Poised on the southwest corner of State Highway 42 and County Road A, Cornils announced itself by means of a glamorous painted sign, featuring a lovely chestnut horse posed in a show-horse stretch, with “Cornils” in white above it, and “Gentle Saddle Horses” in white lettering below it. If Ted Cornils knew nothing else, he knew how to promote himself. The main buildings and pastures were surrounded by what seemed like endless miles of white wooden fences in an ornate pattern, as if this were a genteel bluegrass farm, not a Wisconsin riding stable for jaded tourists. Whoever painted them must have suffered a lot!
Allegedly born in Austria, Uncle Ted was very handsome, with thick white hair, a gray fedora, shiny riding boots, jodhpurs, a short-sleeved sport shirt (often yellow), and a military bearing. Ted ran the place with an iron hand and no one dared argue with him. Previously, he had taught at the Girls’ Camp that had flourished in the forest of the State Park in the 1930s and ’40s; and then began his own establishment, complete with white barn, white house and white hired-help cabins, all trimmed in dark green. The drive into the stable yard from County A was white limestone gravel, and the lawn in front of the house was emerald green (albeit a tad ragged). A large riding ring was surrounded by the ubiquitous white fencing at the corner of A and 42; and between it and the house was a small grassy paddock with a large apple tree at its center. Beyond the buildings stretched seemingly hundreds of acres of fenced-in pasture and woodland throughout which the horses roamed at night.
Apart from a (very) small number of ex-show horses and spoiled saddle horses, the thirty-plus animals were hacks worn down by careless tourists. I knew all their names and loved every one of them as if they were my siblings.
My first mount was Tommy, a 30-year-old black with a small star on his forehead. The year was 1949 and I was four years old. My dad’s best friend, Roby Bach (who was only seven years older than the horse!), had insisted that I was too dependent on my mom for transport and MUST learn to ride a horse and get about on my own. So my father had dutifully put me on Tommy and then run around the riding ring after him, filming my attempt to stay aloft as Tommy took off in a ragged trot. I was too short to reach the stirrups, so my feet were ensconced in the stirrup leathers in a rather unsatisfactory way. But I was hooked from that first day on!
Ted had the “grave” of an “Indian princess” laid out beside one of the trails, and he would do an “Indian call”, letting us assume that the echo was her ghostly response. The “grave” consisted of a dime-store costume headdress laid out in the woods. He would tell us stories about her when we stopped to admire the “theme-park” atmosphere, and we would dutifully believe them. We loved the whole corny show! (As I said, Ted was a tireless self-promoter).
By the time I was six — and a star pupil of Uncle Ted (he said so himself) — I was taller and in a better position to bargain. As I gradually mastered the trot (performed with great trepidation by “posting” without stirrups, gripping the English saddle with my knees and holding a crop over my head) — and the canter — I was allowed to teach other children to ride. I also took them on guided trail rides into the State forest (there was a half-hour and an hour trail to choose from); or over to Ted’s farm by way of the grassy airport, where we could let them run a bit, if the pupil was capable of hanging on.
I also mucked out stalls and aisles in the barn; threw down hay bales from the loft, cut the baling wire and spread the dusty hay on the floors; made sure the horses were curried and brushed and had the correct portion of oats; cleaned and checked their hooves with a pick to keep stones from getting embedded under their shoes; saddled/bridled each animal (or the reverse), as was required; and cleaned and polished the “tack” (saddles and bridles, mainly) in the Tack Room at the front of the barn. And all without pay or even lunch!
In exchange, I could ride any time I wanted to (although Ted kept strict track of my hours); and if I wanted to go on a trail ride, I could go as long as I had a “buddy” to ride with me.
When I was six, seven and eight, my other teachers were lovely teenagers named Pat Albright, Hildegarde Belde and June, among others. My favorite horses were old (30!) and gentle, including Serenade, Tommy, Mouse and Duchess (the latter being bony but small enough for me to mount unaided).
One time June and I were riding on the airport (which almost never had planes), and Mouse decided he had to have some of the juicy grass at his feet. The reins were short (as was I), and he was strong: the result being that involuntarily I slid down his neck on my stomach as if it were a slide. June was polite, but nearly died laughing anyway. Here was old Mouse, blind in one eye, and (technically) I had fallen off of him in a most undignified way! It was many years before I lived that down.
Charm Boy, a sleek black, was Ted’s favorite, and no one (except Hilde) ever rode him. Charm Boy had his tail shaved at its base so it curved away from his body; and his mane shaved in a three-inch wide crew cut. He could pose like a show horse, with his weight over his forelegs and his hind legs stretched out behind him. I don’t know if he was four- or five-gaited, but he was very well trained and Ted adored him.
The other horses were not as lucky. There was Champion, for example: a dark palomino (almost chestnut), who was crafty if not bright. When he heard his name called, he would puff out his belly before the heavy Western saddle was placed on him. If we didn’t get him with a hard blow from our knee to his stomach, the saddle would turn if someone tried to mount him. You had to be very strong to keep him from heading into the barn with the terrified rider risking his head as he trotted through the doorway and into his stall.
There were others who ambled and refused to trot or canter if they could possibly avoid it. They had hard mouths and resisted any communication by reins or bit, and were also immune to kicks in the sides. A novice rider was doomed to slouching around the ring for an hour or strolling through the woods in the State Park, while the horse virtually slept.
In the ’50s, the hired help sometimes organized races on the grass of the airport (which also had yellow-and-black fences that we could jump, marking its unlit “runways”). Once a lovely horse named Cricket caught her leg in a woodchuck hole, snapped it in two and had to be shot. That was a very sad day. Another horse was hit by a car while crossing from the ring to the State Park (drivers usually ignored the caution signs). But otherwise, it was a safe place to ride and we were careful not to harm either the animals or ourselves.
Later, when I was in high school, I once joined a nighttime adventure at the drive-in movie theater next door. During the day, we turned up the volume on the speakers at the back of the the theater. Then at night we sneaked into the pasture, rounded up horses to ride bareback and jumped the fence into the drive-in. We were able to both see and hear a goodly portion of the movie (whatever it was) until the owner chased us back over the fence and turned down the speakers. We’d turn them up again and repeat the process. And the movie would come to us in pieces that made little sense. Great fun!
In those later years, Ted often organized hay rides from the stables to his farm, where he had built both a Youth Hostel and a square-dancing venue in his barn. (Ted could squeeze a nickel till the buffalo pooped!) We would ride along for the fun, showing off as we crossed the airport, by galloping around the hay wagon, which was pulled by two stolid draft horses moving at glacial speed.
One night, Suzy Limoni decided to ride a renegade horse few of us could handle (I think his name was Rebel?) She rode Western, with a hackamore bridle that had no bit, but instead, pinched his lower lip when she pulled on the reins. But even without a bit to get into his teeth, he managed to take control, and took off at a dead gallop, aiming to kill her if only he could find a tree with low-hanging branches (he had already successfully tried that trick with me, but fortunately, at a slower pace). Suzy — for the only time in her life, I think — was terrified, and we could only let her hang on until he ran out of steam. It was very scary, but she was tough and managed to survive without injury. After that I think the horse was (rather unfairly) sold off to the meat factory to be made into dog food. No romance there: when a horse didn’t or couldn’t function, that was his fate.
The horses survived as a passion until my father bought a 1960 Corvette (in 1960!) just as I was beginning high school. The lure of that car eclipsed the horses, although I continued to ride, as the stable boys were even more interesting.