Hopkins... Best of Endurance Riders?
By Anthony Amaral, from Western Horseman Magazine, 1969.
Two factors pronounce Frank Hopkins an extraordinary horseman: his ability to rate his endurance horses for their maximum effort and his success with the mustang horse.
Frank Hopkins competed in about 400 endurance rides during his lifetime. If blue ribbons had been awarded to the winner at the end of each ride, Frank would have tallied just about 400. His most acclaimed ride was in Arabia where he rode 3,000 miles on a western-bred mustang, against desert Arabian horsesand won.
But the story of Frank Hopkins is also the story of the mustang horse. After having spent nearly 60 years in the saddle on the western frontier riding dispatch for frontier generals and having competed in more endurance rides than any other man, Frank believed that the mustang was the most significant animal on the American continent. In one of Frank's few published comments, he wrote: "I know what the mustang strain means: it means a horse that can keep going day in and day out, that doesn't need bandaging, fussing with, and that can win endurance rides whether the rules are made to order or not "
In his early teens he rode dispatch for Generals Miles and Crook. Later he was a buffalo hunter and worked with Buffalo Jones, Bill Matheson, William Hinrer, and Bill Cody. He was riding mustangs and had developed definite opinions about them. When Frank was riding as a messenger for General Crook, the general mentioned to Frank "...if troops can't overtake a band of Indians in two hours, it's better to give up the chase." Frank pursued the comment and the general replied that the wiry Indian ponies "...can go 90 miles without food or water. They can wear out all the cavalry horses we have on the frontier."
Frank probably was aware of the problem even before General Crook had realized the situation. Besides the phenomenal endurance of the mustang, Frank also rated the mustang as an intelligent and economical horse.
"You can't beat mustang intelligence in the entire equine race. These animals have had to shift for themselves for generations. They had to work out their own destiny or be destroyed. Those that survived were animals of superior intelligence. The mustang was grass-fed all his life. He picked his own food from the country, could live where even a cow would starve, and knew how to take such good care of himself that he was always ready to go."
Frank's start in endurance ride contests is interwoven with a line of mustangs he called the White-y family that began with a small, white mustang mare. Frank obtained the mare in 1877 at a time when the army was pressing heavily on the northern Indian tribes. After some of the Sioux had been herded onto the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, General Crook had ordered all captured Indian ponies, except two for each tepee, to be shot. One of the chiefs named Red Calf had been a boyhood friend of Frank's and told Frank to buy a certain white-eyed mustang before she was shot. Red Calf thought highly of the mare and told Frank that the 700-pound mare could lope all day without tiring.
Frank's first endurance ride was made, however, on a mustang not of the White-y line. This horse he called Joe, and he was obtained by Frank from Buffalo Jones. Frank was working with Jones and had been assigned a string of ponies which included a cantankerous stalliona dark buckskin with black tips, mane, and tail. He weighed about 800 pounds. Jones told Frank he could have the horse if he could break him. Jones had purchased Joe, unbroken, with a bank of other horses, but nobody had much success gentling the stallion.
For two months Frank worked with the stallion, won his confidence, and began riding the horse on the buffalo runs.
In the summer of 1886, an endurance ride was proposed from Galveston, Texas to Rutland, Vermont. Buffalo Jones was as much of a fan of the mustang as was Frank. Horse for horse, both Frank and Jones believed that a mustang could beat any other breed or type. They decided to prove their opinion. Jones agreed to finance the ride if Frank would enter the race. Only one horse was allowed for each rider, and a day's journey was not to exceed ten hours. Along the route judges were placed who kept a tally of the rider's time on a card carried by each rider.
Frank's conditioning of Joe for the ride followed a system that he used on all his horses. His method was always to start slow and accustom the horse to the road. Frank claimed training was just plain common sense: give the horse a chance to condition himself physically and mentally. The mental consideration was the area where Frank felt most horsemen failed their horses. Frank worked a horse gradually until he had advanced to 50 miles a day and still could go on if asked. When a horse could stand this work and still show a disposition to continue, Frank knew he had a horse that was in condition.
At the start of the 1,799-mile ride, Frank trailed far back. He allowed Joe a few days to adjust to the road and the routine. On September 13, Frank came up to the other riders and began passing.
"Next day," Frank wrote, "I passed 12 more tired horses. Joe was feeling fine. When I took his saddle off at the end of the day he would swing his head and let his heels drive at me. On the l7th day Joe passed the last horse and rider. We were in the Mississippi country where there had been a heavy rain, and the yellow mud stuck to Joe's feet but he would shake his head, jump, and play at the close of the day. Our route was marked with red paint daubed on trees, fences, and stones, and was easy to follow. On this ride I weighed 152 pounds. My saddle, blanket, and slicker weighed 34 pounds. Joe weighed 800."
Frank and Joe won the race and $3,000. He made the ride in 31 days with average distance at 57.7 miles per day. Frank and Joe were in Rutland 13 days before the second horse and rider came in. Frank reported that the second horse was broken down in spirit and the third horse, that arrived a few days later, was a broken down wreck.
The phenomenal win brought considerable praise to Frank and his mustang horse. Bill Cody, who was now Buffalo Bill of Wild West Show fame, cabled Frank to join his show. Frank was anxious to join the troupe of horsemen, and in the ensuing years he met many horsemen of the world through the organization called the Congress of Riders of the World. In 1889 Frank was with the show in Paris for the world's fair. A great number of horsemen, mostly cavalrymen, had assembled there for the horse exhibitions and shows. Rau Rasmussen, an Arabian businessman who dominated the camel freighting around Aden in the southern tip of Arabia and who also was a lover of fine horses, heard about Frank Hopkins and his mustang horses. Rasmussen had also heard how the Indians on prairie mustangs had consistently outdistanced the American cavalry. Rasmussen introduced himself to Frank and developed a discussion about the mustang. Frank, obviously, was the mustang's champion booster. Consequently, Rasmussen told Frank about an endurance ride that was a yearly event in Arabiaa 3,000-mile ride. In the past, only desert-bred Arabians had competed. But now Rasmussen was anxious to pit an American mustang against the Arabian horse.
Frank shipped three of his mustangs to Aden, Arabia. His favorite was a pinto stallion called Hidalgo. The other two stallions were half-brothers, but all were bred from Frank's White-y line. Hidalgo was eight years old, "as fine a looker as could be found," Frank has written. "I had ridden him on some hard rides and knew what he could do if called upon."
Slightly over l00 horses started the ride from Aden in 1890. The great caravan of skilled riders had picked their best horses for the ride. Even in the mass of horses Frank's parti-colored stallion stood out among the solid colored Arabian horses.
The ride progressed along the Gulf of Syria, then inland along the borders of the two countries. Much of the ride, according to one of Frank's letters, and a letter to the author some years ago from Mrs. Hopkins, was over limestone country. The only feed available was called vatches, a plant that proved to be very nourishing. Camels accompanied the horsemen and carried barley for the horses. Water was scarce at times, and occasionally horses were without a drink for two days. Sandstorms hampered the riders, and when they were too intense, the ride was halted.
On the 68th day, Frank and Hidalgo reached the finish stone of the 3,000-mile ride. Hidalgo had lost considerable weight, but Frank had Hidalgo rested and well fed when the second rider reached the finish stone 33 hours later. Only three other horses technically finished the race.
The Arabian horsemen praised Hidalgo for this wonderful performance.
"Frank Hopkins... Best of Endurance Riders?"
Amaral, Anthony. "Frank Hopkins... Best of Endurance Riders?" Western Horseman Magazine. 1969: pp. 110111, 191192.
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