Hold The Reins Lightly
I come from a long line of strong women and every time I have a career high I think back to these women, especially my grandmother, Barbara Huntington Thomas, and her influence on me. Barbara Huntington Thomas was the only daughter of Shy Huntington and Hallie Huntington, both descended from pioneers who came to Oregon on the Applegate Trail in a Conestoga wagon. They had a little ranch, with horses, cows and chickens, in Eugene, Oregon, where we all grew up on Old Coburg Road. Barbara’s parents, my great grandparents, met on a trail ride when he was the coach of the University of Oregon football team. They raised my grandmother to be a passionate young woman who made extraordinary career choices for her time and was a giving person. Her legacy was part of the inspiration for the Be The Good Collection mission of boldly inspiring women and giving back to charities that empower women. Even during her last illness, my grandmother was focused on inspiring others. As I sat by her side, she’d ask me what I wanted to do, especially after my children were grown, and she encouraged me to pursue my passions. She also always told all the women in our family that the most important thing in the world to her was that we “be good.” My mother, Judith Clayton Van, is also a loving and inspiring person. Below, she shares a little of the history of her mother, my grandmother and namesake.
“Barbara Huntington Thomas was from a large Oregon pioneer family who were dedicated lovers of Oregon and the outdoors. On her father’s side she was from a line of athletes, with both her father Shy Huntington, and uncle, Hollis Huntington, included in the Rosebowl Hall of Fame.
Growing up in Eugene in the 1930’s Barbara attended a local dance studio, and acquired the family love of horses. Known as a goer, she was riding from an early age, and in her teens became a prize-winning competitor in large horse shows and events on the west coast. Then in the early 1940’s while enrolled in college, she saw a trick rider at a local rodeo. This was for her! The calling combined her love of dance and movement with her athleticism and love of horses. Though family may have suggested this was not a proper career for a young woman with a bright future, Barbara continued to pursue her passion.
Barbara designed her own career, her brilliant costumes, and her life, not to the custom of the times, but in a way that suited her. A very modern woman, businesswoman and athlete, she was a true original. Her beauty, flair for costume design, and brilliance as an entertainer and athlete made her a hard woman to best in any arena. She went on to become the Rodeo Cowboy Association’s (RCA) World Champion trick rider of 1954, riding at major rodeos in the U.S., including Madison Square Garden, Boston Gardens, and the Calgary Stampede in Canada. Barbara also modeled for many western wear companies, including Levi Strauss and Wrangler, promoted rodeo on behalf of the RCA, and performed on television and in charity events.
After retiring from rodeo, she became a role model for many young women in Oregon. She taught riding, coached equestrian drill teams, and in general reached out to support and empower young people through her strengths and example. As one of her pupils, I remember a particular riding class: I was sitting on a horse, she was standing in the ring demonstrating how to stay connected with the horse’s mouth in the gentlest way. She held out her hand, and cupping it softly said, “Pretend the horse’s mouth is a tiny bird cradled in your hand; so fragile that it can feel your slightest move. To build cooperation and trust with your horse, keep the bit connected to their mouth but let it be a reassurance not a demand, and always, always hold the reins lightly.” Lightly was her way with friends, family and the many students who loved and admired her.“