Highflying Olympian’s mini hobby
Posted Saturday, Sep. 26, 2009Comments
BY DAVID CASSTEVENS
GORDON — The only two-time Olympic gold medalist in the pole vault gazed out at the pastoral beauty of his Palo Pinto County ranch and spoke with feeling about a favorite subject.
Bob Richards loves horses.
Seated on his bunkhouse porch, Richards summoned the image of a Danish equestrienne riding a horse named Jubilee at the 1952 Games in Helsinki. Stricken by polio, her lower legs paralyzed, Lis Hartel nevertheless won a silver medal, while competing against men, a ground-breaking event for women and athletes with disabilities.
After Hartel was helped down from her mount, the gold medalist, Henri Saint Cyr of Sweden, carried her to the victory platform.
Richards witnessed that emotional scene.
"I bawled like a baby," Richards, now 83, recalled.
Fresh tears welled in his blue eyes.
Richards oversees a herd of 150 quarter horses on his 4,800-acre spread west of Fort Worth.
He and wife Joan also breed and train about 45 miniature horses.
Eleven Olympian Ranch animals have won world titles sanctioned by the American Miniature Horse Association, and as many as 20 of the couple’s horses will compete during the AMHA World Championship at the Will Rogers Memorial Center. The 10-day event begins today.
"Nice thing about miniatures," Bob Richards joked, "you can put ’em in the [car] trunk and go off to the show."
A mature miniature horse will weigh 200-250 pounds.
The 'Vaulting Vicar’
Show rules regarding the animal’s stature are comically specific:
The height verification of the Miniature Horse shall be determined by measuring the vertical distance from the base of the last hairs of the mane to the ground with the front two (2) legs vertical and in line with or parallel to the measuring device, and the back of the hocks in a vertical line with the horse’s buttocks.
The measurement must not exceed 34 inches.
A height limitation must seem at odds with the competitive nature of a man who spent his athletic career bounding down a runway, picking up speed, and catapulting himself high into the air and over a horizontal bar. To a vaulter, the sky’s the limit.
Nicknamed the "Vaulting Vicar," Richards, an ordained minister, reached a career-best 15 feet, 6 inches during the era when athletes used metal poles, not flexible fiberglass or carbon fiber ones.
The former University of Illinois All-American won Olympic gold medals in the pole vault at the Helsinki Games and again in the 1956 games in Melbourne, Australia. He also won a bronze medal in the pole vault in 1948 and made the U.S. decathlon team in 1956.
Richards dominated his sport for years, winning 11 outdoor vault championships and 13 indoor titles. As the first public spokesman for Wheaties cereal, he rode a bicycle 3,000 miles from Los Angeles to New York as part of a physical fitness campaign. He became a popular and successful motivational speaker. In 1984, Richards ran for president of the United States as candidate of the Populist Party.
In 1990, Richards and his wife, a former actress who appeared in the 1950s TV series 77 Sunset Strip, were house-hunting in Solvang, Calif., a Danish village near Santa Barbara, when Bob made a wrong turn.
They came upon a ranch where several miniature horses stood along the fence line.
Joan had never seen these animals before.
"Stop the car!" she told her husband.
Joan walked up to the fence, drawn by the handsome affectionate creatures.
As she spoke to them, gently, and went down the row, kissing their muzzles, the woman fell in love.
"Someday," Joan announced, "I’m going to have some of these."
That wrong turn, Bob likes to say, ended up costing him a lot of money.
Joan later attended a miniature-horse show in Fort Worth where she bought her first little horse, a black-and-white stallion named Magic Marker.
"Miniature horses are like a box of chocolates," playfully warned Ken Cornford, an Australian horse trainer who works for "Miss Joan" and her husband. "Never lift the lid. Once you buy one, you’ve got to have the rest."
A long history
Houdini, one of Magic Marker’s sons, will be among about 3,200 worldwide entries competing in Fort Worth. Joan Richards has sold animals to buyers in Belgium, Australia, New Zealand, England and France. Selling prices, she said, range from $6,000 to $30,000.
Miniature horses have a long history. They were bred as pets for European nobility in the 17th century. Louis XIV kept a zoo at the Palace of Versailles, replete with tiny horses and other unusual animals.
In the 1800s miniatures were imported from Britain and the Netherlands to transport coal from Appalachian mining tunnels that were too small even for Shetland ponies. Later they were bred for beauty and consistency.
In 1978, the American Miniature Horse Association was formed to maintain a registry and adopt a standard of perfection.
Miniatures live an average of 20-25 years. They eat only a fraction as much as full-size horses, so it’s not surprising that the breed represents a big and growing business.
These doe-eyed athletes are too small to plow, or to ride, except by small children. They will never pull a beer wagon or beat a Triple Crown champion in a match race.
But miniatures can be a joy.
"They are so kind, so lovable," Joan Richards said.
A horse is a horse, of course of course, whatever its size.
"I don’t think there is a greater experience than riding — or walking — a horse down a trail at sunset, with Mother Nature all around you," Bob Richards said as he rocked on his bunkhouse porch.
"Wordsworth explained it in a poem: 'We are laid asleep in body and become a living soul.’"
If you go What: The American Miniature Horse Association World Championship Show
Where: Will Rogers Memorial Center, 3401 W. Lancaster Ave.
When: Begins today and continues through Oct. 3. Shows begin each day at 8 a.m.
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