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The Grand Dame...
Helen K. Crabtree

by Bob Funkhouser
The year 2001 saw much loss in the world and even closer to home, the American Saddlebred industry felt the pain of losing two of its biggest icons in Tom Moore and Sallie Wheeler. The year 2002 hasn't started any better.

While there is still much conflict and loss in the world, the show horse fraternity again took a major hit with the death of a lady who was larger than life and a mentor/role model/trainer/teacher to so many people. Make no mistake about it, Helen Kitner Crabtree, 86, was a giant among men, at a time when women weren't on the same page with men, especially in the Saddlebred industry. With her plaid jacket, turtleneck, jods and impeccable dignity she more than held her own in the "good ole boys club," she often beat the greatest trainers of the day.

"Helen was not only someone who changed the face of the Saddlebred industry, but Shelby County as well," said Mary Anne Cronan, one of the 'Crabtree Girls.' "Shelby County is certainly a place that has grown and embraced the American Saddlebred to the point it is the Saddle Horse capitol and that is a direct result of the Crabtrees moving here from Rock Creek in 1958."

"No doubt about it, she paved the way for all of us," said Lillian Shively. "Helen was an outstanding individual and had great ability to deal with people. She had such an outstanding personality. She was quick on her feet, never at a loss for words, and always the right words.

"Helen was a great trainer, a great teacher, and a great businesswoman. Over the years we have had lots of conversations with Helen and Charlie and a lot of it I still carry with me today. I can't tell you how much I love what I do and that's what keeps me going. I think it was the same way for her. She absolutely loved people and horses."

While over the past few days many people throughout the industry have mourned her death, her son, Redd Crabtree, quickly reminds us that this was a blessing. Her entire being dealt with dignity, pride, respect for others. Deserving all of that, she peacefully passed away with members of her family at her side and now her extended family has rekindled stories and memories over the past few days, all paying tribute to a lady who helped shape their lives more than any parent or teacher could ever hope to do. According to Redd, she began riding at the age of four at her parents home in Jacksonville, Ill. "She was self-taught," said Redd. "By age six or seven, she was showing horses for other people."

In a book entitled Of Women and Horses, it further explains her beginnings. "I guess I was a professional by the age of 11," Mrs. Crabtree was quoted as saying. "I made a dollar a day training horses and I would have done it for less. People just came to me with their horses. Old time farmers would bring me their stock to train."

Helen Kitner went on to MacMurray College in her hometown and it was also there that she began her professional career as a teacher. "She was also a self-taught teacher," said Redd. "She initiated riding programs and riding teams at that school."

As an instructor at Missouri Stables she met Charles Crabtree as she showed a pony for his employer. After a two-year engagement, they were married and began a remarkable career together. There were a couple of basic principals that Mrs. Crabtree stuck by all her life and family was one of them.

In St. Louis they operated the Clayton Riding and Hunt Club where they trained and taught many children to ride. Charles and Helen Crabtree would move to Arkansas, then Tennessee and finally to the Rock Creek Riding Club in Louisville, Ky. They had adopted Redd and he too became a devoted horseman.

Following their stint at the Rock Creek Riding Club the Crabtrees purchased some land in Simpsonville, Ky., and again hung out their own sign, this time for good. Crabtree Farms, Inc. would become known as the greatest public training stable of its time. In 1969 Redd became a third partner in the family business and what a powerhouse they became. You cannot speak of Mrs. Crabtree without speaking of Charlie and Redd because that's the way they did it, as a family. Like any family they had their moments, but when it counted most, rest assured they were a family.

The life of Mrs. Crabtree was such a fascinating one. Not only was she a master horse trainer and instructor, she was a champion tennis player in college, she was a painter, an accomplished writer, a great communicator, and above all else, a lady. She handled herself with great poise at all times.

"I was fortunate enough to have spent a lot of one on one time with her," recalled Linda Lowary. "She was so intelligent about everything. I was there during the Vietnam War and she would always make sure we talked about it and many other subjects. She wasn't just an instructor/trainer, she was an educator.

"Mrs. Crabtree had a different method than the instructors today. It was a different time and children were expected to act a certain way. She was very demanding that you put forth your best effort, but it wasn't anything she didn't expect from herself and everyone around her. She was very no-nonsense, if you didn't fit the program you could leave. At first I didn't know if I had it in me, but I grew to love and respect her so much. I think most all of us that rode with her continued to look for her approval, no matter what we did with our lives. Not only did we benefit from her expertise in equitation, but in life. One of the greatest moments in my life was when I got to judge the Good Hands Finals at Madison Square Garden and she told me how proud she was of me. I was the only one of her students who won a national finals and then later judged it."

Linda Lowary was one of many Crabtree riders to excel. There was also Lynne Girdler, Mary Ann O'Callaghan (Cronan), Sarah Nutting, Lindy Patrick, Randi Stuart (Wightman), Edward Lumia, Andrea Walton (de Vogel), Barbe Walton (Williams), Allison Walton (Macheras), Janet Henry, Jennifer Miller, Dana Lyon, Kate Williams, Linda Fisher, Karen Fisher, Frankie Bird (Purdy), Debra-Sue Giles, Kristy Gruenberg, Mary Lou Gallagher (Doudican), Kathy Gallagher (Coyle), Kathy Noble (Toney) and many others. Some that went on to be professionals or continue in the horse business included Marilyn Fields Macfarlane, Lisa Rosenberger, Mary Angel, Linda Lowary, Debbie Wathen, Amy Barmeier Dru, Judy Barmeier Ferguson, Wendy Waggoner (Johnson) and Jennifer Joiner.

Mary Gaylord (McClean) rode for six years under Mrs. Crabtree, beginning when she was 10, although she didn't reach the level of her equitation teammates. "I was the worst rider, I was the joke," said Gaylord-McClean. "I had a different relationship with Mrs. Crabtree because I was only going to go so far and I didn't have the stress that say Andi and Barbe Walton had, because they had to be good. She tried to help me, but Dad just wasn't going to spend any money for a horse and we did the best we could. She accepted that and tried to get the best out of me. I remember one day I wouldn't hit my horse because I didn't want to hurt him and she chased me around the barn with a broom until I got this horse going. We had a lot of laughs together. The only time I ever won in equitation was when she was away and Charlie took me to Harrodsburg and Dayton. Those are the only three blue ribbons I ever won. Charlie always said, 'Helen is the best teacher in the world, except for myself.'

"One of the greatest things about Mrs. Crabtree is that she taught us by asking questions, making us think for ourselves. You didn't even know you were learning it. She also taught me how to laugh at myself. She was a funny, warm person and she could laugh at herself. I guess that's something I appreciate now more than ever, being able to laugh at myself.

"Mrs. Crabtree and all the Crabtrees have been like family to me for the past 36 years. She taught me about everything I am and love. She shared dreams with me and her family helped fulfill them," said Gaylord-McClean.

Most of Mrs. Crabtree's girls went through a cycle. Former student after former student told of being in awe of her as young girls and then being scared of her as they got a little older and then in awe of her again as they became adults.

"She was my matron of honor at my wedding," said Randi Stuart Wightman. "I am what I am because of her. I was a very unconfident child and because of horses and Helen I was able to come out of my shell.

"She had great ability to communicate with children and she always expected you to do what she said, when she said it. She drew up our workouts like a house and would explain them that way. I don't know how many times she would yell, 'No, no, no, you're coming in through the window.' Helen was a woman with a great deal of force. She wanted to be successful in a man's world on a man's terms. She was very sure of herself. Whatever she said, she made you think it was right.

"As a horsewoman she was great at buying horses for amateurs. She would train for an individual, always putting you on something that was a step beyond where you were. It gave you something to work towards. Many people asked me what it was like showing Legal Tender and I always say, 'I don't know. I was too scared to ever remember.'

"I will never forget her friendship and kindness. I remember wanting to have my daughter Kate take a lesson with her. Kate was at Marilyn Macfarlane's and we loaded up the horse and went to Mrs. Crabtree and she worked with Kate for an hour. It was something I will always cherish." While books have been written by her and about her concerning the art of equitation, it is so apparent that she was an outstanding horse trainer.

"Yes, that's what Mom wanted to be known as, a horse trainer," recalled Redd. "I remember her beating the greatest trainer of the time at Madison Square Garden with Legal Tender. She had another mare named Lovely Sensation that was as good as any horse living. She also had a gaited gelding named Dr. Montgomery that was a cross between Wing Commander and CH Will Shriver. Looking back, some of her great show ring performers included Saturday Night, Mary Deana, Legal Tender, Sensational Princess, Rebel Command, Peacock Peavine, Everlasting Joy, Satin Slippers, June Day, Jimmy Joe, War Chant, Starheart Montgomery, Fairview's Blanchita, Storm Cloud, I've Decided, Jasper Wildcat, City Lights, High Fashioned Sue, With Elegance, Glenview's Warlock, and Mr. Christopher Columbus.

According to Redd, Mrs. Crabtree changed the face of the horse industry by putting juveniles and amateurs on great stake horses. In the old days trainers rode those horses for their owners. She had the foresight to get the young people involved and shift the focus to them. Today we have amateurs showing in the open championships at the largest shows. It was Helen Crabtree who paved the way for them.

"The reason Mrs. Crabtree was such a great trainer is that she was a person who looked at horses' and individuals' strengths and then helped develop those strengths and minimize the inevitable weaknesses," said Mary Anne Cronan. She helped them achieve as much as they possibly could. Mrs. Crabtree was a great judge of horse flesh and of people. She was of the opinion that if you set your mind to it, you could do anything. She helped young people bring the best out of themselves. Mrs. Crabtree always had a curious, active mind and she wanted you to think for yourself and rise to the occasion.

"Her greatest gift was knowing what some person or some horse needed to unleash their full potential. She believed in the value of every individual and every horse. She valued everybody, it didn't matter what their job was. "She not only shaped my life early on, she was also indirectly responsible for me getting back in the horse business. When we came back from California, I had no desire to get back into the horse business, but Jimmy Robertson told me about this horse, Santana's Best Man, that was the last horse Mrs. Crabtree equitated, I just had to look. I'm still crazy about horses and still in awe of Helen Crabtree. She's just one of those heroes you hope to find in your life."

Not only did Mrs. Crabtree have a great influence on her young riders, but her older ones as well. "I had a horse with Redd and Helen was my idol, but I was too old for equitation when I went there," explained Jennifer Joiner. "I went to work for her as an assistant, it was like getting your Master's degree. She expected you to always be your best. She did it right and could think out of the box. If we started doing something a certain way and it worked and then other barns started doing it that way, we changed.

"I also met my husband there and we just celebrated 25 years together. Dan and I both have great memories of our time with the Crabtrees."

"For those of us who lived there, it was like one big family," continued Linda Lowary. "I don't think the camaraderie could ever be replicated. We were always there and she looked after us. We spent summers, vacations, all the time we could. We were expected to live there, but we had our boundaries. My senior year I did an internship, working for the Crabtrees. I got to work horses with Mr. Crabtree and help Mrs. Crabtree do entries and fill out charts for keeping track of 50 horses at the show. I learned so much from them. They also had the greatest caretakers in the world. I was so fortunate to have worked with those guys.

"I think a lot of the reason we were so successful is because we rode and rode and rode. We didn't do lunge lessons back then. She had us mounted on the best horses and the total picture was so important to her. That carried over to our amateur horses as well. Mrs. Crabtree always liked the group lesson. She would pair you with someone who was a little better to make you work harder. We practiced every situation, workouts for every type of ring. We were always prepared. Most of the time we were our own top competition and we still had to live together. Lots of time Crabtree girls would be first through eighth, yet we all got along. She literally raised kids for decades."

Helen K. Crabtree has been inducted into numerous Halls of Fame. She was the recipient of the AHSA Lifetime Achievement Award. She has had the UPHA Instructor Of The Year Award named after her and she has had a trophy depicting her image aboard Glenview's Warlock, presented this year for the first time to the winner of the AHSA Medal National Finals. All of these kudos are secondary to the love and admiration of her students.

"The fact that all of these young people came back and told her she was the greatest influence in their lives provided more of a sense of accomplishment than all of the awards combined," reflected Redd.

Another of her great attributes was the ability to share the glory, to be part of a team. No matter how much the accomplishment might have been hers, it was always done with Charlie and Redd. "My greatest pride is having been a part of their team," said Redd. "We shared a lot and I think this pulled us back together these last few years."

Helen K. Crabtree will long be remembered for many things. She was a revolutionary for women professionals. She was a world class horse trainer. She was an innovator. She was a mentor. She was a friend. In addition to her family she was so passionate about molding the lives of young people and providing them with horses that would give them a thrill and make them work. In closing it is only fitting that it be with her words. She made the following statements in her acceptance speech for the AHSA Lifetime Achievement Award and they are words we should read over and over again because like her, they are straightforward, no nonsense rules to apply to horsemanship.

"I did not come up here to give a lesson. I only wished to state the common goals and results that all of us who ride must understand and believe in," she said. "Perhaps the word 'equitation' should never have been introduced. It is alarming and disheartening to hear professionals remark that they do not care for equitation; they want a rider to demonstrate horsemanship. Let me clear this up once and for all: equitation is horse training, nothing more, nothing less. The horse comes first and it is up to us to use our heads, hearts, and bodies to make each horse be as good as nature will permit.

"My philosophy of training and teaching is plainly fundamental. In fact, my riders have so often heard the admonition, 'Don't just correct. Think back to the cave, figure out what instincts contributed to the error and then you will avoid it.' Good riders react quickly to errors, great riders understand and avoid them."

Rest in peace my friend. Your words, your actions and your ability to see the best in everyone will be a part of us always.

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