PHOTO: Tom Bass riding Belle Beach. Courtesy of State Historical Society of Missouri
Horseman Tom Bass broke through racial barriers
By Diane Euston
Cattle were the first showpiece of the American Royal in Kansas City, but it wasn’t long before horses galloped into the arena and became a crowd favorite. In the heart of what was a segregated society, Kansas City’s equine tradition began when an unlikely man known internationally for his gift of training horses became a showstopper.
Born a Slave
Born in 1859 in Boone County, Mo., Tom Bass was the son of Cornelia Gray and her slave master’s son, William Hayden Bass. Likely only about 15 years old at the time, Cornelia welcomed her first-born son. He became one of 60-plus slaves on a plantation 10 miles southeast of Columbia called the Peter Bass Plantation.
The Bass Plantation was known for raising and training horses, and this is where Tom likely got his first exposure to the horse-training world. After the Civil War, he remained on the plantation and worked the land alongside his family.
Around age 20 he moved to Mexico, Mo., where he worked for the Ringo Hotel driving people from the train station. During these years it’s said he started learning how to train with what he could afford–a mule. He eventually found employment training and selling horses for the Mexico Horse Sales Company and learned the business from horse buyer Joseph A. Potts, one of Missouri’s best horsemen. In 1882 he married school teacher Angie Jewell and continued to thrive in the horse business.
The Bass Bit Changes Horse Training
Though a former slave, his expertise was recognized by people who seemed to overlook his race. He was able to train horses to bow, curtsy, dance and perform other various tricks. Known for his shy demeanor and his fair treatment of animals, Bass once said, “Horses are like humans. Some try to learn, others can’t learn and won’t learn. Some are tricky and will wait a whole month to kick the trainer.”
He rarely raised his voice and never beat horses. Early in his career he created as special bit known as “The Bass Bit” that eases the pain a horse endures during training and protects the animal’s mouth. He refused to patent the special bit, and it’s still widely used today.
In 1893 he represented Missouri in the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, quickly earning national recognition. His reputation grew to celebrity status when he trained horses for Will Rogers and Buffalo Bill Cody. Always set on staying in Missouri, it was a call to Kansas City that led him into the next short yet impactful chapter of his life.
Taking His Talents to Kansas City
Already famous for winning horse competitions across the country and in Canada, Bass had overcome the barrier created by the color of his skin. In 1893 he and his wife moved to Kansas City and began training some of the world’s most renowned horses. His “horse academy” was at the end of the Westport cable line in a brick building where he and his brother, Jesse, trained 20 horses at a time.
While in Kansas City, Bass was a member of the fire department’s advisory committee, which was looking for money to send fire chief George C. Hale to Europe to learn more about fire horses. At Bass’s suggestion they held the area’s first horse show in a tent at 15th and Campbell as a fundraiser. This is widely accepted as the birth of the American Royal Horse Show.
Loula Long Combs, daughter of lumber baron R.A. Long, was trained by Bass while in Kansas City. She later was one of the most widely celebrated breeders, trainers and showwomen of her time. In 1897 Bass received a surprising invitation to attend London’s diamond jubilee and perform for Queen Victoria with one of his most famous horses, Miss Rex. Afraid of traveling by so far by water, he declined.
The American Royal
Before the turn of the century, Bass returned to Mexico, Mo., to continue his horse-training business. There he trained a five-gaited saddlebred stallion named Rex McDonald who became a prized horse. He journeyed to Kansas City each September to exhibit his talents at the American Royal Horse Show. The only African-American allowed to compete, he would ride his famous mare Belle Beach before a roaring crowd, starting her out with a curtsy followed by a dance to waltz and foxtrot music.
Bass worked to put the American Royal Horse Show on the map as one of the most prestigious horse shows in the country. He performed every year until 1928 when he decided to focus his energy on training. In addition to training horses for Buffalo Bill and Will Rogers, Bass performed for five presidents: Cleveland, McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt, Taft and Coolidge.
The Death of a Legend
Tom Bass was a champion trainer who was accepted in a sport associated with the white and the wealthy. In his years of showing, it’s said he was only defeated six times. It’s also said he was banned at the St. Louis Horse Show because he was too hard to compete against.
Bass died of a heart attack in 1934 at his home in Mexico. After hearing of his death, Will Rogers devoted an entire newspaper column in his honor, stating, “If old St. Peter is as wise as we give him credit for being, Tom, he will let you go in on horseback and give those folks up there a great show and you’ll get a blue ribbon yourself.”
Bass’s headstone features a photo of him riding his prized horse, Belle Beach.
A Legacy of Horsemanship
Although renowned during his life, Bass was a somewhat forgotten hero of history until 1999 when he was inducted into the Missouri Hall of Fame at the capitol building. In 2008 a 42,000-square-foot equine warm-up facility in the heart of the American Royal grounds was named the Tom Bass Arena in his honor.
Diane writes a blog on the history of the area. To read more of the stories, go to www.newsantafetrailer.blogspot.com