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'Legend' Taught Generations, and at 80, Is Still Ready to Ride

July 20, 1997|KATE FOLMAR | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SOMIS — At home on his dusty rural horse ranch, Frank Hyde embodies the courtly graces of a gentleman cowboy.

The plain-spoken man with the weather-etched face coos to horses and charms women.

His turquoise shirt with the opalescent snaps is trimly tucked into gray boot-cut Levi's. Hyde's patinaed saddle bears his name, embossed in leather.

But don't be fooled. This octogenarian equestrian has the reflexes of a twentysomething, and the accolades to prove it.

Hyde is still a fierce competitor in the speedy sport of gymkhana, where riders practically drag-race their horses around barrels and poles and over jumps.

He has trained legions of younger riders to revere the sport and cherish their horses. With his shiny cowboy boots and insistence on manners, Hyde is credited with spiffing up gymkhana's once-battered image.

"Frank's a legend," said Gene Moore, a vice president of the 5,900-member California Gymkhana Assn. "He's 80 years old and he can outrun most people in the CGA."

Chances are, Hyde will take home a trophy or two in next month's California Gymkhana Assn.'s State Championship Show in Hollister, Calif. Entered in all dozen events for the Aug. 9-16 show, Hyde will be the most senior rider in a field of more than 300.

In gymkhana, it is swiftness and agility--not years--that make a great rider.

"Gymkhana is all excitement, speed and handiness of the horse," Hyde said. "Whoever has the best time is the winner."

Right now, time is short. Hyde had to borrow a neighbor's steed for the upcoming state show after his own mare was injured by a horse bite to the back. In preparation, Hyde and Sizzlers Crescent spend most days practicing.

On a recent morning, Hyde began the training ritual he has performed for decades.

He curried his mount with calloused hands until she glistened. He precisely adjusted the well-worn saddle and reins. After warming up the mare, he stuck a boot into the stirrup and swung into place.

An almost inaudible "chck" signaled the start of the action.

Swiftly, they angled through an arena-length obstacle course, weaving in and out of six tall white poles. The pole bending drill lasts 15 seconds, but Hyde's competition speed is closer to 9 seconds.

In the relentless sun of the six-acre Somis ranch, the pair rests then practices again. And again. After more than an hour, the strapping, 1,100-pound sorrel mare is clearly winded. But 80-year-old Hyde is ready for more.

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"I like to ride a new horse in the state show each year," he said. "Once a horse is trained out, the thrill is kind of gone."

This zest for horsemanship reaps awards. Hyde is wearing a belt cinched with a hefty silver buckle to commemorate his most recent triumph--a speed barrels win against a generations-younger rider at the Palmdale Jamboree in May. He has made the state Hall of Fame twice, in 1984 and 1986.

"And I was pretty old then," he said with a laugh. "They said it was a million-to-one odds--that I couldn't make it, on account of my age."

But make it, he did. In both years, Hyde met the stringent criteria: competing in every event in three different shows in the fastest of four speed divisions.

Each year, 35 to 40 riders attempt to make the California Gymkhana Assn. Hall of Fame, but fewer than a dozen make it, Moore said.

"He's a pretty tough competitor," said former Hyde student Cammie Dickerson, a Hall of Famer herself. "And, let me tell you, he competes in AAA+," the sport's fastest division.

A Missouri native, Hyde was raised on a farm and can't remember when he didn't ride. At 19, he first came to California on vacation. Seduced by the balmy weather, Hyde never left.

A salesman by trade, Hyde never strayed far from horses. In Somis, a rural stretch of Ventura County, Hyde and his wife of 47 years, Clara, raised three sons. His children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren ride.

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In his spare time, Hyde led gymkhana clinics for children and teens during summer vacation and holidays. Now retired from coaching, he still conducts informal lessons for former students and people striving for the Hall of Fame.

During lessons, Hyde taught each young rider strict ethics, which the 25-year-old California Gymkhana Assn. has codified: no horse abuse, no foul language, no shorts and no tennis shoes.

It wasn't always this way.

"The image of gymkhana 20 or 25 years ago was a beer in one hand and a horse in the other," Moore said. "Frank is always immaculately dressed when he's riding. His boots are clean and he wears a bolo tie--which is not required. He doesn't cuss. He looks like he's ready to go to a dinner. . . . He has upgraded the sport because of the professionalism he projects."

His students describe him as a patient tutor who stresses safety and treating horses well.

"Good grief, I'm 32, and I've known him since I was 8, but I still call him Mr. Hyde," Dickerson said. "Not that he cares, but it's a respect thing. He was a real good teacher."

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Dickerson's mother, gymkhana master judge B.J. Hohman, remembers the clinics fondly. The children would stay in Hyde's red barn, where Clara cooked in a makeshift kitchen.

"He'd spend 12 hours a day on horseback, teaching the kids what they needed to know," Hohman said. "Then, in the evening, when it was nice and cool, he'd play tag with them on horses. They became easy with their animals."

Although modest about his own equestrian prowess, Hyde is happy to brag about his former students.

"There was a time when I could look up at the state show, and 80% of the top riders were my kids," he said. "That makes you feel pretty good."

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