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