Remembering Walter Hughes

Several presidential inaugurations ago, the late AQHA judge and trainer Walter Hughes came to the rescue of three stolen sled dogs.

By Christine Hamilton
From “A Lifetime of Stories,” The American Quarter Horse Journal, November 2004
January 22, 2013

Walter Hughes and Skips Dilly, AQHA file photo

An active horse trainer and breeder, the late Walter Hughes showed Skips Dilly to the AQHA Honor Roll western pleasure mare title in 1966. (AQHA file photo)

There are a lot of great stories out there about the internationally respected late AQHA judge and trainer Walter Hughes, but this one has a connection to American history.

In 1981, President Ronald Reagan invited Alaskan Joe Reddington Sr., the “Father of the Iditarod,” to bring three teams of sled dogs to appear in his first inaugural parade. The inauguration committee appointed one woman to find housing for the sled dogs somewhere near Washington, D.C., It wasn’t that easy; the dogs’ handlers insisted the dogs be kept outside just like they were back home.

The woman happened to know Pennsylvania Quarter Horseman and American Quarter Horse Hall of Fame member C. T. Fuller, who owned the American Quarter Horse Hall of Fame horse Joe Cody. When he heard of her dilemma, Fuller told her he had a buddy in Maryland with a farm who’d be “happy” to take care of the dogs for them.

Thus Walter Hughes found himself with the dubious honor of daily throwing frozen fish parts to 28 howling sled dogs on a line in his front pasture in January.

Then, just days before the inauguration, three of the dogs disappeared, including Reddington’s most famous lead dog, Feets. For four days, Walter and wife Nancy endured phone calls from the police, the inauguration committee, the FBI, Joe Reddington, Sr., and the governor of Alaska, all wanting to know the latest on the missing dogs, especially Feets. The couple drove the countryside into all hours of the night on the chance they might hear the dogs’ howls. They didn’t sleep a wink.

Finally, the police called and asked Walter if he could identify the dogs. It seemed that a couple of local kids known for causing trouble had stolen the dogs on a lark; one of their mothers turned them in.

Walter went with the police only 30 minutes away to pick up the dogs. When they got back to the farm, he promptly locked the dogs in his barn. The sled dogs made it to the parade with Feets at the lead.

News of the escapade spread across the nation, and Walter received a phone call from his good friend, veterinarian Barry Wood, who lived in Indiana at the time. It seems Barry had seen something on the evening news about a Farmer Hughes in Maryland and some stolen Iditarod dogs.

“You know,” Barry said to Walter, “that’s going to be the end of your breeding business.”

“What are you talking about?” Walter demanded, immediately on the defensive and sick and tired of thinking about those dogs. “What’s that got to do with it?”

“Well,” Barry said, “Who the heck’s going to send you any mares to breed if you can’t keep track of three dang dogs?”