Until the 1980s and ’90s, the American Thoroughbred was tremendously popular in the U.S. jumper, hunter, dressage and eventing worlds. The breed’s beauty, athleticism, stamina and courage graced our show rings and stole our hearts. The warmblood invasion had not yet begun and our nation’s booming racehorse industry provided a constant stream of track retirees looking for a second career. The pool of prospects was so broad and deep—encompassing an almost unimaginable diversity of shapes, sizes and abilities—that someone with knowledge of the breed, an eye for talent and good conformation and plenty of time and patience to sift through tens or even hundreds of off-the-track Thoroughbreds had a fair chance of discovering a future hunter, jumper, eventing or even dressage champion. And, because even talented ex-racehorses were available at prices that would be shockingly low by today’s standards, riders of all backgrounds could dream of plucking the next superstar out of obscurity.
In homage to the American Thoroughbred—both the beloved backyard mounts and the world-class competitors—we decided to take a look back at four of our all-time favorites. The list of Thoroughbred sporthorse champions is far too long to do them all justice. However, we believe these four horses represent some of the best in our country’s history. Hopefully, the stories we tell—of Olympic individual gold medalist Snowbound below and nearly unbeatable show hunter Touch the Sun, the transformative dressage star Keen and U.S. Equestrian Team go-to eventer Good Mixture—will bring back more memories of Thoroughbred greats, reminding us all that this breed once was and could still be a fount of champions.
The U.S. owes its first individual Olympic show-jumping gold medal to a talented yet temperamental off-the-track Thoroughbred originally named Gay Vic. Born in California in 1958, the dark bay gelding by Hail Victory and out of Gay Alvena matured to a modest 16.1 hands. After sustaining two bowed tendons on the racetrack, where he failed to place in five starts, he arrived at the barn of Show Jumping Hall of Fame inductee Barbara Worth Oakford.
The staff at Barbara’s barn nicknamed the young ex-racehorse Snowbound because of his tendon injuries. As his eventual Olympic partner, Bill Steinkraus, explains, “Barbara told me she had made the offhand comment, ‘With those bows he might as well be snowbound as to think he’ll make a show horse.’ And the grooms picked up on it.” However, the tendons healed, and Barbara began retraining him as a Green Hunter.
Snowbound entered Bill’s life as a 6-year-old in 1964, when John (later Sir John) Galvin saw him at a show, was impressed by his jumping talent and purchased him for the U.S. Equestrian Team. “John had a good eye for a horse,” Bill says. “He told me, ‘This might make you a useful hack.’ That was his understated way.”
Although Snowbound showed promise early on, he was not an easy ride. “This was no amateur’s horse at all,” says Bill. “He was very sharp and opinionated in his likes and dislikes. He might wheel if he saw something he didn’t like—go the other direction and drop his shoulder at the same time. You could very easily end up on the ground. In fact, I think I was the only person who never came off him.”
“Snowburger,” as his groom, Dennis Haley, affectionately called him, had a particular aversion to loud noises, says Bill. “He had very sensitive hearing. He hated bands, presentations, parades, applause—and he would get very, very upset. He would completely break out into a sweat. And he would walk around on his hind legs and plunge and kick, expressing every way he knew, ‘Take me out of here!’ I tried to avoid putting him in those situations if I possibly could.”
Otherwise, Snowbound’s temperament was that of a typical highly strung Thoroughbred, which suited Bill, who’d built his career riding sensitive, difficult horses. “I didn’t mind if they were hot,” he explains, “because hot horses can keep going on their nerve, even though they’re tired, even though they’re emotionally elevated, shall we say. But they can still run and jump. They can still perform.”
As Snowbound jumped more demanding courses, the old tendon injuries occasionally troubled him. Bill believed they resulted from the horse’s “extravagant generosity. He kept getting hurt because his generosity of spirit was more than the physical structure could sometimes stand, especially over huge courses. He would try to jump them cleanly, no matter what you built in front of him.”
To keep Snowbound sound, he adds, “We handled him with kid gloves. Each time the slightest filling developed in his tendons, we backed off his training until it disappeared completely. And we chose his appearances carefully, saving him for only the most important competitions, such as Nations Cup classes. He was a terrific anchorman for the Nations Cup team because he was at his best under pressure.”
Snowbound proved this by jumping double-clear rounds at four Nations Cups in 1965, one each in London and Dublin and two in North America. That year, he also won the Grand Prix of New York. In 1966, he won the grand prix at Harrisburg and the Democrat Trophy in New York as well as another Nations Cup. By the summer of 1968, he’d jumped clear in 15 out of 16 Nations Cup rounds, despite periodic layoffs for tendon flare-ups.
Bill compares Snowbound to baseball legend Mickey Mantle who, he says, “was a phenomenal ball player because he was such an extraordinary athlete and coped so well under pressure. And that’s what Snowbound could do. He was not necessarily the horse that could have jumped the biggest fence, but he was extremely gymnastic, athletic and generous.”
The Mexico City Olympics of 1968 emblemized Snowbound’s athleticism, generosity and courage, although the greatest test of the day for him began during his warm-up for the first round. A helicopter arrived in the adjacent field, carrying dignitaries who were welcomed by a band. The commotion was overwhelming to Snowbound’s sensitive ears. “He went almost berserk,” remembers Bill. “His instinct was to get away from the noise, but he couldn’t because the noise was all around him. Heading to the first fence on course, I had no idea what he was going to do. If you look at the photo of him jumping that fence, you see he’s entirely on the curb rein with no release really. Luckily, as soon as he jumped a fence or two, he was all business.”
The courses that year were huge, even by Olympic standards. The top rails of one oxer in the second round stood 5-foot-9 high in front and 6 feet high in back, with a 7-foot-3 spread. Only two horses jumped the first round clear, one of whom was Snowbound, and none jumped the second round clear. After the other contenders for gold, British rider Marion Coakes and her brilliant pony, Stroller, had two fences down in the jump-off, Bill and Snowbound tackled the course. They jumped clear until the giant oxer. Despite a valiant effort, Snowbound just barely tipped the top rails off with his hind feet. But he cleared the last two fences perfectly, capturing the gold medal. As Bill pulled him up, he sensed that Snowbound wasn’t quite right. Once more, he says, the game horse had overexerted himself and “the tendon was starting to go again.”
The injury healed again over time, and Snowbound went on to compete for another three years. However, in the following Olympic Games, in Munich, his tendon trouble prevented him from defending his title successfully. He retired at the age of 14 and spent the rest of his life on Sir John’s farm near Dublin. When the brilliant Thoroughbred was later inducted into the Show Jumping Hall of Fame, Bill said in tribute, “If my very life depended on jumping a clear round over the biggest, trickiest, most technical jumper course I can imagine, the horse I would want to be riding would be Snowbound at his best.”
Practical Horseman thanks The Jockey Club Thoroughbred Incentive Program and the National Show Hunter Hall of Fame for providing background research for this article.
This article originally appeared in the October 2015 issue of Practical Horseman.