Inside the stable: A look at the inner workings of historic Simmons Stables
The story of a groom's life at the Big Barn on the Boulevard
(from the November 2009 Issue of "The Cattleman's Advocate" - by Susan Dinkler)
FIRST-HAND KNOWLEDGE: Tom Usnick can point out various stalls that quartered world-famous horses, drawing from his experience with the inner workings of the barn while working as a groom when he was a youth.
(Advocate photo by Susan Denkler)
(Publisher's Note: The life of a groom is where all the great trainers started. Tom Bass, William Lee, John T. Hook - all started out in the Grand Barn on the Boulevard, usually at young ages, learning to care for horses and how they were trained. When they showed skill at training, they would work their way up to training and showing these horses for the stables. This interview, tapping the unique insight of Tom Usnick, is perhaps the only written history from someone who has been a groom at the Big Barn.)
MEXICO, Mo. – How did a stable – that’s become a monument to the Saddlebred industry – really operate under Art Simmons?
Mexico native Tom Usnick, curator of the American Saddlebred Horse Museum, worked as a groom at Simmons Stables for a time as a youth, and his behind-the-scenes experience gives insight into how the barn became so prominent.
Tom was a friend of Simmons’ son, Jim, and got his start at the stable doing odd jobs.
“I went to work for Art the summer I turned 13. I started painting fence, and on rainy days when we couldn’t paint, I’d come into the stable where Art had me walk hot horses. We’d just walk in circles ‘til we cooled those horses out. After that, I did a little more horse, a little less painting.”
The renowned stable drew premium Saddlebreds, owned by people who traveled in the upper stratospheres of wealth and society. They wanted their horses boarded and trained by the best. And so they got Art.
Like Tom Bass in his day, Art had shown a special talent for horses since a boy of 7, who hung out at the rural stables around California, Mo., where he grew up. Later taking on stable duties and horse training jobs beyond his years, Art came up in the school of hard knocks, sometimes bumping from house to barn to home after his mother died when he was 11. Not content to become an “alley rat,” as one acquaintance told it, Art had a vision for his future and it was bound to involve horses. By the time he owned his own stable in Mexico, he was among the best.
Simmons Stables had a certain rhythm, with everyone expected to pull his own weight. Art’s day started around 7 a.m.
“He’d come over here and grain first,” said Usnick. “It was just a ritual that he did every day. Each of these stalls had a light in there – probably a 40-watt bulb – and he would put the feed in the feed hole, and always flip on that light, look at that horse, turn the light off, and go to the next stall.
“Primarily he was looking to see if the horses had slipped their tail set,” which he explained as a special harness that supports the tail in an upright position, for a high tail carriage. After inspecting the horses, he’d leave to go out to a farm where he kept the brood mares and colts. Meanwhile, the grooms would clean out the stalls and water the horses. The barn was so huge that its two haylofts above the stalls, which ran the length of the stable, could hold a total of 5,000 bales of hay. Catwalks above the aisle on both ends allowed stable workers to access the hay, which they flaked off and dropped into the hay racks of each stall.
Red Oak Citation in one of the completed stalls at the Grand Barn.
(Photo credit: Brenda Fike of the Mexico Ledger)
By the time the grooms finished up their morning duties, Art would be back and ready to train.
“Every groom had six horses on his string,” said Usnick. “A lot of times you’d clean their stalls out in the morning, and get one or two worked before lunch. Then you’d work the other four that afternoon. And those six horses were your responsibility as far as their care.”
It was the grooms’ job to keep the horses coming for the trainers, who worked them outside on the sawdust and cinder tracks.
“Most of the time, except for a harness horse, Art would ride one day, and jog them the next. A harness horse got jogged every day. Every day they got worked, and they got exercised every day.”
Perhaps Usnick, now a locomotive engineer for the Kansas City Southern, earned his precision railroad timing during these early years.
“A lot of times when they were out jogging a horse or riding a horse, then you’d come in and strip your next horse. You’d tie them up and take the tail set off, and start brushing them up; then you’d kind of peek out for Art or Jimmy to come back in, then go down and take their horse. If it needed walked, you’d walk it, and got your next horse ready to go. Yeah, it was a great time.”
Tom Usnick shows typical saddlebred tailset harness.
(Photo credit: Brenda Fike of the Mexico Ledger)
Tom is still amazed at the caliber of horses that came through this stable. Pointing out different stalls, he said, “Tashi Ling was in the third stall. She was a world champion in fine harness. Courageous Connie was a five-gaited champion. She was a real light chestnut mare with a flax painted tail, and a great head set. She was in the first stall. Colonel Boyle was down at the other end of the barn. He was six-time world champion.
“Oh my gosh, there’s been so many ... Sea Beauty, she stood right along in here.” Recalling the night she won at Madison Square Garden, he added, “She could trot this high. As a matter of fact, an auctioneer once said she could trot higher than a woodpecker’s hole. A lot of motion, that trot.”
These finely-bred horses were in their element, showing at gaited events that became a spectacle of horsemanship, from the music and lights of the arena, to the exhilaration of the audience, to the high-stepping vigor of the animals, right down to showmanship of the trainer.
The horses were shown in both riding and fine-harness classes. Art had been known to take as many as 16 horses to a single event, where he, or Jim, or the horses’ owners showed them. There were three-gaited events – familiar to all horsemen as the walk, trot, and canter – and the five gaited events peculiar to the Saddlebred, which adds the slow gait and rack to the repertoire.
“A rack is a four-beat, man-made gait, and this is the only breed of horse that can do it,” said Usnick. “A rack is real smooth. Only one foot’s on the ground at a time. It’s real fast, and it’s really cool.”
He said the Saddle Horse makes this breed perfect for showing.
"The Replica", Art Simmons up.
(Photo courtesy of Audrain County Historical Society)
“They’re fine through the barrel, and they’ve got nice long necks that come right up out of their withers. And when they set their head, they look like a swan. Of course, that tail’s up over their back, and they have a big eye and animated way of going. They just don’t look like any other horse.”
Jim Simmons describes his father as a near “workaholic,” and his sister Jane recalls their dad was often on the show circuit for weeks at a time. But Art knew a winning outcome could build status for the horses, and prestige for the stable.
Usnick went along to some of these events as a groom. What was it like?
“Hard work. No showers. You slept in a stall. We had canvass we’d put around a stall, and call it tack rooms or show rooms. We had cots, and you just slept in there. And we had to haul everything. Everything you needed for every horse, you had to take with you. It was just like taking the whole barn.”
But the work paid off with ribbons and trophies, and they came pouring in for Art, who was a real showman in the ring. He was particularly colorful at the harness class, especially when it came build time for the judge to turn the trainers loose by announcing, “Show your horse!”
“That’s when those guys whistle ‘em up, right? And Art, he would drive that thing,” grins Usnick. “He’d have his foot up there in that high harness buggy, hanging out the side (of the cart). I don’t know whether he was showing that horse, or the horse was showing him.”
Usnick said a champion horse could be as big of a showboat in the arena as the trainer.
“You can just listen for that applause to follow that horse around the ring, and those horses get bigger, and bigger, and bigger,” he said, puffing out his chest. “There was a fine harness horse called the Lemon Drop Kid, and the more those people clapped, the bigger he got. He’d just look up in the crowd as he trotted by …and you couldn’t turn that horse’s head straight if you’d had a come-along.”
With the experience he gained at Art’s stable, Usnick went on to train and show his own Saddlebred and society horses, and personally owns a 17-year-old Saddlebred named Catch Me Sir, a mare he got from Jim Simmons.
He and Jim are still close friends, sharing a special bond that just happens to connect to a big white barn, and a man born with a special talent for horses.
“Art had a gift,” said Usnick. “I’ve had old trainers tell me that when you or I ride a horse, we’re just riding a horse. But Art would help the horse … with his hands, with his feet. While he was on that horse, he would actually help that horse go. with his body, with his weight, And how he did it, no one knows.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE: Some background for this story was taken from the book, “Arthur Simmons: American Icon of the Horse World – A Daughter’s Memories,” by Jane E.B. Simmons.)