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Back When They Bucked with Elaine Kramer
Written by: Ruth Nicolaus< Back to Articles
It all started at the Metro Theater in Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin. That’s where Elaine Kramer saw the horses and maneuvers that would make her famous, to which she would dedicate the next twenty years of her life. The Wisconsin woman was born in 1935 and grew up the middle child of Irvin and Helen Kramer. She and her brothers roamed their farm and the woods, playing cowboys and bank robbers and riding horses. Elaine’s first horse was a pony named Little Beauty, then an American saddle bred, and the farm’s draft horses, which she was able to mount by throwing an ear of corn on the ground. When the horse put his head down to eat it, she’d jump on its neck, then as the horse raised his head, she’d slide down on its back. But it was a chance encounter at the movie theater that determined the course of her life.
On the big screen, Elaine watched the movie Ride a White Horse and was fascinated. When the credits rolled, she stayed in her seat, reading them, and discovered that the movie was filmed at the White Horse Ranch in Naper, Nebraska.
Elaine sent a letter to the ranch, asking about it. An invitation came back to come and visit, so she did. It was the summer after her high school graduation, in 1954, and there she learned to roman ride.
The White Horse Troupe, a group of riders from the White Horse Ranch, performed their act at various events. The Troupe was invited to perform at the American Royal Horse Show in 1954, and when a girl was injured during an act, Elaine was asked to take her place. She was “surprised, excited and scared, and determined to do my very best,” she said. And she did. Her goal became clear: she wanted a horse act of her own.
She trained her own horses and learned how to roman ride, sometimes with five and even six horses abreast, and often with two jumps. After Sports Illustrated used a photo of her jumping six horses abreast, the Flying Valkyries, a horse act based out of Palm Springs, Calif., saw the picture and asked her to ride with them.
Elaine performed with them, and also with a troop of performers from Franklin, Indiana, called the Jinks Hogland All Girl Review. The girls jumped horses, roman rode, and had a garland entry. They performed at circuses, wild west shows and horse shows.
She also worked for two years in Pontiac, Michigan, at John F. Ivory’s ranch, instructing girls on jumping horses and ponies and roman riding. At that time, she jumped and rode a nine horse tandem. Each weekend, Ivory had a horse show and polo games, with hundreds of fans showing up to watch.
Mr. Ivory helped her start her own roman riding team, and Elaine’s first show was the Dairy Cattle Congress in Waterloo, Iowa. She fell off her horse, but only her pride was hurt. Red Foley, who was performing, came to see if she was OK and gave her a hug.
Elaine got her Rodeo Cowboys Association membership in 1955, and her career blossomed. She worked for all the major stock contractors of the era: Harry Vold, Bob Barnes, Lynn Beutler, Mike Cervi, Lynn Knight, Rodeos, Inc., and others.
In 1969, she went to California and worked for Cotton Rosser, spending two years on the West Coast.
Throughout her career, Elaine had a wonderful time, meeting wonderful people and making memories. One of her more memorable moments, in part because it was a near-accident, came in 1964. She was entertaining at the Toronto Royal Winter Fair, the opening of all winter fairs in Canada, with the queen in attendance. The queen’s rifle battalion was marching out of the arena when someone hollered that she was up. The gate was opened before the soldiers were out of the arena, and as Elaine and her six horses galloped in, she nearly ran over one of the soldiers. He never moved, she remembered, as she maneuvered around him. The next day’s newspapers said that she had made a splash at the Fair, and she was invited to sit with dignitaries in the press box.
She never had any major accidents, but she recalled a wreck one time in El Paso. She was roman riding a six horse hitch when the right lead horse fell between jumps. The rest of the team landed on each other, and Elaine fell between the wheel horses, the horses she was standing on. She got up, put bridles back on, sorted out the reins, did her act, and got a big ovation.
Elaine remembers meeting celebrities from all walks of life and doing extraordinary things. She drove the Budweiser hitch, and when Tanya Tucker was in her teens and not yet a big country music star, she sat on Elaine’s lap and told her, “I’m going to buy all your horses.” Elaine had a reply for her: “You don’t have enough money.”
She usually did her roman riding with a two, four or six horse hitch, going over two jumps, with her trademark act being with the six horse hitch. She trained her own horses, sewed her own costumes, and did a lot of her own driving. Her horses: Flash, Frosty, Flicka, Frisky, Fleet, Fury, Fantasy and Fascination were all sorrels with white faces and four white socks, and if they didn’t have the white socks, she made boots so they looked alike. The horses wore white plumes, white harness, and had white glitter on their hooves.
Occasionally, her younger brother Keith would help her. Their parents would pull him out of school and send him to the bigger shows and rodeos. He knew how to set the jumps: nine paces between the jumps, and as he got older, he drove truck for her. She taught him how to haul horses, “yelling at me if I took off too fast or hit the brakes,” Keith remembered. Her long-time companion Dan Quinn traveled with her for the majority of the time; they spent 41 years together.
Throughout her career, she worked the Dallas-Fort Worth Stock Show (where she had a complete wardrobe change for each of the ten performances), Madison Square Gardens, the National Western in Denver, the Cow Palace in San Francisco, was invited to tour Europe, and more. (She didn’t go to Europe; the quarantine for her horses would have taken too long).
In 1974, she decided to call it quits. One of her horses had passed, and the two wheel horses were getting old. Her knees were bad, and it was time to stay home. Her last performance was in Omaha at Ak-Sar-Ben, where one of her horses came up lame. The veterinarian gave him a shot of cortisone to get him through the show, and the horses were “flawless,” Elaine said. As she styled around the arena for one last round, she got a standing ovation. “My horses pranced out of the arena, as though they knew it was their last performance.” Later, the veterinarian told her if he’d known how dangerous her act was, he wouldn’t have let her ride. She told him, with his help, she had made another safe ride, her last ride.
“After twenty years of training, feeding, washing and hauling horses and driving many miles, fixing harnesses, sewing sequins on costumes, I concluded I would definitely do it all again,” Elaine said.
Her career came full circle when, in 1974 at the Metro Theater in Prairie du Chien where it all started, Elaine watched the movie The Great American Cowboy starring Larry Mahan, where a cameo appearance of her act was included.
After her two decades, she came back to Prairie du Chien to help with her parents’ beef farm. She started a trailer park which she still oversees. Her parents have passed, and now her great-nephew David Kramer runs the farm. The circle may be coming back around; a few months ago, when Elaine was visiting David and his family, she witnessed his two-year-old daughter standing on her rocking horse, just like her great-aunt did years ago.
Elaine is a 2005 Cowgirl Honoree in the National Cowgirl Hall of Fame and Museum. Her brothers: Keith and Russell, live in Wisconsin, and she has two nieces and two nephews.
She doesn’t regret a minute of her career. “I never expected what a satisfying fulfillment it would be.”