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A Horseman’s Horseman - Marty Mueller

by Bob Funkhouser

There are horsemen and then there are HORSEMEN. French Lick, Ind.’s Marty Mueller was the latter.

Like many of the truly great ones, he didn’t know he was larger than life although those who were closest to him and those who only knew partially of his legend held him in the highest esteem. His commanding presence left those around him in awe, humbled and wanting to please the teacher more than anything for it was the teacher in him that escalated the late Marty Mueller to the "great" category. Teaching applied to both horses and humans alike.

Mueller lived a full 96 years, his adolescent days spent around the famed West Baden Springs Hotel in the resort area of Indiana known as "The Valley." His father was the head gardener there and Mueller’s interest was attracted to the famed Saddlebred trainer L.S. Dickey’s French Lick Springs Resort Stables which trained and sold horses and gave trail rides to the hotel guests. Mueller started out as a groom and then graduated to taking guests on rides. Following high school, Mueller returned to L.S. Dickey and really learned his trade.

"Marty was a big boy and pretty good athlete. He had a couple scholarship offers to play college basketball but he wanted to be a horse trainer," explained Merrill Murray who grew up under Mueller’s tutelage.

His first job was in Cincinnati before going west to work for Floyd and Ella Mae Shofner. It was there that he started, developed and showed what is still today arguably the greatest harness horse ever, The Lemon Drop Kid. In fact, according to Murray, Mueller told him the two greatest harness horses of all time were two he had and he had them at the same time and they were the same age: The Lemon Drop Kid and CH Sashay.

Mueller’s next stop would be a private job in Missouri where he had stars like CH Stone’s King Lee and one of the great gaited horses of his career, CH Red Cedar. "Marty said Red Cedar was one the few horses who could beat Wing Commander," said Murray. "Red Cedar was an ornery runaway but Marty took his time and got him. He was second to Wing Commander a few times, but never beat him."

Illinois was another stop for the traveling trainer, this time at the legendary Valley View Farm owned by J.L. Younghusband. There was another young trainer there at the time named Tom Moore and another highly noted horseman named Chester Caldwell was the farm manager. Caldwell is the reason Mueller went to Valley View.

"Marty said The Rambler was the greatest Saddle Horse he ever rode," said Merrill Murray, although he said he never got the chance he deserved. "The Rambler was known for having quarter cracks and being hard to keep sound and it didn’t help when Mr. Younghusband would decide he wanted to ride him down the road to pick up the mail."

Mueller told Murray that Younghusband would go tearing down the road racking The Rambler. He said he would come back with blood pouring from his quarter cracks.

"Marty told me they were going to the South Shore Country Club Show which was a big one in those days and he had never been as excited to show a horse as he finally had The Rambler sound," continued Murray. "They were getting him ready to show that night and here comes Mr. Younghusband with his riding suit on. Marty said, ‘We put Pappy on and he was racing all over the place with The Rambler. After the class Mrs. Younghusband told him she would try and make sure Pappy didn’t make it to the horse show Saturday night."

Murray was fortunate enough to soak up much from the master. He spent eight years with him, living with Mueller and his wife, Irene, for a while. There were many great stories he was privileged to. One was the time Lee Roby got hurt and asked Mueller to show The Replica back in the stake at the Royal for him. He told Murray he was "scared to death." When Mueller had his practice ride with the famed gelding he couldn’t get him to trot a step. Roby told him not to worry he would be all right. He showed him in the stake and had a good go. After they stripped, it was announced there would be a three-horse workout and The Replica was one of the horses. Mueller said that he couldn’t get The Replica to move. He tried turning him to the left and turning him to the right, nothing worked. Finally when the other two came around he took off following them and went on to win the stake.

The next spring Mueller was at Roby’s looking at some horses and Roby thanked him again for showing his horse. Roby looked at him and asked, "How did you like your ride?" Marty, not knowing what to say, hesitated and before he could say anything, Roby said, "The most miserable son of a bitch you ever sat on, wasn’t it?" Mueller laughed and said, "Well, I didn’t want to say anything, but yes!"

Mueller was also the horseman that was called when Tom Moore wanted to see someone ride CH Yorktown. Murray explained Mueller turned him down saying, "If he looked good, that would make Tom look bad and if he looked bad, that would make Tom look bad so I didn’t see anything good coming out of it." He said if it would have been just him and Tom he would have loved to, but he knew there would have been an audience.

"I was really fortunate to spend the time I did with him," said Murray. "I went to work for him as a groom when he was the trainer for Mark Dickey’s Grape Tree Farm in Canada. "I hadn’t been there a week when I decided I was going to hit him up for the assistant trainer’s job. He just looked at me and let me fret a minute before he said, ‘Son, I really don’t need an assistant trainer. We’ve only got 14 horses but if you work hard I’ll be glad to help you all I can.’ One year later I moved to French Lick with him where I lived with him and Irene. I was like a son to them."

Mueller had also worked for Jean McLean Davis when her operation was in Virginia. He had horses like Roses Are Red and The Tempest for her. Mueller was also instrumental in helping Ms. Davis pick out the current Oak Hill Farm in Harrodsburg, Ky.

Throughout his career Mueller didn’t go to shows with a lot of horses. He always took what he could focus on, getting the best out of them.

"One year he took four horses to Lexington Junior League and won seven classes and one reserve," said Murray.

"Anything that I’ve ever done in the horse business I have to credit to Marty," he continued. "I’m so thankful for everything I learned from him about training horses but more so about life. He was such a gentleman and had so much character. Although he didn’t wear it on his sleeve, Marty never missed a Sunday at church unless he was at a horse show. He taught me how to treat people and he also taught me how to act at a horse show. He liked to have a good time, but more so away from the tack room and horse show. He always reminded me that the horse show was the owner’s outing, not yours. Marty loved to have a good time at ballgames and tournaments.

"In the barn I was always supervised by Marty, he never just turned me loose. He studied a horse more than anyone I’ve ever seen. He would watch them in the stall; know every detail about each one of them. Once he was watching one of mine in the stall and said, ‘You’re having trouble with the left side of this horse’s bridle aren’t you?’ I said, ‘Yes sir, Mr. Mueller, as a matter of fact I am. How did you know?’ He replied, ‘He only turns to the right when I cluck to him.’

"There was another time I’ll never forget. I was really getting into working my colts and didn’t want to go to an upcoming horse show. We were only taking five or six so I asked him if I could just stay home and work the horses here. He looked at me and said, ‘No, you better come to the show with me.’ I said, ‘Mr. Mueller, are you afraid I’d ruin the horses while you were gone?’ He looked at me again and said, ‘No, you don’t hardly know enough to ruin one.’ I dropped my head, turned around and started packing for the horse show."

Murray and his other "boys", plus one girl, have all related that there were no magic bits or magic tricks to Mueller’s success. Like himself, it was all plain and simple.

"Marty would say, ‘It’s easy to train; just think like the horse.’ He also would tell us, ‘Every horse will tell you what it wants to do or be if you’re smart enough to listen’," said Murray. "He could do more things with a curb bit and most of it you never saw. The one thing he always drilled into me was that it was fine to ask a horse for his bridle and take a hold of him but you should never forget the three-second rule. When you do take a hold of him, count 1,001, 1,002, 1,003 and then release him. You have to reward the horse for what he has done for you. And releasing him doesn’t mean throwing your bridle away. It might be as simple as releasing the tension in your fingers.

"The years I spent with him were some of the best times of my life. He has had a profound impact on all our lives."

Mike McIntosh was another aspiring trainer who spent a lot of time with the master horseman. He lived close to Mueller and through his father (Jim) met Mueller and started working for him during high school.

"Everything I know how to do right, I learned from Mr. Mueller," said McIntosh. "The wrong stuff I learned on my own. The thing I most appreciate about him is he believed in character in people. To be a good horseman, character was just as important as ability. He had a strong code of ethics.

"What I loved about him in the barn was he didn’t look at every horse and think, ‘How much money can I make?’ He tried to find the best in every horse. Success wasn’t just blue ribbons or a big check; success to Mr. Mueller was how close you could get each horse to reaching its fullest potential. He believed a horse should apply itself and that motion and everything else came through the mouth. We rarely used stretchies. He wanted a horse to go 15 miles an hour but back him up to 10, and not by pulling."

The genuine love and admiration Mueller’s students have for him is strong and awe-inspiring. By listening to their stories you can understand the different pieces of wisdom they most cherished.

"I was the only girl that worked for Marty," said Kim Cowart. "Bob Ruxer told me I should work for him and he said something to him about it but Marty wasn’t interested in a girl working for him. Bob helped me out and told him this one was different.

"I got the job and he put a phone in the barn for me since I lived in the apartment there. He had never had one in the barn before that. He believed it was a distraction. The day was for working horses and he would do his phone business at home at night.

"With Marty it was all about training. There was no pomp. When I was there it was just Mike McIntosh and me. We would feed and clean stalls in the morning and every day at seven, Marty would come through the door and slam it and yell, ‘Good morning!’ He had a large personality.

"It was a different place. He never jogged anything; it was all long lining and riding, a lot of riding. There was a long aisleway inside and the outdoor ring didn’t have a rail on it. You’d ride those rank colts out there with no rail. He would say, ‘They should know how to guide.’ He would do some different stuff, like one time had me ride with the snaffle reins in one hand and the curb reins in the other. With Marty it was all about learning; every day, all of the time.

"I hadn’t been there but about a week and he told me to get the curb bridle for this horse I was getting ready and there were only two in the tack room. He said, ‘Pick one, he’ll learn to wear it.’ He was a big believer in stall bridling also. A big believer.

"He treated me just like one of the guys although he used to call me, ‘the little one.’ And his wife, Irene, was such a wonderful lady. They used to have us to the house to eat all the time. I’ll never forget the time I got frustrated about something and made a bad face. He got so mad at me and made me get off. I had to get off the horse and apologize. I felt so bad about letting him down. It was intense working for him. You were there to learn and he wanted to know, ‘What did you teach them today?’ You know how a lot of times you think you’re just out there conditioning, not with him. He thought a horse was like a child and had a short attention span so you better be teaching right away when you start working one.

"He was just the most amazing guy. He was so confident; never doubted himself. Although he was no non-sense in the barn we would take coffee breaks and he would tell us stories about great horses and trainers. He was also a basketball nut and loved Bobby Knight. He often related horse training to basketball coaching. I wanted to work for the best and getting to work for him and then Donna Moore, I feel incredibly lucky."

The Mueller admiration club goes far beyond those who sprouted their wings with his direct guidance. During his training days Mueller would always help a fellow horseman who had a question. In his "retirement" years, the UPHA Hall of Fame and World’s Championship Horse Show Hall of Fame trainer would spend hours on the phone with noted trainers from around the country who sought his counsel. He was also sent many airplane tickets to visit and straighten someone’s problem out.

Glenmore Farm’s Tom Bombolis is one of those lucky friends. He too holds Mr. Mueller in the highest esteem.

"He was a great friend and mentor," said Bombolis. "When I moved to Illinois to work at Collingwood Farm he would come and spend some time with us and teach me. My wife would get his room ready and he would stay a couple weeks with us. Marty made me believe in me more so than specifically changing a horse. He was a great confidence booster, a hard critic and very demanding. He wanted you to do something instantly and I had complete faith in him.

"We bonded instantly and had a wonderful friendship. Everyone loved Marty. He was like a Joe DiMaggio and he never knew it. That’s what made him so special. He was like a dad coming into our house. We would stay up late and talk horses for hours. The great thing was he could tell you something and you understood it. He wanted to help you. Marty was very generous with his talents. There was no magic to him. He had a true love of the art of training horses and he understood what made a horse tick. Being able to learn from him is one of the things I treasure most."

It’s amazing that such a simple man could have such a profound impact on so many of the industry’s successful professionals. He believed in sharing the wealth, getting as much joy in molding a young horseman as he did having a colt mature into a show horse.

"He was my best friend, a rock solid guy," exclaimed Bob Ruxer. "It was black and white with Marty and you could believe in what he said. He was a tough guy to work for. He demanded a lot but if you were willing to work and learn he would take all the time in the world to teach you. His phone rang a lot for advice and he took great delight in helping anyone who called.

"Few people deserve the title ‘Horseman;’ he was one of them. It was always about teaching. ‘What are you going to teach that colt today?’ He forced you to think like a horse.

"One of my most humbling memories was the day I asked him to help me because I had been working this colt and just wasn’t getting anywhere with him. I said, ‘Marty, I can’t get a finish on this colt the way you do.’ He responded, ‘Do you want help?’ and I said yes and he told me to get off. I did and we kind of looked at each other as I was waiting for him to make a move. He finally told me to get back on and I called for the groom to come hold the colt. He looked at me and said, ‘What’s he for?’ referring to the groom. I told him he was going to hold the colt. He glared back at me and said, ‘You mean to tell me you’ve been working this colt for months and you still have to have someone hold it for you while you get on? You haven’t passed first grade and you want finish?’ That was the Mueller way.

"He put as deep a foundation on a horse as I’ve ever seen. They all cantered. They all stood. There were lots of good, useful horses and that’s why we did so well selling horses.

"Marty was so talented. To this day I don’t know if I’ve seen a horse like Mr. Magic Man as a junior horse with Marty. Very few people saw Mr. Magic Man under saddle and every time Marty rode him he was a great horse, but he was bought as a breeding stallion to cross with our Valley View Supreme mares so he never got to show him."

Like that other French Lick, Ind., native - Hall of Fame former Boston Celtic star Larry Bird - this horseman’s horseman made everyone around him better. And just like Bird, he was also big on fundamentals, effort and being fully immersed into the matter at hand using as much brainpower as physical strength.

"Mr. Mueller" left his imprint on the history of the American Saddlebred. He was a rare breed of unassuming talent and exceptional character and his gift of sharing knowledge and demanding excellence will forever be legendary.

Hopefully for the welfare of this industry, horsemen across the country, young and old alike, every time they get off a horse or out from behind one, they will ask themselves, "What did I teach him today?" That would be the greatest tribute we could give to one of the greatest horsemen of our time.

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