenuous and that's probably what I was feeling - the extreme power and energy required to keep the gait up. But should see a saddleseat show just once. At the very least, if you can't see the beauty in it, you must just experience the fetishization of a bygone era, admittedly a very creepy time when men surveyed their slaves in the fields from astride a smooth-riding, fancy-stepper, trying to emulate the aristocratic airs of a veritable English lord.


Jeanne Newton Schoborg said...

Love this story! Wing Commander is my favorite too! There is a video clip of him in a DVD you can get at the American Saddlebred Museum site called " Saddlebred Stars ". It features many of the ole timers...My MY, Lemon Drop Kid, Easter Parade, and on and on. Great to see them in action!
They say Wing Commander was a big sweet baby when he wasn't in the ring and could be handled by children. When he was saddled up and headed for the ring - he was all business!

Starrys' Girl said...

I love Wing Commander! It's not every day you come across anther saddleseat person. My horse has Wing Commander in his blood line two times great grandsire. I wish I could of seen him in person. That same article of him is in a book called "Kentucky's Saddlebred Heritage" it's sweet!!

Suzydq said...

My old mare, Never on Sunday, was Wing Commander's granddaughter. She was recently put down (earlier this fall) at the age of 31. She was a dream. :)

C Hurley said...

I know someone who owns one of wing commanders granddaughters. she says though the horse had spunk she could do anything she was told.

Annika Schmale said...

we have a great great grandson of wing commander.
his dad was last horizons commander

Anonymous said...

My hubby was working on a saddlebred farm when we met 25 yrs ago. WING COMMANDER is his favorite bloodline as well as Champagne Fizz... it was my first exposure to saddleseat.. I have to say I love watching the 5-gaited classes.. we have framed copies of the Time article hanging in our living room..

Unknown said...

Had the pleasure of watching Wing Commander win the 5 gaited World Championship at the Chicago International in 1953. What an incredible thrill. We teenage horse crazies went every year and saw many of the greats of that era. Never to be forgotten memories.

I have a snapshot of Valley View Supreme, Tommy Moore aboard, taken at Southshore Country Club. Now that was a horse for all time too!

JustRacey said...

There are videos of Wing Commander with Teeter riding that have been found and digitized and now on line. My riding instructor who worked for Dodge farms had some and his granddaughter found them years after his death in the attic of his farm.