During the 45th reunion of the Class of 1963 last spring, a group of former Sweet Briar riders began recalling what the College’s equestrian program was like in those days.
That conversation between me and my classmates Nancy McDowell and Mandy McCormick Bobbitt continued by phone and in subsequent visits. We worked from a scrapbook from the 1962-63 academic year, a Riding Council report and articles in the student newspaper, The Sweet Briar News. Mary Wright, a competitive rider of the era, authored many of the articles.
Riding at Sweet Briar in the early 1960s was competitive and exciting, and it was a way for riders to relax away from the rigors of studying and attending classes. Beginners were taught by Miss Harriet Rogers who, in addition to directing the riding program, chaired the physical education department and was a member of the U.S Women’s Field Hockey Team.
She taught position and control to beginner and novice riders with horses that worked on voice command in an indoor ring attached to the barn on Farmhouse Road. Rogers fully retired from riding instruction and directing the program in the spring of 1963.
By then, Pat Horst Moon, a physical education professor, was running the advanced riding program. A van would pick up riders in front of Gray, which in those days was a residence hall, to transport them to the stable.
If a rider didn’t have the required hard hat, she would borrow one from a pile of them at the barn. Moon would meet her riders at the Proving Grounds, where they schooled horses, working to increase the abilities of horses and riders. The Proving Grounds were built about 1961 with various cross-country jumps on a sloping field. Strict limits existed concerning where students were permitted to ride. Riders who passed the A and B rider tests had expanded limits.
Moon managed the stable and the employees, overseeing much of the riding program. She assigned horses to riders on a daily basis, in addition to making assignments during competitions. It was often necessary for two riders competing in different classes to share a horse during shows.
Sweet Briar had one horse show team at the time, and usually competed against local colleges including then-Randolph-Macon Woman’s College, Southern Seminary, Hollins and Lynchburg. Non-collegiate riders also participated in the college-hosted events and Sweet Briar riders attended area shows in Bedford County, Lexington and Lynchburg.
Sweet Briar riders were successful, earning numerous first-place ribbons, trophies and championships. In the fall of 1962, the SBC Riding Council report indicates that the Sweet Briar team won three championships and two reserves. The council report also indicates that two privately owned horses belonging to Sweet Briar students captured one championship and one reserve during the 1962-63 season.
There were 11 students on the Riding Council that year, including the jumping and riding leaders and five A riders, all of whom passed qualifying tests to join. Today’s students are still required to “test on” to the council, whose members enjoy expanded riding privileges along with its responsibilities.
In those days before e-mail, the student head of riding — who led the council — and the riding faculty communicated meetings, testing dates and other announcements by posting a lined 4- by 6-inch card on a bulletin board in Gray Hall. To know what was going on, riders had to check the board at least once a day.
The College also held an annual show in which a horsemanship trophy was awarded to the best Sweet Briar rider for the year. The winner was determined by a judge, whose identity was kept a secret. McDowell won the trophy, which is named for its supporters, Mr. and Mrs. Fayette Brown, in 1960 and ’61. Bobbitt claimed it in 1962. The trophy is displayed today in a case at Rogers Riding Center.
A junior horse show also was held each year for students who were not on the competitive riding team. The riding program at the time also offered hunter pace events, hunter trials and hunting with the Bedford Hunt Club.
Quite a few talented riders attended Sweet Briar in the early 1960s. One student had previously worked with a man who was on the Canadian Olympic Three-Day Event Team. Another SBC woman had been a student of a trainer who was preparing horses for the U.S. Olympic Dressage team.
Then, as it does today, the riding center offered clinics for Sweet Briar students on school horses, as well as for students who owned their own horses. Vladimir Littauer taught the clinics for more than 25 years, according to a Sweet Briar News article.
Littauer was a Russian émigré and former captain in the Russian Imperial Cavalry. The author of several books, he was a pioneer of riding theory and was considered one of the most respected teachers of riding instructors and amateur riders. He also taught members of the U.S. Equestrian Team. During the social gatherings that followed the clinics, he often told stories about his days in the army and his equestrian career in America.
Depending on the needs of the clients and horses, Littauer worked on areas such as movement, transitions and stabilization. He worked on the flat, lunging over a jump with and without a rider. He also used cavaletti, which are poles spaced about 4 feet apart before a fence or a series of fences to teach the horse to approach the jump at a trot.
Clayton Bailey continued the clinics after Littauer retired. Bailey, a friend of Rogers and student of Littauer, applied his training to his own clinics using Roger’s and Littauer’s methods.
Three stablemen — Howard, Dossett and Glen — also were important members of the riding center staff at that time. They lived with their families in small houses down the hill from the barn, worked at the stable and were grooms for the riders during shows.
The stablemen were dependable and gentle with the horses and always kind to the riders. Although the students knew them only by their first names, it was a formal relationship. The men always addressed the riders by first names, preceded by “Miss.” One of the men, Howard, had a beagle-mix named Cinnamon, who greeted everyone at the barn. Cinnamon is pictured in the Riding Council photo in the 1963 yearbook.
The relationship between a woman and a horse is personal. Each Sweet Briar rider has her own poignant memories of the physical, visual and kinesthetic riding experiences.
McDowell recalls relaxing rides to the monument on Major Mite, getting off and letting him graze while she enjoyed some quiet moments by herself — a euphemism for smoking a cigarette. Bobbitt smiled as she related the joy after graduation of riding with me straight through the campus, an off-limits route for all riders.
Since the early 1960s, many ideas have been developed about how horses learn. This has brought new methods for training horse and rider, and made the training of horses and riders a highly dynamic activity. The riding program 45 years earlier preceded many of those advances, and yet Sweet Briar’s riding program in the early 1960s was competitive, challenging, fulfilling and was a model for other colleges of that era.
Prue Gay Stuhr ’63 is an elementary and middle school teacher, who retired after 38 years. She was the student head of riding at Sweet Briar during the 1962-63 academic year.
— Prue Gay Stuhr ’63