Saturday, July 8, 2017

Remembering Aiken’s Horsemen 

Johnny Hosang, Consummate Horseman, 1910-1994 

by Pam Gleason

“Everyone who knew Johnny loved him,” says Brad Walker. “I don’t know a single person who didn’t have something wonderful to say about Johnny, and that’s unusual in the horse world. Johnny was welcome everywhere.”

Left: Johnny Hosang, jumping in the Hitchcock Woods, circa 1940.,   Above: With Anne Hopkins and Katie Groat. December 31, 1955. Photo by High Pinney
From the 150s into the 1970s, Johnny Hosang worked for Brad’s mother and stepfather, Elizabeth and Jimmy Burden, first at the Black Stable in Aiken’s downtown
horse district, and then at Woodside Plantation, which, at the time, was the family’s private hunting and shooting reserve. He oversaw the care of the horses, the English Pointer hunting dogs and the foxhounds, and he did it all with expertise, dedication and meticulous attention to detail.

“The most extraordinary thing about Johnny was his ability to adapt to any situation,” Brad continues. “It was just fantastic. You could take him anywhere and he could talk to anyone. He took wonderful care of the pointers and the hounds; he took wonderful care of the horses. They were always beautifully groomed and perfectly shiny. When we hunted on the property, manes and tails were braided, the tack was always perfectly clean – you could smell the saddle soap on the saddle and bridle – and the stirrup irons shone. Everything was always neat as a pin, the stable, the kennels, everything perfect.”

Rob Johnston, a grade school classmate of Johnny’s son Mike and a close family friend, describes him as an extraordinary influence on his life and an incredible presence. “I have never met a man with more charm and wit,” he says. “He possessed a Cary Grant aura of class and style and he was an outstanding horseman, farm manager, polo referee, raconteur, family man and friend. He had an encyclopedic knowledge of Aiken, and his tales of yesterday could keep people spellbound for hours. He was one of Aiken’s greatest treasures for over 50 years.”

“It’s true,” says Mike Hosang, a realtor at Carolina Company in Aiken. “Everyone loved my dad.”

Of Swiss descent, Johnny Hosang was born in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1910. His father was a carpenter, and his was not an equestrian family. But when he was about 5 years old, Johnny became entranced with horses. At that time, the fire engines in the city were still pulled by teams of horses, and Johnny would stand near the firehouse watching when fire calls came in.

“They had the horses run into these special stalls and they dropped all the harnesses on them, hooked them to the engines and then they would fly out,” says Mike Hosang. “Cincinnati still had cobblestone streets, and the horses’ hooves would make a shower of sparks as they galloped. He said the most exciting thing in his life then was to watch them.”

By the time he was a teenager, Johnny was frequenting a local armory where the Cincinnati Riding Club held indoor polo matches. He took up both riding and polo and soon embarked on his career as a professional horseman. Cincinnati had many prominent equestrian families, among them the Fleischmanns (of Fleischmann’s Yeast fame) who employed Johnny when he was still quite young. He continued to play polo, developing a reputation as a formidable player in the number one position, from which he often scored the majority of his team’s goals.

When he was a little older, Johnny took a job with the Wood family. Mr. and Mrs. William B. Wood were both horse enthusiasts. Both hunted and played polo – Mrs. Wood was among the top female polo players of her generation, playing in women’s polo as well as occasional men’s matches. They played at the Miami Valley Hunt and Polo Club in Dayton. That was where Johnny met Mildred Seekamp, whose mother managed the club. Mildred was just a few years younger than Johnny, and they soon fell in love and were married.

The Woods had a horse breeding farm in Piqua, Ohio and a winter home in Aiken, the present-day Green Boundary Club. In 1939, Johnny and Mildred started coming to Aiken with the Woods for the winter season. Johnny would ride out with Mr. and Mrs. Wood, oversee their stable, care for their horses and help their daughter Aileen with her riding. In addition to riding with the Woods, Johnny also assisted at the newly-built Aiken Training Track. In 1942, at the very first running of the Aiken Trials, Johnny led the post parade and acted as a “pony boy” leading the horses to the post before the race and bringing them back to the paddock afterwards. The Trials were in March, and just a few weeks later in April, Johnny left Aiken to go into service in the Navy for World War II.

After the war, Johnny returned to Aiken where he continued to work for the Woods until 1955, when they decided to give up their Aiken winter home. By this time, the Hosangs had two sons, Mike and David, and they did not want to leave the area. So Johnny took the job with the Burden family. Initially, the horses lived in the historic district, but after the Burdens purchased a nearby 2,300-acre hunting preserve from the Spaulding family, the horses and the job moved there. There was a nice little home on the property where the Hosangs took up residence. The Burdens named their new playground Woodside Plantation, after the Burden family’s manorial home in Troy, New York.

Life at Woodside Plantation was idyllic. Mrs. Burden, a Virginian by birth, loved riding and foxhunting and so she got together with some other members of the Winter Colony to organize the Woodside Hounds in the early 1960s. Johnny became the huntsman, and proved himself adept at handling hounds as well as horses. While Mrs. Burden was the equestrian enthusiast in the family, her husband preferred shooting.

“Dad would ride with Mrs. Burden in the morning and then go shooting with Mr. Burden in the afternoon,” says Mike. “He had a pretty good life. Mr. Leithead, who was a joint master of the Woodside Hounds, said to him ‘Johnny, I work all week just so I can spend the weekend doing what you do for a living.’”

Johnny’s equestrian career also included buying and selling horses, mostly for the hunt. He became an R judge for the American Horse Shows Association and used to travel to North Carolina and the MidAtlantic states to officiate at prestigious shows. He even continued to play polo for many years. In the decades after the war, he was frequently called upon to fill out teams on Aiken’s Whitney Field, usually playing for the visiting team against Pete Bostwick’s home team.

He gained a new avocation related to polo by accident one Sunday in 1946. He was at Sunday polo, and the man who was slated to be the polo announcer was overcome by nerves. Johnny stepped in and took his place, acquitting himself like a professional. He was so good, he ended up being the Aiken Polo Club announcer for the next 24 years. He knew the players and the game and he was famous for his colorful turns of phrase. In one game, according to a 1982 article in the Aiken Rambler, he scolded young Norty Knox, who was playing with his father Seymour: “Norty, you’d better drive some of those balls your daddy’s way – he’s still paying the bills.”

There was a sportswriter from New York in the crowd, and the quip ended up in the New York papers.

As a horseman, Johnny was best known as a consummate professional, whose animals always looked and acted their best. He was an excellent and natural rider who looked good on a horse, and horses, like all animals, responded to him well. He was also known for his quiet, polite manners, especially when he was dealing with his Winter Colony employers and their families.

“I remember once, when I was about 20, I came to him and told him that I had decided to take the hounds out,” says Brad Walker. “He might not have wanted me to, but he didn’t say anything. So I got on one of my mother’s horses, a lovely horse, and I rode out with them. As soon as we got out beyond where the kennels were, the hounds took off. They got onto something and I couldn’t get them back. Of course, I didn’t know their names and I couldn’t blow a hunting horn, so they looked at me and they said ‘we’re out of here.’ For two days, farmers would call up Johnny and say, ‘We have one of your dogs here.’ They all came straggling home eventually, but they had been in the swamp, they were covered with mud and dirt. And Johnny never said anything – of course, I was the child of his employer. He just asked me to please not do it again.”

“My dad was a contented person,” says Mike. “He tended to his own business. He liked being in the horse world and his other hobby was woodworking and refinishing furniture. He was very sophisticated in a low-key way, and he had great stories. It made him a very popular person.”

After his retirement, Johnny continued to be involved with Aiken’s horse world. He was a regular at Aiken Polo Club Sunday games and he volunteered to judge at the Aiken Horse Show in the Woods and to announce at the Aiken Charity Horse Show that was once held at Eustis Park. He died in 1994
at the age of 84, leaving his wife, his two sons, and an indelible mark on the Aiken horse community.

This article is copyrighted and first appeared in The Aiken Horse. It is reprinted here by permission.