Secret History: The Fascinating Story of Nautical, a Palomino Show Jumper with a Golden Career
Noelle Maxwell researches the life of a 1950s international show jumping star.
When most think of famous palomino horses, they think of Trigger or Mr. Ed. They don’t think of Nautical, a show jumper who qualified for the 1960 Olympics and starred in The Horse with the Flying Tail, a Disney movie about his life (watch the trailer here). Nautical deserves to be just as well-known as Trigger or Mr. Ed, because he wasn’t just a horse playing a fictional TV character, he was real.
Nautical was born in New Mexico in 1944, and was at one point owned and trained by a Col. Anderson Norton and his daughter Sue. Otherwise, his history is mostly unknown. He bounced from place to place, home to home, but unlike the movie claims, it doesn’t seem like he was abused. His pedigree is as unknown as his early life, his sire was a quarter horse named Mucacho De Oro. His dam might’ve been a TB/cross named Lula Lee or Play Pretty. She was descended from Reno Dart, a thoroughbred supposedly bred by the US Army remount service. Nautical was officially registered as Peter De Oro, but was originally shown as Injun Joe.
Hugh Wiley became a member of the USET in 1950 as an alternate for the international shows held in the United States. Ironically, in his first international level competition he competed as a temporary member of Ireland’s team. Apparently, some members of Ireland’s team were injured and they didn’t have enough riders to compete. The US offered to loan a rider to Ireland, and drew names to decide who competed. Hugh was one of the Americans competing, and Ireland ended up winning the competitions that year.
Fast forward to 1955, Hugh gets a phone call from the executive vice president of the USET asking if he could compete with the team in Europe in a month. Hugh says yes, and was told he’d need two horses to compete. At the time he had one horse who was barely good enough to compete, though he didn’t tell the USET vice president that. Hugh calls a friend for help finding a horse, and is told to check out Nautical, still known as Injun Joe. Hugh had actually seen Nautical before, but thought he seemed like a difficult horse. Nautical had won some shows but not consistently.
Hugh went to see Nautical again at a show in Pennsylvania, but wasn’t considering buying him. After watching the horse in one class, he knew he had to get him. His jumps were unbelievable — he’d jump two feet over the biggest oxer after leaving out a stride. He was a described as a crowd-pleaser, fun to watch, but tough to ride. In a few days, Nautical had a new home.
At first, Hugh thought Nautical was completely nuts. He’d been told Nautical thrived on work, but when he worked him the horse exploded if he saw a jump. On the ground though, Nautical was gentle. Hugh had two horses, and headed to New Jersey to meet up with coach, Bert De Nemethy, and the team at a farm owned by Arthur McCashin.
They arrived in New Jersey, and Hugh thought Nautical would the worst horse on the team. Once, the coach wanted to watch the horses jump a water jump and bank jump. Nautical refused both, until McCashin stood behind him with a whip. Then he jumped so high Hugh thought they’d never land.
Though everything else that day was a disaster, De Nemethy thought Nautical had potential. Over several months, all Nautical did was flatwork. He became easier to handle, but was still unpredictable. He’d take off at a jump, ignoring the rider.
While training for the 1956 Olympics, Nautical developed a sand crack on his left front hoof. The vet had to cut off most of the hoof so it’d heal. De Nemethy worked with Nautical once his hoof grew back enough and things were working out. Nautical was finally settling down.
Here’s a chart of Nautical’s career — his career as a USET horse spanned six years:
Video: Original footage of Bert de Nemethy’s first core U.S. Show Jumping Team, consisting of Bill Steinkraus, George Morris, Frank Chapot and Hugh Wiley. Shots of Nautical are scattered throughout… fast forward to around 6:35 to watch a show jumping round.
Nautical retired in 1960, though the official ceremony was held in 1961 at the National Horse Show. He was 17 when officially retired. He competed some in late 1960, but when he fell landing from a big jump, the decision was made to retire him. He passed away six years later; his retirement was spent just being a horse. He lived at the USET training center in NJ then moved back to Hugh’s farm in Maryland. He was around 23 when he passed away.
A Note from the Author: I first heard of Nautical about a year ago while flipping through an issue of Practical Horseman. I saw something about a palomino showjumping horse being inducted into the Hall of Fame and thought there might be a story there. I started researching Nautical because my horse is a palomino and I just thought it seemed cool that there was a palomino that was an Olympic level show jumper.
I’ve spent a little over a year researching this, just because I thought the horse seemed like he had a story and I couldn’t believe no one had ever written a book or a short story about this horse. I’d like to thank Lorraine Blake at the Show Jumping Hall of Fame, because she responded to my email even though I think my first email might’ve sounded a tad crazy and managed to hunt down the chapter about Nautical that was in the USET Book of Riding and was written by Hugh Wiley, which was helpful in confirming whether or not the Disney version of Nautical’s life story was true.
Other than that my main source for info was old Sports Illustrated articles that somehow miraculously made it into the online archives despite the fact that they were from the late 1950s, Hugh Wiley, Nautical’s rider, was even on the cover of one issue.
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