It looks like a movie set. Trees border the drive with miles of white rail fences lining the fields, stables and show rings. The smell and sound of horses hangs in the air. The Flintridge Riding Club sprawls at the base of Flint Canyon, surrounded by the gold, green, charcoal-streaked San Gabriel mountains.
Long-haired girls, dressed in riding breeches and boots, lovingly groom the glistening, giant beauties after hours of riding round the ring, training themselves and their horses. It is easy to imagine the girls falling to sleep each night to dream dreams akin to those of young Elizabeth Taylor in "National Velvet."
More than a few of them have had those dreams come true and the reason is Jimmy Williams, champion horseman. The soft-spoken, 69-year-old, white-haired manager of the riding club, dines with movie stars, cusses like a cowboy and has ridden with Ronald Reagan. Williams has been astride every manner of horse in nearly every capacity since he was 3.
He has produced 10 national and international equestrian champions, five who made the United States Equestrian Team and three who were named to the Olympic show-jumping team.
No Small Feat
In a country with so many other sports and in a part of it that does not produce the number of riders that are found back East, that is no small feat, according to Anne Kursinski, one of Williams' students. Kursinski began riding at Flintridge when she was 4 1/2 and graduated to Williams' tutelage when she was 7.
"Jimmy is probably the best horseman in the world, from all aspects--riding, teaching, training. He has great compassion and patience--everything it takes to be the greatest. He is almost always right," Kursinski, 27, said in a telephone interview from a horse show in Virginia.
Kursinski won two gold medals in the 1983 Pan American Games and was picked as an alternate for the 1984 Olympic team. "He is a legend in his own time all over the United States and Europe. When people have a problem with their horse, they always pick up the phone and call Jimmy," she said.
In 1960, Williams was named Horseman of the Year by the American Horse Show Assn. and in 1979 was named Pacific Coast Horseman of the Year. In between he won virtually every major hunter and jumper riding competition on the West Coast.
Born in Elsinore and raised in El Monte, Williams showed horses for his father--a horse-trader and racehorse owner--at Los Angeles auctions when he was a child.
"I learned to ride all kinds because he sold all kinds," Williams said. Williams became a quick-change artist showing 75 to 100 horses a day--starting with fancy hunt duds to show thoroughbreds and ending with Western garb for quarter horses and stock horses.
"Dad carried a handful of rocks. If I rode sloppy, I'd get hit with one. He wanted me to sit straight, like an old Spaniard," Williams said. "He taught me to ride like a gentleman."
At 12 he began racing at fairs and became a stunt man in movies at 22. The handsome young Williams was under contract to 20th Century Fox as a stand-in for Tyrone Power for two years until the war interrupted his movie career.
After Williams was wounded in Italy, he was transferred from the infantry to the 2610 Remount Station near Florence. It was there that Williams learned dressage, a form of training in which the rider is able to control the horse in intricate maneuvers with very slight, imperceptible movements.
"A conversation with a horse is only the distribution of your weight," Williams explained. "You lean forward, he goes up; you lean back, he stops." Williams teaches his students to ride with no hands, getting the horse to respond to the pressure of their legs or feet.
Although Williams went back to the movies for a short time after returning from the war, the "hurry up and wait was too much like the Army" and he returned to his first love--he opened a training stable in Escondido. With the techniques learned in Europe, Williams was able to train horses in half the time.
"It takes three years to train a horse and about the same to train a rider," Williams said, though he emphasizes that horse, rider and trainer never stop learning. "I'm still learning. I'm better this year than I was last year."
"It's what you learn after you think you know it all that counts" is one of Williams' favorite sayings. Fond of proverbs, his own and others', he has them plastered on his horse trailers, pickup, golf cart and in his house.
Decorated in early Will Rogers, his ranch house at the riding club is a small hall of fame, sporting walls of pictures of former students, champion horses and three California governors presenting awards to Williams. He has a wall unit crammed with tarnished silver bowls, trays, cups and chafing dishes he has won over the years.
Piles of Silver
"After you win so much, you don't fight for it so hard anymore," Williams said, glancing at the piles of silver. He gave up jumping in 1974 when he received a spiral fracture of his left leg from a fall from a horse and as a result was on crutches for a year.
During that time another of his world-class riding students, Susan Hutchinson, gave up an opportunity to participate in a training camp run by the coach of the Olympic team. She stayed behind to show horses for her teacher who could no longer jump.
Still with Williams, Hutchinson--called "one of the best" by Williams--is competing at the Santa Barbara National Horse Show, part of the Mercedes Grand Prix circuit. Riding grand prix jumper, Livius, Hutchinson is vying for a $25,000 purse and points toward the Mercedes Woman Rider of the Year.
The Flintridge Riding Club sent 36 horses and 10 riders to the show, which began last Friday and ends Sunday. Three nights will be devoted to jumping competition with the Mercedes Grand Prix being held on closing night.
Hutchinson, 33, does not think she has given up anything to remain with Williams. "I can take advantage of Jimmy's knowledge," she said. "If I am doing something wrong, he is able to tell me how to fix it, sometimes even from the telephone."
Williams' philosophy with horses is much the same as it is with people. He says one can never teach a horse anything with force and they must be taught to jump, not scared into it. If a horse makes a mistake, Williams does not punish him. He gives him a sugar lump and a pat and sends him back to his stall "to think about it overnight. He'll realize it was his own stupidity and not something I did."
Looking across the fields at his world, Williams looks like a happy man. "If I had all the money in the world, I would do the same thing I'm doing now and work just as hard. I get tired, but I feel good about it."