THINKER ON HORSEBACK

His athletic credo of thought before action has made Billy Steinkraus one of the world's great horsemen
December 15, 1958

On a tense Saturday night in Toronto, Canada last month, 13 competitors from five nations awaited the final class of the last of the international competitions at the Royal Winter Fair. At stake was the individual riding championship; among the contenders was 33-year-old William Clark Steinkraus, captain of the U.S. Equestrian Team. Wearing an expression somewhere between solemnity and downright dejection, he entered the ring on Ksar d'Esprit and with the utmost deliberation made his salute. Then, coolly and carefully—with any feeling of drama, any hint of difficulty meticulously disguised—he started the big gray on its round. For most of the paying audience his style, unflamboyant, calculated, based, like that of classical painting, on a unity achieved by the harmony of individual parts, represented new depths in drab perfection. For many of the horsemen watching, however, it reached new heights in elegant mastery. Furthermore, it got results: Billy Steinkraus won the individual championship.

In doing so, Steinkraus defeated another leading proponent of the school of colorless brilliance: Germany's Hans Günther Winkler, whose outstanding team of riders only a week before had expressed their admiration of Billy's skill by presenting him with a special trophy they brought over with them. Like Winkler, Steinkraus eschews color in favor of control as the surest means of gaining the ultimate victory. Applause offers him no nourishment; he is sustained by his own sure knowledge of the course, which he carefully measures out beforehand in even strides. Thus, even when he wins, a certain theatrical edge seems lacking in the triumph. But whatever the impression, and Steinkraus professes not to care, it is a resounding triumph of reason over emotion and of one part of Billy Steinkraus over another.

This Steinkraus dichotomy has, naturally enough, its exterior reflections. As a rider he draws high praise from fellow horsemen, but within that same circle he is also a figure of fierce controversy—and sometimes, of course, the target of jealous attack. Yet he is not a man who actively makes enemies. He feels rather that it is just not important to make explanations—or friends.

At times Steinkraus can be as touchy as Greta Garbo about his privacy; at others, in a burst of sociability, he will talk with clinical logic and at great length on his pet subjects (horses and music), leaving his listener, according to his own interests, reeling with admiration or glazed with boredom. As a result Billy's nicknames are almost as numerous as his triumphs. He is variously referred to as The Brain, The Riding IBM Machine, The Pure-thought Rider or The Equestrian Egghead.

"Billy," said an old acquaintance not long ago, "is said to be the world's most articulate athlete. Well, he was trying to explain the various mathematical solutions of a certain Prize of Nations course to me the other day, and all I can say is, when he disappears into that mental forest of his, he's harder to track than the Abominable Snowman." Says another: "Billy is a genius like Edison or Bell. And you know all those geniuses are sort of screwballs."

A lifelong acquaintance believes, however, that Billy is at heart a social worker, albeit an equestrian one: "Billy thinks every horse can be turned into a 'useful citizen' no matter how spoiled. I guess that's true if anyone wants to work with a horse as long and hard as Billy will—but most don't have Billy's talents or beliefs."

In another age, an age where both the hero and the scholar were ideals, Steinkraus would have caused no comment, but today the fusion of intellectual and athlete has become more rare. Billy, aware of the puzzle he poses, recently spoke for himself.

"This nerveless legend that has grown up about me is false," he said. "I'm basically a very high-strung person, and I've had to learn a lot of control to avoid communicating my anxieties to the horse. I don't believe in communicating any kind of emotion to a horse. There is an old saying," he continued, "about throwing your heart over the fence and the horse will follow...and a lot of people believe it and even get occasional results. Well, I'm not a heart-over-the-fence man. I think you should know the capabilities of your horse and yourself, then you can often expect to get what you ask. However, I have immunized myself to disappointment, so I never expect complete success." He ran his hand nervously through his hair. "Often, before I go into the ring, well-wishers say, 'Go in there and win, Billy!' thinking somehow that if one wants to win badly enough the rider can will the horse to do more than he is capable of. But with all the will in the world it cannot be done.

"Even though the 'feelers'—the heart-over-the-fence riders—get results, there is another side to that too. For example, an intellectual concert violinist can play music he really thinks is trash with brilliance and conviction; and I can ride a horse I hate and that won't show either."

What decided Billy on his course, why he divided the world into those whose accomplishments are directed either by their hearts or their heads, "thinkers or feelers," is still a subject of speculation among his friends, because as a youngster he was, without giving it a thought, a "feeler."

As a child in Westport, Conn., where his father Herman had moved the family from Cleveland after becoming president of Bridgeport Brass Co., Inc., Billy, the youngest offspring and only son, felt, as so many children do, a wild love for horses. Even though he was encouraged by no more than an occasional pony ride at the local track, Billy had all the winners of the major races in England and America memorized and had read every book on riding that he could find. Then, when he was 9 years old, his dreams came true: he was sent to a summer camp in Canada where he rode a horse for the first time.

"I started taking riding lessons and violin lessons more or less simultaneously," Billy recalls, "and one of the many things I learned from playing the violin that I also apply to riding is: Practice the things that are hard for you. Analyze why something is difficult, then work until it is not."

For Billy, the combination of natural ability developed by hard work paid rich and rapid dividends. He won a blue in a beginners' class at his first horse show in 1935, and in six years reached the apex in horseman-ship by winning both the Good Hands and the Maclay classes at Madison Square Garden. In fact, it was the fitting climax of a great year for Billy; in 1940 he had won some 5 championships and was undefeated in bareback competition. Newspapers called him the "boy wonder."

Billy was very good," recalls one of his instructors. "Only one kid in a hundred could have ridden some of the horses he did. But he got a lot of those first places because he was such a happy-go-lucky kid with a big smile on his face. The women judges couldn't resist him."

This was the last year, however, that the horse show world saw Billy Steinkraus as a happy-go-lucky kid. At 16, when he entered Yale, he was already adopting the character of serious reserve which dominates him today. The U.S. was in World War II and, when he reached his 18th birthday, Steinkraus volunteered for the cavalry. He was barely in time. The mounted troops were abolished shortly after Billy's class graduated, but even so he was shipped to India, complete with boots, spurs, saddle and violin, to await horses that never came. His regiment was converted into infantry, so with his fiddle strapped on his pack Billy started marching, into Burma and behind the Japanese lines. When the regiment emerged at Kunming, China, it had four battle stars, and Sergeant Steinkraus had nothing to do.

Fearful of being assigned to a pre-Burma officer whom he detested, Billy looked around Kunming for a way to make himself indispensable. He found it. "In eight days' time," he remembers happily, "I made myself the world's leading expert on lend-lease to China and was assigned to supply headquarters."

The war ended, for Billy, in a time of comparative ease. He was playing Bach's Double Violin Concerto in Kunming with a friend when the Japanese surrender was announced. Shortly after, he was transferred to Shanghai, where he galloped Mongolian ponies at the race track and worked out a mathematical table of expenses for his officers to present to some visiting Pentagon brass. When he was awarded the Bronze Star for services above and beyond the call of duty, he had enough points for a discharge.

Billy went back to Yale as an English major, back to showing horses and, as a sideline, played the viola with the Connecticut Symphony Orchestra. While still a student he spent the summer of 1948 in Europe and came home with two new projects: an embryo collection of antiquarian music (which led him in turn to take up bookbinding) and, as a result of seeing the equestrian Olympics, some new thoughts on riding.

"I started thinking about teaching methods and learning," he said. "Most people are inclined to accept anything that is. In fact, this is the greatest age of unquestioning acceptance since the Middle Ages. If a certain method of teaching has got results it is used indiscriminately on everyone without analyzing if it fits the needs of that particular individual. I remember when I started playing the violin—I thought I sounded awful. Well, I was right. I was awful. Later I understood why. My fiddle kept sliding around my chin so I kept hitting wrong notes. What I needed was a shoulder rest. But my teacher, who was built differently, did not, so he thought they were useless. The horse world, too, is full of such misconceptions and truisms. People generally accept them without question.

"Actually," Billy went on, his thoughts reverting to riding, "the theory of riding a horse is a lot like pitching ball. A natural athlete like, say, Dizzy Dean, can rely on power, strength and instinct. But take a pitcher like Sal Maglie—he was great because he could change his pace, had enormous control and was able to analyze the batter, to think. Well, riding is like that. If you don't have one of those rare horses that can jump almost anything from almost any position, you then have to analyze the horse's strong and weak points and learn how to make the most of them. It's like working with people: if you want to exploit a person's talents you don't do it by using his weak points."

Fired with his new theories, Billy, just as he had when he was a child, started reading everything he could find about international jumping. In the meantime, after his graduation in January 1949, he took a job with a concert management agency and also took on the showing of a horse named Trader Bedford. The combination was memorable—in 1951 Bedford was horse of the year. At about this same time an announcement was made that future Olympic equestrian teams would be composed of amateur civilian riders, so Billy borrowed a horse and went to the trials. In 1951 he made the team as the alternate rider, and at the Toronto show, third on the schedule, Billy Steinkraus was officially representing the U.S. for the first time. He has ridden on every team but one ever since.

"Actually," said Billy, "riding on the team isn't a completely enviable situation. I'm getting a bad reputation for leaving jobs, I haven't much bank account and will have even less after the 1960 Games. But when you have a chance to represent your country, you don't ask if it is going to be difficult or awkward, but only, How can I make it possible?"

Steinkraus, having made it possible, has settled into a life that satisfies his dual hero-scholar nature. It is a life filled mainly with solitary pursuits: riding, playing the violin, reading and writing. At the USET training grounds at Try on, N.C. last spring, he was given the guest cottage on the grounds of a well-to-do horseman, to the undoubted relief of his fellow teammates who found that the sound of the violin or typewriter can be tedious in the night hours. When I visited him at the cottage, which was as neat as the display window in a furniture store, I found Billy padding around in stocking feet, flicking ashes off the table, putting records on the phonograph, serving up instant coffee and sorting through his mail.

Excusing himself, Billy opened the first of his letters; it was from his mother and bulged with clips from British and American newspapers. A depth perception test engrossed him for several minutes until the phone rang. It was a long-distance call from a publisher, wondering how soon he could expect Steinkraus's editing of a new book on the science of jumping. "I'm so far behind schedule that I feel guilty every time the phone rings or the mail comes," Billy remarked after he had finished. "I've got myself overcommitted. But I really enjoy writing. You know, back when I was still in high school and riding in horsemanship classes, I used to write a weekly column for The Chronicle under the pseudonym Proctor Knott. It was supposed to be the sage observations of a seasoned horseman. It was two years before my identity was discovered, but in the meantime I had a lot of fun lacing into some of my competitors.

"After the Helsinki Games," he continued, "I met a man named Arnold Bernhard at a cocktail party. He put out a weekly, The Value Line Investment Survey. He said he was looking for someone with an analytical mind and, since I thought I had one, I went to work for him as a securities analyst. I had to write projections on certain stocks and I was good at it. I left there with the title of senior analyst to ride in the 1956 Olympics. But I really would like to find time to write some articles or maybe a book on music—I collect first editions and I find it extremely interesting to note how differently the music is played nowadays—the editors have changed it to conform to the taste of the times."

The phone rang again. It was an invitation to dinner later in the week. After a pause, Billy accepted. "I think maybe I was rude to them last week, so I'd better make amends," he said. "Most of the time my rudeness is completely unintentional. It's not that I'm antisocial, but every time I go out, then something is not done. By the time I work four or five horses a day, practice the violin for a few hours, work on some articles I've promised, and write some letters and try to keep up with my reading, there isn't much time left."

He opened another letter; it was from a young fan announcing that he had named his newly acquired parakeet Billy Steinkraus. Billy looked pleased and somewhat surprised. "I'm always startled when I get fan letters," he said. "I always think each one is going to be unique."

He walked to the table and picked up the last of his letters. It was from Japan, a rice-paper strip covered with ideographs; a Western-style sheet covered with typing was enclosed. The typewritten sheet was labeled: "Translation."

"I wish to say thank you," the writer concluded after several paragraphs of halting praise, "for your giving me your picture which to me personally has more worth than the picture of your President Eisenhower.

"P.S. The writting paper I used is the problemed one which our former Prime Minister Yoshida used when he made a speech at your country and your people misunderstood it as the toilet paper. And this writting paper is used these days in Japan very seldom occassion."

"Well," said Billy, somewhat nonplused, "I wonder just what he has against Eisenhower."

This fall, on a rainy evening, relaxed before the fire in his parents' Westport, Conn., home, Billy Steinkraus spoke in an introspective vein of his own performance in the ring. "Occasionally," he said, "I wish I could ride blindly, act instinctively—it would be so much easier." He patted the sleeping collie on the sofa at his side. "I'm still convinced that for any consistency of performance, particularly in international competition, the only answer for me is training and control." He stared into his glass of Scotch. "By control, of course, I don't mean just the horse for, in order to achieve that, as I've said before, the rider must have complete control of himself. I remember when I was a child, I had a very bad temper—probably the result of being the youngest and most indulged. But when I was in my teens I spent a lot of time around a horseman with an even more ungovernable temper than I. Seeing the results of those rages on both people and horses taught me such a lesson that I set out to learn how to handle mine. The result is now that it is almost impossible for me to lose it—to really have a temper fit."

He brushed some dog hair off his sleeve and reached for the Macadamia nuts on the coffee table. "I've always been able to get along with animals," he said, "and in particular with temperamental or nutty horses. I can make them enjoy what they are doing. All horses are neurotic and riding them is a question of finding or correcting their reaction to false stimuli. Then one must build up a mutual trust."

Taffy, the collie on the couch, thumped her tail and Billy looked up. His mother, with another collie on a leash, came in, smiled her greetings and, patting Taffy, said, "Ruth is home, so as soon as I take care of the cats, we'll have dinner. Billy, will you see about the wine?"

A short time later that part of the Steinkraus family then in Westport (Mr. Steinkraus, a former president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, was out of town on a business trip, and the elder daughter Marjorie in Paris) assembled at the table. The two collies and a cat came too.

"How are the horses working, dear?" inquired his mother as Billy poured the wine. "Are they ready?"

Billy, never one to be blinded by the rosy side of things, permitted himself to be cautiously optimistic.

"We're in good shape," he said, helping himself to the roast beef being passed by the maid, "but we are in a kind of ironic position. In aiming for the Olympics, we developed a first-rate European-type team, as this summer proved. Now we are indoors and facing different conditions, which has meant retraining the horses to a certain extent."

A growling and snarling broke forth from beneath the table. "Fences and courses," Billy went on unperturbed, "should be so constructed as to test both the ability and the training of the horse." The growling rose in volume. "We don't do that well enough in America. In the big European events and in the Olympics there is every kind of test—verticals, horizontals, combinations, tight turns, long distances." The growls reached a crescendo and the table shook. Billy put down his napkin, continuing his dissertation without pause. "There isn't any time to correct a mistake between obstacles." He reached under the table and came out with a dog. "There your procedure must be well thought out in advance." He pushed the reluctant dog through the kitchen door and returned to the table, still talking. "That is why it is so important to walk a course and to translate it into the number of strides the horse will need." He reached under the table and collared the other dog. "I measure my own stride from time to time just to be sure I'm not taking a longer or shorter step, as a check on my calculations." He pushed the second collie into the living room. The cat took advantage of the commotion to jump from the window to the table. "After that, it is largely up to the rider." He picked up his napkin and sat down. "If the horse is willing, and Lord knows he is an extremely generous animal, often more than people deserve—" he caught sight of the cat at the end of the table and said "Shame!" Whereupon the cat retreated to the window—"and if he is able, and by that I mean placed in a position where he can do the possible, then it is about 99% certain that he will jump clean." The collie exiled in the kitchen started to howl. "The approach is the important part; going over the fence itself the easy part. But a rider must never, never lie to a horse." The cat had slipped back onto the table in a strategic position near the whipped cream. "He must never tell him by the position of the body, by the restraining or compelling aids, that he is going to do right when by virtue of his position he can't help but do wrong." He picked up the cat and opened the front door. "Only a really great horse can learn to ignore the rider," Billy shouted from the hall. It was still raining so he pushed the cat into the living room, "but the average horse will soon be confused and spoiled."

The dogs began to howl again and Billy raised his voice. "Things happen because of a certain series of causes in the show ring. A pole doesn't come down because of bad luck; it comes down because the horse hit it, and if he hit it it's probably because the rider couldn't make him approach the fence correctly, or because the horse knows it won't hurt him to rub against the pole. A lot of our American fences are so flimsy that the horse has no respect for them.

"Of course, many horse people are very superstitious"—the howls continued unabated. "Once I let a girl braid the same piece of straw into my horse's tail during three winning performances." The cat joined in the chorus. "Shall we," inquired Billy, "have coffee somewhere else?"

After dinner Billy, accompanied by Ruth and one of the collies, went to the studio where he and his sister live, a cottage which proved to be an adult version of a children's playhouse in the backyard. The single large room was lined from floor to ceiling with bookcases, and contained Ruth's piano, Billy's music stand, a phonograph and an assortment of comfortable chairs, most of which were already occupied by stacks of new books or periodicals. Ruth, who runs a classical disc jockey show for a Bridgeport station, departed in search of material, and Billy piled books on the table to clear the chairs.

A photograph fluttered to the floor; it was a picture of Billy at the Helsinki Olympics where, as a member of the U.S. team, he won a bronze medal.

"This picture," said Billy, tossing it back onto the table, "makes me wonder sometimes if perhaps I am too conservative, perhaps don't ask enough from a horse.

"In thinking out that course, I knew Hollandia, the horse I was riding, had very little experience with water, so I decided that the water jump would be the place where he would have a fault.

"Well, Hollandia went clean until there were just three obstacles left—the water, a big, five-foot gate and the last, an easy fence. He got one foot in the water just as I thought he would, but it happened because I had to pull up quickly in order to get the arc necessary for the vertical gate. He was clean over the gate, and then, quite by accident, he knocked a pole down on the last and easiest fence. If it hadn't been for that pole, I would have been tied for first place.

"I realize now that my decision was wrong. Since it was a chance to win a big event like the Olympics I should have made the all-out gamble, taken the chance of going clean all the way or bringing them all down. Actually, it is just as well, and I don't think I'm rationalizing because I didn't win, but I wasn't good enough then to deserve it."

He picked up a biography of Baron De Coubertin, founder of the modern Olympics. "I've often been criticized for not having the proper competitive spirit," he said, leafing through the book. "I don't believe in almost killing a horse to win a class when you know you have to show him in eight more events before the show is over and then go to still another show right away. The most important thing to me is not winning, although I certainly like to do that too, but knowing after you have finished a course that you have exacted the maximum performance from yourself and the horse. That you have given to the fullest all the talents you both have to give. Achieving that, it doesn't matter to me, personally that is, whether I win or lose. Come to think of it," concluded Bill Steinkraus, "I guess Baron De Coubertin would have just loved me!"

PHOTO PHOTOHAPPY MOMENTS FROM HORSEMAN'S SCRAPBOOK: BILLY WITH THE HUNT, WINTER 1937 PHOTO[See caption above.]
HORSEMANSHIP WINNER AT OX RIDGE, 1939
PHOTO[See caption above.]
HORSELESS CAVALRYMAN, INDIA, 1944
PHOTO[See caption above.]
JUMPING TWEEDLEDUM AT FAIRFIELD, 1937
PHOTO[See caption above.]
RECEIVING KING GEORGE V TROPHY FROM ELIZABETH II, 1956
PHOTOMUSICAL EVENING between horse shows engrosses Steinkraus family. Parents are an appreciative audience as Billy with viola and sister Ruth at piano play Mozart duet.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)