IN 1960, Walt Disney won a Hollywood Academy Award for his film ‘The Horse with the Flying Tail’, the story of the best loved show jumping pony in the United States. So popular was the movie that when, over 50 years later in response to public demand, it was reissued as a DVD, it again broke all records.
But what many may not have known was the connection between that wonder horse, ‘Nautical’, and a Claremorris-born emigrant who had been winning all before him on the show jumping circuit in his adopted USA. He was Pat Dixon, member of a legendary Mayo horse owning family, whose name would be forever linked to the movie star horse.
Nautical had started off life as ‘Injun Joe’, a nondescript animal which had shown little sign of promise in his early days. He had been passed from owner to (often reluctant) owner, even suffering the ignominy of being won in a poker game on one occasion, before the successful gambler managed to pawn him off on a fellow card player.
But all that was to change when he took up residence in a stables in Virginia, where an Irishman named Pat Dixon was beginning to make a name for himself on the American show jumping circuit. It was not, at first, an easy relationship. Obedience was not one of Injun Joe’s innate virtues. He was prone to performing stubborn refusals at water jumps; would throw his rider at the run up to regulation fences and, when finally forced to comply, would clear the jump at such altitude that his handlers feared he would never return to terra firma.
Dixon however, recently discharged from the army, had a streak of perseverance to match that of his mount. Gradually, he coaxed the horse to its full potential. Honours began to come their way. In 1951, Dixon and Injun Joe won eight of the ten classes at Devon, the most prestigious show jumping competition in the United States. In 1953, Pat Dixon was named Professional Horseman of the Year for his outstanding series of wins on Injun Joe.
The horse himself was now beginning to emerge as something of a character in his own right. Originally described as ‘a promising jumper, but temperamental’ he was now being referred to as ‘a crowd pleaser - but still hard to handle’. He began to develop a habit of swishing his tail high in the air at the completion of each clear round, a gesture which delighted his growing band of admirers.
In 1955, Injun Joe was sold to Hugh Wiley of the US national jumping team, and his name was changed to Nautical. He was selected for the Rome Olympics of 1960 and, despite the name change, his flamboyant demeanour remained intact, to the extent that there could only be one possible name for Disney’s film - ‘The Horse with the Flying Tail’.
Meanwhile, Pat Dixon continued to play a leading role in the sport of kings in the US. The young man who had left home at 15, who a few years later sailed from England to America with a cargo of horses for an American buyer, who settled in Wisconsin, made his name as one of the outstanding personalities in his chosen sport. Following his death, he was posthumously honoured with election to the American Equestrian Hall of Fame, the first rider to be given the accolade.
And as if to prove that the apple does not fall far from the tree, Pat Dixon was granduncle to Cormac Hanley of Claremorris Equitation Centre, and great-granduncle to Cameron Hanley, the Irish international show jumper.