The Unpredictable Champion, Part 1

Unlikely horse-showing star Silky Socks became a world champion in 1974.

From The American Quarter Horse Journal

Silky Socks was supposed to be a rope horse. But the 1974 amateur world champion grew too tall for the liking of ropers at the time, and he found a path to the AQHA World Championship Show a different way, in a saddle that didn’t have a double rigging.

The single-socked gelding with a giant trunk of personal baggage became a world-class hunter horse, remembers Colleen Miller of DeWitt, Michigan.

Silky Socks’ picture appeared in the December issue of The American Quarter Horse Journal, along with his amateur owner, Jan Thompson, then of Plymouth, Michigan, and now of Florida.

Colleen, who sold “Silky” to Jan, immediately wrote to the Journal about her memories of the talented and occasionally difficult sorrel horse.

Silky’s long road to the world championship started, Colleen says, because she had been loaning a horse to a couple of local boys to show in youth classes, and they tipped her off.

“They were such good kids,” she says. “They knew I liked Doty’s Socks, Silky’s sire, and they knew of a horse I would like. They said the horse is going to need some training, but he’s really built to be a working horse.”

Colleen had a real weakness for Doty’s Socks, so she put $500 down for Silky and paid off the rest of the $1,300 price tag - a lot of money in that day - a little at a time.

Silky Socks had been boarded at a hunter stable where the resident trainer didn’t have a proper appreciation for a good American Quarter Horse and didn’t spend a lot of time with him. Silky’s owner’s daughter had been teaching him - inadvertently - how to stop at fences.

What is dressage, and how can its basics help all riders? In AQHA’s FREE Riding Dressage report, the industry’s best horse trainers show you how to get started in the exciting sport of dressage.

“They would play on him, trot up to a bale of hay, and then fall off and laugh,” Colleen says. “An AQHA judge and trainer had tried to ride him, and I think he even got a jumping point on him, but he got scared because the horse actually started running backward.”

Besides running backward when he was being ridden, Silky Socks ran backward when he was being mounted, sometimes falling over. And then there was the cough that turned out to be emphysema.

Silky Socks wasn’t looking like much of a bargain, but Colleen and her husband, Gary, were nothing if not stubborn and hopeful. They put the 9-year-old on a powerful course of antibiotics to help his cough, got him on a healthier diet, and then Colleen went to work teaching him manners.

“I spent several days, mounting him dozens of times, holding and using a dressage whip to prevent him from running back,” she says. “I didn’t have an indoor arena, so I would take him out and gallop him clear around our four-mile block on muddy, dirt roads before I’d even start working with him.”

The first time she made that gallop, she discovered yet another hole in his training: He’d lived his whole life in stables and had never been around insects.

“We had him outdoors, and the bugs started biting him,” Colleen says. “He went ballistic. So I turned him out with the bugs for a while to get used to it.”

And then he wouldn’t change leads behind when he was on a jump course. That wasn’t going to fly with Colleen, either. She got out her dressage whip again and took Silky over a little jump course she had set up in her front pen.

“I brought him around a corner, and he didn’t change his hind lead,” she says. “I took that whip and flicked him in the hocks from the outside, and he kicked out and tore out 10 feet of 5-foot fence, boards and all. But he never dropped a hind lead after that, and I’m still here.”

A month later, Colleen was showing Silky - and winning - in working hunter, jumping and hunter under saddle, then known as bridle path hack. Out in the show world, Silky would meet his greatest competition, Ojibway.

Improving balance, departures and transitions can improve your horse-showing abilities in various disciplines. Learn how in AQHA’s FREE Riding Dressage report.

Ojibway and Silky had a lot in common. Ojibway was a 1963 sorrel gelding. Silky was a 1964 sorrel gelding. Ojibway’s sire was a reining horse; Silky’s sire was a rope horse. Both Silky and Ojibway were stout horses, and they both could jump.

“I owned Ojibway as a yearling, 2- and 3-year-old,” Colleen says. “I showed him in halter and western pleasure, and he was entered in the reining futurity at the All American Quarter Horse Congress, but I had to scratch him when they asked his rider, John Stutzeman, to judge it.”

Jan Thompson, then of Plymouth, Michigan, bought Ojibway for her daughters, Lindy and Susan, to share, but he had turned out to be mostly Susan’s horse, and Jan wanted another horse for Lindy.

“Silky was third in the nation, and he was giving Susan a lot of competition in working hunter and jumping,” Colleen says.

At one particular show in Wayland, Michigan, she says, the two horses were evenly matched.

“It was almost dark,” she remembers, “and we had a jump-off with Ojibway. (Show officials) had to use the lights of cars (to light the working area) because there were no lights in the arena. And they had to use one 2x4 (board) that was the jump. My husband made them turn it so the wide edge showed. Back then, you had to show until someone bumped a rail. They had to keep raising it.”

Silky Socks won, and Colleen thinks that’s when Jan made up her mind to buy him. Jan doesn’t remember it quite that way.

“People thought we were absolutely crazy, buying this big, old gelding for this little teeny girl. I mean, he was big and stout,” Jan says. “I had been watching him at different places. He looked like a really reliable horse for her, and he was so gorgeous over a fence.”

Colleen didn’t want to sell him, but she needed a new indoor arena if she wanted her Michigan-based horse-training business to move ahead, so she sold Silky and a little 2-year-old Poco Pine filly.

“I cried the day the Thompsons picked him up, because they let me show him at a couple more shows in Berrien Springs, (Michigan),” Colleen says. “They were going to take him after that last show, and wouldn’t you know, he went and won the jumping in the open part against the Thoroughbreds, and I was, ‘Oh, no, all I wanted to do was get past the last day. Don’t do something spectacular!’ ”

Read more about Silky Socks in Part 2 on America’s Horse Daily.