Last week in Devon, on the Pennsylvania Main Line, of all places, the horse show world had its first rebellion. For a while, as disgruntled exhibitors reduced an open jumping class to a shambles, the Devon grounds were as lively as O'Connor's Saloon on St. Patrick's Day. The riders' defiance of the show committee, management and the American Horse Shows Association was triggered by the barring of Ben O'Meara, 25-year-old owner of Colony Farms, Inc., two of whose horses were leading in points for the championship—but this was only the last and largest of a series of grievances. The literal and picayune enforcement of the rules throughout the week had built up a climate of exasperation. As one jumping exhibitor put it, "No one here stops to ask what is fair in a given situation—just what is legal." And the show officials were technically correct—if frivolous—in all of their controversial rulings:
Ben O'Meara was thrown out of a class for not following the trace of the course.
Kathy Kusner, who was riding O'Meara's Untouchable, was eliminated for exceeding the one minute allowed after a performer enters the ring and before he crosses the starting line. She had been stopped at the request of a gateman because she was wearing two numbers on her back. By the time she rearranged numbers her time was up.
Morton (Cappy) Smith was disqualified after his round because he forgot to wear protective head covering. Smith did not go bareheaded out of defiance—he habitually rides hatless—and he pointed out later that he was over 21 and that it was his head he was risking.
Frank Chapot, on Cheeca Farm's Manon, was not scored after a ribbon-winning round because he was wearing the wrong number. Chapot was showing three horses in the class and made a mistake which, as he pointed out, was of no possible advantage to him. "Just what edge does it give me?" he demanded angrily, as he tied on the correct number for his next horse and then mashed it up so that it was unreadable. The audience applauded. (That same evening the show's president, James K. Robinson, Jr., won the driving competition challenge trophy with the wrong number on his coach. He was not disqualified. "There is always that fine line at Devon," said one exhibitor, "that attitude of 'We're so big, who needs you?' ")
Finally, on Thursday afternoon, a Devon vice-president, Richard McDevitt, had some angry words in the schooling area with O'Meara on the subject of poling. (Poling is the training practice of rapping a horse's legs with a bamboo pole so that he thinks he has hit the fence. He thus learns to jump higher and avoid injury in the ring.) O'Meara insisted he was not violating the rules and an AHSA steward who was present agreed. By a rather strange coincidence, however, an agent from the Women's S.P.C.A., Charles Renshaw of Philadelphia, turned up before the open jumper stake that night. He came with a companion, Patrolman John Stillwell of Easttown Township, and O'Meara and a friend, Jack Meli, who had been helping him at the show, were arrested on cruelty charges.
O'Meara claimed he never hit the horse, Se Bon, and has since gathered an impressive list of witnesses to back him up. But he was hauled off to the Justice of the Peace where, believing that this was simply another petty harassment, he pleaded not guilty but paid the $38 in fines under protest as the quickest way to get out of the situation and back to the show. He finished second in the class.
The following morning the show secretary confronted O'Meara with a copy of the Justice of the Peace's guilty verdict, and O'Meara and his five horses were barred from the remainder of the show. This action is mandatory under horse show association rules. Furthermore, the AHSA's enforcement committee will have to take action, and O'Meara could be barred from future shows even though (or maybe because) he is not a member of the association. O'Meara ill-wishers—and there seemed to be a few at Devon—were in a position to feel smug.
Ben promptly hired a lawyer and filed an appeal. He also started collecting signatures of witnesses to the alleged poling, mainly fellow competitors who would profit by his unhorsing, and to date has 16 ready to testify on his behalf.
As the day wore on, some of the riders, tempers frayed already, decided to demonstrate dissatisfaction by simply not showing their horses and thus embarrass Devon with an empty ring on a night when there was a standing-room-only crowd. But the boycott got out of hand and, for some, dissatisfaction turned into open defiance. Frank Chapot had his first horse disqualified when he used up his one minute outside the ring. Dressed in cowboy clothes and wearing her number upside down, Kathy Kusner came in, parked her horse in front of the judges and gazed fixedly at a stopwatch until her minute was up. She was disqualified for not wearing the proper attire. Three more riders used up their minutes outside the ring as an expectant audience began to stir restlessly, not knowing just what the demonstration was all about. Milton Kulp Jr. came in on Lillibuck, made a circle and left, and some in the frustrated crowd booed, some clapped and one started yelling for his money back. Danny Lopez came in bareback on his Centaurus and jumped three fences before those ahead of him were pushed over by the jump crew. Dick Hendricks came in on Mrs. Sy Gerson's Red Shoes and with a flourish removed his hard hat. Carol Hofmann on Can't Tell wanted to join the boycott but her father insisted that she ride. She did and went clean until the final fence where she stopped her horse—deliberately, it appeared—earning three faults and putting herself out of the final competition.
Meanwhile, at the gate a seething mob had formed. Riders who wanted to compete were unable to get through the crowd. One, in fact, was disqualified under the one-minute rule, but was reinstated when it was learned he was not one of the demonstrators. Fistfights broke out in several spots, while in the background Ben O'Meara, smiling benignly, received reports from friends and admirers on who was hitting whom. "Isn't it nice," he said with a radiant smile, "to find you have so many friends?"
The police at the gate sent for the riot squad as one lady screamed over the surging crowd, "Listen to me—stop this! Think of your country! Think what the Russian papers will say about this, tomorrow!" At that point a rider was pushed off his horse and came up swinging, so the lady's patriotic plea went unheeded. At the ringside a spectator suffered a fatal heart attack, but through all this the class, depleted of horses as it was, went on. It was won, almost two hours after it began, by 17-year-old Cindy Usher on Sweet Cap. The judges left the ring looking as if they had just been released from a cell for the condemned.
The Devon officials did nothing to punish the jumper rebels, and the next day they all showed as usual. No one was eliminated except for the traditional reason of three refusals, but there was a final irony. O'Meara, unable to compete in the last three classes, had previously won enough points with The Hood to tie for the reserve championship. Since he was barred from the ring he could not jump off for the title so the tri-color ribbon went to Bill Steinkraus on Fire One.
The American Horse Shows Association must now take action against the demonstrators, but whatever decision is made will probably be unfair to some. There has been talk about "degrees of participation" in the rebellion and there are jumper exhibitors who fear that one, probably Kathy Kusner, will be singled out as the scapegoat. A few U.S. Equestrian Team supporters are loudly crying for disciplinary retaliation against the three team members who participated in the demonstration, although they were there as individuals at their own expense and not representing the United States. But all three could be barred from the squad in this Olympic year.
When—and if—everyone cools off, the Devon rebellion, despite its questionable taste, may prove to have accomplished some good. It certainly would be helpful if it produced a change in attitude on the part of the often stuffy Devon management toward the legitimate grievances of the exhibitors. These include not only complaints about the events that sparked the boycott but also concern the obsolete and often illegal courses that riders are faced with year after year. A second benefit would be the development of more open minds among the AHSA stewards, who often choose to cover up the mistakes of management rather than protect the interests of the exhibitor.