Carleton Horseback Riding Program 1928 – 1940

By Clara Posner ’22

From 1931 to 1965, horseback riding was one of the largest and most popular physical education programs for women at Carleton. Until the dedication of Cowling Recreation Center in 1965, female students were only granted restricted access to the men’s gym but had no facilities of their own. In response to the limited athletic resources for female students, the Women’s Athletic Association (WAA) was formed in 1920. Multiple members of the WAA expressed interest in horseback riding and petitioned the college to initiate a formal riding program. Horseback riding was available to Carleton students during the early part of the 18th century, but only if students sought it out for themselves, paying for transportation and access to local stables. 

In 1931 president Donald Cowling hired the first riding instructor, Mr. E. P. Curtis, who brought 13 horses to Carleton from northern Minnesota. The horses were stabled at the college farm and were cared for by farmhands and students. Initially, the riding program was financially supported by students, who paid fifty cents for each group lesson and one dollar for each private lesson. After gaining more popularity among students, the riding program became part of the physical education department in 1932, offering regular classes in the fall and spring to upperclassmen. The horses also were available during the winter months for sleighing and skijoring. The latter became a very popular winter pastime and consisted of attaching a student on skis to a horse and being pulled around a ring or along trails through the Arb. 

When riding was first added to the physical education department, instructional classes for beginning riders were offered every day except for Sundays. Instructional classes for advanced riders were organized as part of WWA’s Riding Club with meetings on Monday and Wednesday mornings at 6:00 AM. Only students possessing privilege cards were eligible for membership to the club. Mr. Curtis granted privilege cards to students and members of the facility who displayed the qualifications to ride without a guide. The Riding Club, which would later be renamed the Saddle Club, served as Carleton’s advanced riding group and became more formalized in the mid-1930s. Not only did Saddle Club members have the privilege of being able to ride trails without an instructor, but they were also in charge of organizing and running the annual horse show, which started in 1934 as a fun way to exhibit the skills of Carleton riders. Any rider was eligible to try out, and practice events were held before the final group of students was selected to compete. In addition, the drawing of horse names would occur, giving all riders an equal chance to draw their favorites. The horse show would happen annually on the afternoon of May Fete day. At first, it consisted of a series of games, ranging from tag on horseback to an egg-and-spoon race. These games quickly evolved into more formal competitions, including formation riding, stunt riding, and jumping. Ribbons were awarded to those placing in events and a cup was given to the student who showed outstanding horsemanship. The horse show would continue to be a highlight of the May Fete celebration for the next thirty years.

Photos of Miss Jean Knapp preparing for the May Fete Horse show in 1940, featuring the popular activity of rope spinning.

The Saddle Club would also make annual appearances during the Homecoming Parade, in which a man was selected to play the role of the Carleton Knight, who gallantly charged past the stadium before the Homecoming audiences. He would be accompanied by six club members, who were also on horseback. In addition to these events, Saddle Club would host smaller outings throughout the year, consisting of picnics and weekend trips. Throughout the first decade of the program, riders were described as looking forward to these informal trips that were held at various times throughout the year. Any student could sign up, but they were only selected if they were one of the first sixteen to register. The trips would consist of homemade meals from members of Saddle Club and camping in the arboretum. 

A 1951 Saddle Club weekend trip 

Based on a description in the 1938 Algo, night riding also became a popular tradition among Saddle Club members, describing how “on clear nights one can see small groups of riders winding around the hills in back of Margaret Evans or over the paths.” Even during the summer, there were fun horseback riding opportunities. At the end of every academic year, Mr. Curtis and a group of selected students would embark on a week’s trip to return his horses to northern Minnesota for his summer camp. 

Trail riding photos from 1942 

The Carleton horseback riding program continued to grow in the 1940s, resulting in the construction of new facilities. The first major project was the Prentiss Riding Field for Women, which was constructed in 1941 and named after Mr. and Mrs. Samuel L. Prentiss of Winona. The importance of this facility was described within In Carleton, The First Century, stating: 

The addition of Prentiss Field provided an immediate impetus to the riding program. Extending from this area, some eight miles of bridle path meandered through the Carleton woods and the Arboretum. Riding exhibitions had been held as early as 1933, in conjunction with the May Fete, but the exhibition held on Prentiss Field in May 1942, marked the beginning of a period of unusual popularity for this event. 

In addition, the college purchased their own string of horses that were suitable for both beginning and advanced riders. During this period, the college started to allow students to board their own horses on-campus. Since the Carleton Farm had limited room for this rapidly expanding program, the college approved funding for new stables, which were constructed on Prentiss Field in 1946. These new stables consisted of twenty spacious box stalls, a tack room, and an adjoining patio. The addition of these new facilities and increased popularity resulted in the golden age of the Carleton Riding Program. 

Carleton Horseback Riding Program 1941 – 1965

The Carleton Riding Program in the 1940s was also marked by a transition in riding instructors. Mr. Curtis left Carleton in 1940 and Louise Walraven replaced him in 1941. Due to Louise Walraven’s leadership, the program started to develop into a viable physical education class rather than simply an extracurricular activity. Not only did Miss Walraven play a crucial role in the construction of new facilities, but she also helped expand the riding curriculum. Riding courses were divided into beginner, intermediate, and advanced sections. By distributing riders over a greater number of classes it was possible to have smaller groups where more individual instruction could be given. Depending on the weather, the courses would also consist of a lecture component, in which students received lessons on breeds of horses, stable management, feeds and feeding, and riding theories. Riders in intermediate and advanced sections could opt for student coaching lessons and had the opportunity to first observe teaching methods and then practice them with the beginner class. 

In addition, Miss Walraven also added new rules and regulations to Saddle Club, changing the design of the club to a more formalized, serious activity. In order to gain membership to the Saddle Club, students were required to pass a written exam covering the care of horses and general points of riding. The written test included questions about knowledge of equipment and its care, types of horses, common equine ailments, and stable management. In addition, the student had to pass a practical test on horseback, displaying a certain skill level. If the rider passed both tests, they would start out at the third level and then be promoted to the second and first level as their ability increased. The members at higher degrees would take over the major responsibilities of the club and the members of lower degrees would serve periods of apprenticeship, creating a system in which there was always a group coming up to higher standards and replacing higher levels as they graduated. As reported in the 1942 Algo, Miss Walraven transformed riding from merely a pleasure into a science itself. 

The annual horse show also became more formal during Miss Walraven’s tenure. In 1942, the first Riding Exhibition was held. It consisted of fewer games than the horse show and featured more officially judged events. The exhibition usually started with the Maize-and-Blue Drill, which consisted of sixteen horses, grouped by fours, whose riders would put them through very complicated patterns, circling and interweaving in intricate designs. The rest of the events would usually include Ladies’ Hunter, Ladies’ Horsemanship, Novice Horsemanship, the pairs class, and the Saddle Club class.Spectators came from miles around to sit on the hill at Prentiss Field and admire the skill of the riders and the beauty of horses.

Spectators watching the riding exhibition from the hill next to Prentiss Field (1959)

After numerous contributions to the riding program, Louise Walraven left Carleton in 1947. She was replaced by Leland Page from 1947 to 1949, who continued to develop the riding curriculum and tried to encourage the college to build a space for indoor riding during the winter. Miss Page also made adjustments to the classification of Saddle Club members, allowing only members of the top level to ride unsupervised on trails. In addition, Miss Page hosted special activities, including a trip to a horse show in Waseca. During the trip, two members of the Saddle Club had the opportunity to show horses. The quality of the Carleton facilities continued to improve, with the Saddle Club helping build a fence around the riding ring. Over fifty members of the club helped dig post holes, saw, hammer, and paint to complete the fence in a single weekend. This new fence not only improved the looks of the grounds immensely, but also provided a much safer enclosure in which to ride. During this period of time, the Saddle Club started hosting open houses, which provided the opportunity for faculty and students to see the stables and some phases of the riding activities.

1961 Riding Exhibition, displaying the Carleton riding ring with fence

By 1949, Leland Page left Carleton to finish her bachelor’s degree and Grace Webster became the new riding instructor. Despite being an able instructor and continuing the traditions of the Carleton riding program, the horses were aging and the college funding for the program went down. Based on a description from the 1954 Algo, the May Fete Riding Exhibition had reverted back to games and races like tag, the egg-and-spoon race and a costume class, rather than officially judged events. 

The future of the riding program seemed dismal, but then in 1955 Helen Dalton became the new riding instructor at Carleton. Miss Dalton was the co-owner of Camp Hillaway for girls in Hackensack, Minnesota and she brought her excellent string of about fifteen horses to Northfield every fall. The riding program, already well established when Miss Dalton arrived, continued to thrive under her dynamic leadership. In addition to regular classes and scheduled rides to the cabin, weekend afternoon riding in the Arb was available. 

The yearly show came to be called the Gymkhana, appropriate to the more casual style it had assumed after Louise Walraven’s departure, and continued to be one of the highlights of May Fete weekend. Miss Dalton also worked with D. Blake Stewart (“Stewsie”), Superintendent of Grounds, to make a number of permanent jumps: bushes were planted in approximately twelve foot lines and trimmed to maintain the proper height. Stewsie was also responsible for widening the area adjacent to the stable, making the space more appropriate for beginning riders. Miss Dalton offered a unique opportunity to students in addition to her teaching and personal influence: She hired a few lucky women each summer to work at her camp as riding, music, drama, or sailing instructors.

In the final years of the riding program, as more physical education activities became available to women, participation in riding dwindled. Miss Dalton was beginning to find the long commute from her farm at Lake Minnetonka to Northfield rather difficult and was making plans to cut back on her responsibilities at Carleton. At the same time, Carleton had started construction on the Cowling Recreation Center for Women with its indoor tennis court, swimming pool, dance studio and gymnasium. Miss Dalton did not return to Carleton after 1964 and although the Saddle Club tried to continue, there seemed to be no point with the opportunity to ride. In 1965 the Saddle Club was discontinued, representing the end of a long-standing program which contributed to the development of athletics at Carleton.