Equitation Greats 1933-1949
Remarkably, we’ve been able to locate many complete results from the earliest years of equitation competitions in the United States. Starting in 1933, the ASPCA Maclay became and remains the premiere equitation championship in America. In 1937, the American Horse Shows Association began offering the AHSA Medal class. For the first ten years, the championship was based on year-end points earned in classes during the show season, although there is evidence that on at least a few occasions, an actual medal final was held at the National Horse Show.
It’s truly amazing to see that even from the very creation of the equitation division there were always riders that consistently rose to the top. While the first Maclay had only 15 entries, only a few years later that number had tripled and only continued to grow. So these riders, like those who consistently win today, did so against relatively large and competitive classes in the national finals. Although much has changed over the course of many decades, quality riding remains the constant. It is no surprise that some of the most influential names in both equitation and showjumping appear as early winners of these horsemanship classes.
In determining the equitation greats of this era, we simply grouped riders according to their accomplishments and ordered them with the most accomplished first.
The legendary William Steinkraus (pictured above) lands at the top of the list. Well before he became a show jumping gold medalist in 1968 and head of the United States Equestrian Team, Steinkraus learned his fundamentals in the equitation division, and did so with consistency and style. His riding style was described as “elegant [and] cool under pressure. His genius with horses was as much mental as physical. The ability to analyze and concentrate served him all, not only as a rider, but also during the years that he went on to lead the USET].”1
Steinkraus was the only rider of this era to win both the ASPCA Maclay final and the year-end AHSA Medal championships. He first made his mark on the division in 1939, earning the reserve championship in the Maclay, followed the next year by a fifth place. The third time was a charm, as he took the blue at the Maclay in 1941.
James “Jimmy” Thomas is one of a trio of riders to earn two tricolors at the Maclay Finals. In fact, it took Thomas five years of consistently good riding and perseverance over six years to finally win the Maclay. In 1935, a news article mentions him winning a ribbon, without identifying the placing. Two years later in 1937, he took the yellow ribbon. In 1938, he finished as the reserve champion. As the likely favorite in 1939, he finished a respectable fifth.
Finally, in his sixth attempt, Thomas took the championship ribbon in 1940. It was a banner year, as Thomas also became the first person to win the Good Hands Cup (for saddle seat equitation) as well as the Maclay Trophy. Pictured in a local newspaper, he is shown smiling with his mount, an alert and striking bay mare with a star named Egypt’s Enchanting Queen.
The victory was a triumph after some tough life events for Thomas and his peers and the equestrian community were happy to see him succeed. According to one newspaper, “Jimmy’s biggest booster was his father, who died early this fall. Shortly before that tragedy, Jimmy was involved in a serious accident while at a Maine camp. When blood poisoning set in, he was rushed by airplane to New York Hospital and recovered only after lengthy treatment by two of the leading physicians in the east.”2 From near-death to the loss of his father to ASPCA Maclay Champion. It must have been a roller-coaster few months for Thomas.
Archie Dean was reserve champion in the Maclay in 1937, and followed that with the championship in 1938. The young man rode a chestnut gelding named “Salmo,” described as his favorite mount.
Elaine Moore, from Westchester, NY, was one of the “top girl-riders... good enough in the saddle to compete against the top men-professionals” according to a 1946 news article published shortly after her victory in the 1946 Maclay.3 She also rode to the reserve championship in the 1944 class. Due to World War II, the 1943-1945 finals were all contested on one day in 1946, based off of qualifications from previous years when the finals were cancelled. Thus, it was a very good day for her, a champion and reserve championship in the Maclay all at once. Imagine that!
Nancy Jane Imboden is described in a 1950 news article as being 13 years old… which means she won the 1949 year-end AHSA Medal championship and the ASPCA Maclay reserve championship at the tender age of just 12 years old. A consistent winner at horse shows around New York (as evidenced by her AHSA year-end championship), she was considered a favorite to win the Maclay, but was edged by Myrna Felvey.
Ultimately, we celebrate those who had multiple successes as well as all of the winners from this era; one can’t be sure they realized it was the start of something great and lasting for the horse community. After watching the 1983 Maclay Finals, fifty years after her inaugural win in 1933, Audrey Hasler Chesney shared, “The classes of competition are infinitely more sophisticated, and the horses and riders are much more demanding.” She recalled that in her youth that she and her peers “all showed and hunted on one horse. Nowadays, it’s much more sophisticated and specialized… There is much more pressure [now]; it’s a business. When we did it, it was for the fun of it, for the sport of it.”4
CHAMPION AHSA & MACLAY
William Steinkraus - RES CH MACLAY 1939, CH AHSA 1940, 5TH MACLAY 1940, CH MACLAY 1941
CHAMPION & RESERVE CHAMPION MACLAY
James A Thomas - TOP 6 MACLAY 1935, 3RD MACLAY 1937, RES MACLAY 1938, 5TH MACLAY 1939, CH MACLAY 1940
Archie Dean - RES 1937, CH 1938
Elaine Moore - RES 1944, CH 1946
CHAMPION MEDAL & RESERVE CHAMPION MACLAY
Nancy Jane Imboden - CHAMPION AHSA 1949, RES MACLAY 1949
CHAMPIONSHIP & THREE PLACINGS
Mary Gay Huffard - 3RD MACLAY 1948, 4TH MACLAY 1949, CH MACLAY 1950
Anne Morningstar - 3RD MACLAY 1941, CH MACLAY 1943, 5TH AHSA 1944
CHAMPIONSHIP & ONE OTHER PLACING:
Walton Perry Davis - 4TH MACLAY 1934, CH MACLAY 1937
Nancy Dean - 6TH MACLAY 1941, CH MACLAY 1945
Muriel Arthur - CH AHSA 1937, 4TH MACLAY 1939
Arthur Platt - 6TH MACLAY 1938, CH AHSA 1938
Albert Torek - 3RD AHSA 1944, CHAMPION AHSA 1945
Ann Ritterbush - CH AHSA 1943, 4TH AHSA 1944
Carol Jane Adler - 4TH AHSA 1937, CH AHSA 1939
RESERVE CHAMPION MACLAY 2X
Helen Balfour - RES CH 1933, 1934
Louis Finch - RES CH 1935, 1936
ONE CHAMPIONSHIP, NO OTHER RIBBONS
Lillian Marsh Chambers
Ellie Wood Keith
William P Dunn III
Elaine Shirley Watt
PLACINGS 3-6 AT TWO FINALS
1 Nancy Jaffer, “The Equestrian World Mourns the Loss of William C. Steinkraus.” Practical Horseman online, Dec 6, 2017.
2 Theodore E Buell, “Conn. Entries Take Horse Show Honors,” Hartford Courant, Nov 10, 1940.
3. George Coleman, “LI Stars Few and Far Between at Horse Show,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Nov 6, 1946.
4. Kathleen Quigley, “Equestrian Events Business, Not Sport,” Palm Beach Daily News, Fri Dec 13, 1983.