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Son Remembers Dad's Dedication to Training Horses in an Era of Racism

by Suzanne Bush

You might think the story of Thomas Downing is a story of unrequited love. But you'd be wrong.

Like all really good love stories, Downing's has a complex texture, along with a memorable cast of characters and poignant reminders of the power of love in the face of injustice. Even though Downing himself is gone, his story is not over. In fact, it has become something Downing probably never imagined. It has become his son's compelling memoir of craftsmanship, dignity, grace and love.

Lee E. Downing, who lives in North Wales, PA, says that his father was "a remarkable man. Not only because he was my father." But because of the example Thomas Downing set, and the life he lived.

North Middletown, KY is horse country, and it's where Downing's father and grandfather had grown up. It was not a place where there were lots of opportunities for blacks. "Either you picked back up (and moved on), or you were a butler, or you were involved with horses." he says. "My grandfather was a farm hand. My father had an apprenticeship under a very wealthy horse owner."

Gift for Horses

Thomas Downing began working with horses at the age of 13, and seemed to have a gift for relating to horses and gaining their trust. After his apprenticeship, he trained American Saddlebreds for a wealthy owner who enjoyed the prestige of winning ribbons and prizes showing his exquisitely groomed and masterfully trained horses.

In his book, "A Forgotten Horseman," Lee E. Downing recounts a weekend he spent with his father in 1959 at the Grand Fair in Canfield, Ohio, one stop on the saddlebred show circuit. The 10 year-old was dazzled by the experience and the chance to be part of his father's world.

Thomas Downing and a group of other trainers made up a special fraternity in this privileged world. "What made this fraternity so extraordinary," Downing writes, "was the fact that there are so few black men in this profession nationwide, but here it is different. The Mighty Middletown Horsemen are all black men. These were exceptional men who trained exceptional horses but never received credit, or recognition for it." They couldn't show the horses they trained and groomed, but Downing says that never seemed to dim their dedication. "All that did matter were the horses being taken care of and performing at their best." They did it for love, even though the sport didn't love them back, or afford them the respect that was unquestionably due them.

Distinct Gaits

Saddlebreds are capable of five distinct gaits: walk, trot, canter, slow gait and rack. In shows, they compete under saddle and in fine harness (a light four-wheeled carriage). The slow gait and the rack are both four-beat gaits executed with extreme collection. The rack is a faster version of the slow gait, a demanding and strenuous effort for the horse. Because it is so strenuous—requiring each foot to strike the ground separately and at equal intervals—horses often break form and begin to canter. The faster a horse can rack, while sustaining perfect form, the better. While saddlebreds are capable of these gaits, they usually require extensive training in order to develop their racking skills.

The breed originated in middle-America. Kentucky, Tennessee and Missouri breeders sought a horse that would be comfortable to ride, and yet elegant in appearance. Saddlebred horses have unique conformations that set them apart. Heads held high on long, tapering necks, ears pricked, and lavish, high tails—these horses practically scream "look at me!" They pick their feet up high, and don't have the speed of a thoroughbred but the ride is very smooth. The characteristic high tail is maintained through use of a tail brace during competition, and a tail set prior to competition, to counteract the tail muscle's natural tendency to push down. This effect is often facilitated through surgical alterations of some of the tail ligaments, allowing freer movement of the tail.

Downing recalls his father's dedication to preparing horses for show—leaving nothing to chance. Every piece of equipment was cleaned, oiled, polished and buffed. Every horse was patiently and thoroughly groomed so that their coats gleamed and virtually every hair was in its proper place. These shows were as much about appearance as they were about the bragging rights that the winners so coveted.

Horses First

"Horses are capable of thinking and feeling as well as humans," his father told him, and that philosophy drove every interaction Thomas Downing had with horses. The weekend at the Grand Fair in Canfield began with a lesson that Lee Downing never forgot. As he and his father organized the mountain of equipment needed to care for and to show these horses for several days, Lee suggested that they load the horses on the trailer first. "Dad turns to me with a wry grin, looks down at the equipment and then back to me once more," he writes. "You gotta remember, what's easiest for us ain't always best for the horses…Always remember, Lee, the most difficult things to do are always the right things to do."

Downing returns to that weekend in his imagination time and time again, as it was such a pivotal time in his own life, and it was the only time he ever accompanied his father to a show. "It was special for several reasons. It was the only weekend that I worked with my dad with the horses. I worshipped my father and wanted to be like him." But his desire to follow in his father's footsteps conflicted with his parents' ideas of what he should do with his life. "Mother was afraid of horses. My father was thinking he would work me so hard that it would discourage me from getting involved in horses."

While he saw the weekend as a chance to work with his father, it turned into something a whole lot more. For one thing, it was the opportunity for him to interact with his father's colleagues and friends. And it brought him face-to-face with the racism that shaped his father's world, and from which his parents had shielded him. They stopped for gas on the way to Canfield, and because they were black, they had to use pumps at the back of the gas station. He watched the gas station attendants pump gas and wipe the windshields of the cars driven by white customers, while his father pumped his own gas. Exasperated, he asked his father for an explanation. "Any man that can't pump his own gas ain't a real man anyway," his father told him, characteristically ignoring the larger implications of the situation. "Even though there was clearly overt and subtle racism, I wrote in the book that it was subtle, because that's how my parents tried to protect me," Downing says.

Downing says his father's friends in the horse training business overcame so many obstacles that incidental racism hardly fazed them. "These men never had a lot of money or materialistic things, but they had a sense of pride and dignity. It could not have been easy for them to persevere through all that."

Grand Fair

The summer after the fair, Lee Downing became interested in other sports, and drifted away from his dream of joining his father on the show circuit. But the weekend and the men he met and the lessons he learned at the Grand Fair stuck with him, stirring his heart and urging him not to forget. Through a career as a teacher, a college instructor, and a college Student Program and Services Administrator at Temple University, he often looked back to that weekend. Then in 1988, an illness left him in need of a liver transplant. "When you go through a traumatic experience, your life comes full circle," he says. "You start thinking about mortality and people who were important in your life."

Again the memory of that weekend surfaced, and Downing decided that one of the things he wanted to do was make that weekend an experience others could share. "There were three things I wanted to accomplish with this book," he explains. "I try to describe a father-son relationship that goes beyond my particular relationship. Here were a group of men, all of whom were African Americans, none of whom received recognition for their craftsmanship or ability. I wanted to give them the credit they were due. And then there's the historical perspective."

The men who worked with Thomas Downing are gone. But the historical perspective that Lee Downing wanted to document will not pass from the scene. In fact, The American Saddlebred Museum in Lexington, KY is planning an exhibition that will run from February through December, 2007. The exhibit, "Out of the Shadows: Bringing to Light Black Horsemen in Saddlebred History," will explore the numerous contributions black horsemen made to the success of the breed, both in the show ring and beyond.

Thomas Downing died when Lee was just 16, and his death marked the end of a lifelong love affair with horses. Although he never got the recognition he deserved during his short life, and although the people for whom he worked rarely understood the depth of his commitment and dedication, and although time and change have largely covered over the injustice that dictated the boundaries of his professional life, Thomas Downing's life is not a story of unrequited love. Instead it's a story of a man whose profound influence on his son continues to make a difference in the world. "I wrote this book because it was a story that had never been told," Downing says. "But it had to be told."

Downing's book, "A Forgotten Horseman" is available on Amazon.com.

For information about the American Saddlebred Museum's 2007 exhibit, call the museum at (859) 259-2746. The museum is located on the grounds of the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington.

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