Rural Missouri - September 2020 - 41

FOR THE LOVE
OF HORSES
The extraordinary life of rider and trainer Tom Bass
by Jason Welch | info@ruralmissouri.coop

T

he idea of the American show horse is now synonymous with Kentucky, but it was once a symbol
of Mexico, Missouri during an all but forgotten era
of horse training. The town was home to the most
skilled show horse trainers in the world, and the champion
of them all was Tom Bass.
Born into slavery in 1859, Tom was the son of Cornelia
Grey, a young enslaved girl, and William Hayden Bass, a
wealthy plantation owner and Cornelia Grey's owner. Slavery law stipulated that a child followed in the legal status
of the mother, regardless of whether the father was a slave
or free. As a result, baby Tom was both son and slave of
William. Tom's biographer Bill Downey located the Bass
plantation ruins on Charles W. Green Conservation Area,
three miles north of Ashland.
For much of his childhood, young Tom was raised
by his grandparents, Presley and Eliza Grey,
because William demanded that Cornelia work
on the plantation instead of caring for her son.
Meanwhile, even as a very young child, Tom
loved animals. He wanted to be around the Bass
family's cattle and ride their horses. Naturally, his
grandparents believed the livestock would hurt him
and attempted to keep him away from the animals.
It was an impossible task.
In 1861 the Civil War broke out. To a small child
like Tom, it was something distant, something that
had no effect on his daily life. Reality was quite different;
the collapse of the Confederacy in 1865 meant the newly
passed 13th Amendment would go into effect nationwide.
Though free, the Greys remained on the Bass plantation as sharecroppers. Young Tom began training the Bass
family animals. According to historians Lyndon and Barbara Irwin, by the age of 9, Tom had trained a horse which
claimed second place at a horse show. Tom was disappointed the horse did not claim first but humbly believed
the honor belonged to the horse, not himself. The same
year he taught a donkey to obediently accept a rider and to
canter backwards. His secret to success: He talked to the

animals in a calm voice, always treated them with respect
and never beat or overworked them. While considered normal and proper today, this was the exact opposite strategy
of most trainers at the time.
In 1878, Tom moved to Mexico, Missouri where, according to historian Leta Hodge, he got a job at the Ringo
Hotel as a buggy driver. While his job was to pick up or
drop off hotel guests at the railroad depot, it was how he
handled the horses that pulled his buggy which attracted
the most attention. Using the same skills as he had on the
Bass plantation, his were the best behaved team of horses
to have worked at the hotel. Guests and townspeople alike
noticed Tom's skills with horses and one Mexico resident,
Joseph Potts, hired him to work at his stables as a fulltime horse trainer.
Eventually, Tom purchased his own stables, where he
bought, sold, trained, boarded and taught children to ride
horses. Tom maintained different standards for the horses
he trained than for those he boarded.
According to historian CuChullaine O'Reilly, Tom
only boarded purebloods that would stay in his stables at least 10 months. Furthermore, he charged
$30 per month to board a horse, an unusually
Mexico
high price for the time. However, he would train
any horse that was brought to his stables,
regardless of its bloodline or temperament.
Tom trained horses for numerous Missouri
governors, President Theodore Roosevelt, Will
Rogers and Buffalo Bill Cody. He also took unruly horses which others believed untrainable. In one instance, an anonymous Mexico resident had a horse which
panicked when it heard a train whistle. The owner brought
the horse to Tom, who trained the horse by booking roundtrip railroad tickets to Kansas City for both himself and the
horse. When they returned, the horse was used to locomotive sounds and never panicked around one again.
Horses trained by Tom were consistently champions,
claiming prizes and notoriety the world over. Tom himself
traveled extensively to compete in horse shows; however,
his schedule was not always convenient for his family life.
In 1910, he sent his wife, Angie, a postcard from Chicago
SEPTEMBER 2020 | RURALMISSOURI.COOP

41


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Rural Missouri - September 2020

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