Hollywood Pony Dreams ~ Admiral

Two blockbuster movies hit the silver screen in 1939, The Wizard of Oz and Gone with the Wind. We all remember Dorothy’s iconic little dog in “Oz” a Carin Terrier named Toto. In “Gone” there were more than 1,100 horses used that in that production. Animals always add humanity our storytelling. Their actions can change a plot or slow down the pace of a well told tale. What many don’t know, is that in addition to both movies sharing director Victory Fleming, they also shared an animal actor, a little black pony named Admiral.

In Oz, his appearance was a brief role in Munchkinland. He was one of two small black ponies pulling a carriage, that Dorothy stepped into with her ruby slippers, in celebration of killing the Wicked Witch of the East. As Admiral and his handsome mate pulled the carriage around the circular beginnings to the yellow brick road, Munchkins broke into song with “Ding Dong! The Witch Is Dead!”  So cute was Admiral with his gold-painted hooves and gleaming white harness,  an ostrich feather atop his headstall. He did a great job of sending Dorothy off on her journey to the Emerald city.

Admiral pulling a carriage in Munchkinland in The Wizard of Oz

Admiral pulling a carriage in Munchkinland in The Wizard of Oz

Later in 1939, Admiral made a larger supporting role in Gone with the Wind. He played a spirited pony, a gift from Rhett Butler to his young daughter Bonnie.  We see young Bonnie mounted on Admiral sporting a beautiful blue velvet riding habit, complete with red leather gloves to match the red ostrich feather atop her matching blue velvet hat. Which, by the way, matched Admiral’s noseband and browband on his tanned leather bridle.

Bonnie rides Admiral side saddle in Gone with the Wind

Bonnie Butler rides Admiral side saddle in Gone with the Wind 

Bonnie, as spirited as Admiral, was telling her parents that she was going to show them how she could jump, a bigger jump than before. Scarlett, alarmed, pleaded with Rhett to make her stop, not to jump.  He reminded Bonnie that she had just learned side saddle and perhaps wasn’t quite ready to attempt such a great feat. In defiance of her parents, off Bonnie canters fast towards the raised bar jump. And then we see Admiral’s crash, Bonnie’s fall and Scarlett’s scream.

Not a bad performance for a young Hollywood stunt pony. Admiral, who did his own stunts, was owned by Hollywood stunt man and animal trainer Dick Ryan. In a single year, his brief appearances in two of the most beloved movies of all time cemented his celebrity. And as has happened with other famous equines before and after him, his retirement years were bound to be filled with public appearances to his devoted fans.

Admiral Admiration 

It was a sunny California morning as my Mom and I went shopping at the Del Monte Shopping Center in Monterey. We were there to visit my grandparents. My grandfather, editor of the Monterey Peninsula Herald newspaper, had arranged a trail ride for us at the famed Pebble Beach Golf Club. Back in the early 1970s, they had horses on the property and you could take them along the trails that meandered between the links and the Pacific Ocean. After that ride I was high on all things horsey, and a few days later we found ourselves in the Del Monte Center parking lot.

I spotted a little white horse trailer and dragged my Mom over to see what was in it. A tall man wearing a cowboy hat was backing a little black pony out of the trailer. I watched as the pony turned around and walked very gingerly on what seemed to me to be very long hooves. Almost with pointy toes, like Munchkin shoes.

“Why does he walk like that?” this inquiring pony crazy girl wanted to know.

“Founder,” cowboy hat man said.

“This is a very famous pony. He was in The Wizard of Oz and Gone with The Wind,” cowboy hat man beamed. “Would you like to pet him?”

As I walked toward equine Hollywood royalty, wide-eyed, arm outstretched, my palm landing on his soft neck. As I stroked him I asked cowboy hat man how old he was. “He’s 52!” Did I hear that right? I knew ponies could live long, but wow! He did look very old, especially the way he walked, but still. We stayed for a while, Mom grabbed my hand and we were off.

Paul rides Admiral in a parking lot in the early 1970s

Paul Miles Schneider actually got to ride Admiral in a parking lot in the early 1970s – Dick Ryan walks beside him. 

Recently, I came across Paul Miles Schneider’s blog that aged Admiral at 6 months old in 1939. This made a bit more sense to me, sort of. That would have made him 32 years old that day I met him in a parking lot. He was the same age as my Mom that day – she was born in 1939. And my pony Gingersnap had also lived to be 32, so I guess 32 makes more sense than 52. Funny, how we have childhood memories that really stick into our minds. But, I find it hard to believe that a 6-month-old pony could be trained to jump, crash into jumps, canter, be side-saddle broken, and trained to drive a carriage at such a young age. Sounds more like what a seasoned stunt pony of say maybe 20 years old might be capable of. Only Admiral knows for sure. But I tend to believe the cowboy hat man, Dick Ryan, the pony’s long time owner.

Summer Camp ~ Pleasure Pony Dreams

My chestnut pony Gingersnap first made the long journey with me to summer camp in New York’s Adirondack Mountains when she’d been in our family for just over a year. She was barely 4-years-old. I was 12. Loaded into an open-sided flatbed truck for the trip North, I met her a few days later at Camp MacCready. This sister camp to Camp Pok-O-Moonshine, a converted military boys camp, also clung to rituals like morning inspections, Sunday vespers and eating en masse in a mess hall. Fortunately, the girls camp had a horse program with its own rituals where I learned to ride just two seasons earlier.

My chestnut pony Gingersnap

My chestnut pony Gingersnap

I’ve never been a morning person. Not even the lure of getting up early for a horse show works. So as a tween at camp, rolling out of my top bunk to join the other ‘horse masters’ to feed our hungry charges and muck manure-laden stalls, all before breakfast served precisely at 8 a.m., was a daunting task. Most mornings the head riding counselor would come get me out of bed, since all the horses had to be fed at the same time for fear of a barn riot. Eventually, my morning routine was established and my horsemanship skills, including pitchfork handling, wheelbarrow driving and manure pile management, improved.

As a barely saddle-broke pony, Ginger regularly bucked me off during our first year. Ring dirt and I were well acquainted. My parents had a teenager train her while I polished my stay-on skills on school horses. She had been sent to camp where counselors took over schooling her. So when we arrived, Ginger wasn’t my regular ride. By the end of summer, she was.

Ginger Strikes a Pose with Lisa at Camp

Ginger Strikes a Pose with Lisa at Camp

Pleasure Pony Dreams

As camp came to a close, we readied for the annual camp horse show. I was told I could ride Ginger in one flat class. My riding counselor entered us in the pleasure horse/pony class. “What? Pleasure? She’s the farthest thing from a pleasure pony,” was my young equestrian assessment. Despite protests, I laid out my show clothes and polished by brown paddock boots the night before. Meanwhile, a counselor tamed her long chestnut mane into tidy little braids held by brown yarn. I dreamed of a blue ribbon for my ‘pleasure’ pony.

Lisa and Ginger Share a Moment at Camp

Lisa and Ginger Share a Moment at Summer Camp 

The next morning I bolted out of bed. By midday, our class was called and atop Ginger we boldly walked into the makeshift ring. Its outline marked by a fence of burnt orange wooden slats held together with wire, more suited for keeping back blowing snow than encircling show horses. We went though our paces to the left – walk, trot, canter  – then reversed and executed the walk and trot to the right. On the far side of the ring the senior camper tents – worn green canvas perched on wooden platforms, most likely surplus from one of the world wars, I’m going to guess the first one – were softly flapping in the late summer breeze.

“All canter, please. All canter,” the ringmaster commanded. Once around the ring, pleasurably, we went. As Ginger rounded the far side of the ring, she decided flapping tents were scary. Bolt, buck, bounce, buck, and upon landing I heard the ringmaster, “All walk, please. All walk.” With a mighty upward pull of my right arm, left hand braced deep into those braids, I stopped her in mid third buck. Whew! What timing. I had her at the walk just at the right time. But I knew we’d blown our chance of being pinned a pleasure pony. “All line-up, numbers towards the judge please,” came the final instructions.

“In sixth place… fifth place…,”  came the results from the loud speaker. By the time second place was announced I was ready to walk out of the ring. “In first place, number 22, Gingersnap!”

Blue Ribbon Pleasure Pony Gingersnap at Camp MacCready

Blue Ribbon Pleasure Pony Gingersnap at Camp MacCready

“What? Pleasure? She’s the farthest thing from a pleasure pony,” was my young equestrian assessment. I had a confused look on my face as I turned towards the ringmaster to get my blue ribbon. To this day, I don’t know how we won that class. My young equestrian assessment was that the judge was rewarding me for staying on. My adult hindsight says the judge didn’t see our acrobatics, since the pleasure class is judged on the horse’s performance not the talent of the rider. Who knows? However, the faded Polaroid of that moment, with a blue ribbon tucked in her bridle and a silver plate clutched in my hand, remains once of my favorite images in the scrapbook of my summer camp career.

Even Mom showed Ginger at Horse Shows at Sweetbriar Farm

Even Mom showed Ginger at Horse Shows at Sweetbriar Farm