May 25, 2007 — Gene Lewis, one of the great American horsemen of the 20th Century who applied his Western training roots to the jumper world, died April 8 after a battle with lung cancer. Lewis was 82.
Born in Oreana, Idaho, at the age of 11, Lewis went to work on an enormous cattle ranch in the state’s Southwest region. In 1944, he enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Force and spent time in England and flew numerous missions during the war. He entered the horse show world in the 1950s when the show landscape was filled with many all-breed/all-discipline shows. He began in the Western divisions, winning small purses, but he came to the realization that it was in the jumper division that he could make even more. “I could make more jumpers in an hour than cow horses,” he said in a 2002 interview with Equestrian magazine, after being named as a recipient of the Federation’s Pegasus Medal of Honor.
For four decades, Lewis worked his brand of “cowboy magic” to great effect in the show jumping world. It was in the 1960s and 70s that he excelled in his own riding career as a sure winner of many puissance and jumper stakes along the West Coast, clearing fences at seven feet on several occasions aboard a selection of horses. Some of the horses that Lewis competed were Book Learning, Castro and Almost Persuaded, owned by Willimetta K. Day, for whom Lewis worked for a decade.
According to Lewis, it was his keen sense of timing and “feel” with the horse that he learned on the ranch that allowed him to forge such a prosperous and prolific career. He is remembered for his trademark teaching techniques that were the benefit of several generations of leading American riders. Lewis had a guiding philosophy–most horses, when left to their own devices, will figure things out rather nicely for themselves. “If the rider doesn’t mess around with them too much, things worked pretty well,” said Lewis.
It was after his time working for Day that Lewis began giving clinics through the Western U.S. He was well-known for using ground poles to help the horse and rider overcome striding, rhythm and pace problems. “The idea came from Bert de Nemethy, and I added onto it what worked for me,” he said. Lewis gained a reputation for seemingly turning green horses into jumpers overnight.
In the 1960s, Lewis was a fixture at the San Francisco Cow Palace, where he would compete aboard as many as five of the 10 finalists in the “big jump.” Lewis said, “I would go from saddle to saddle at the back gate. In a period of eight to 10 years there, I never had a horse out of the finals.”
After ending his years of clinic work, Lewis retired to his ranch in Modesto, Calif., where he established a sales business.
His list of honors after his “retirement” was long. In 2005, Lewis was presented with the California Professional Horsemen’s Association Lifetime Achievement Award. The next year, his home state of Idaho honored him with Idaho Horse Council Legend Award, and the Idaho Horseman of the Year Award was presented to him by the Idaho Horse Park.
Lewis is survived by his wife, Tish; his sister, Peggy Axelsen of Nampa, Idaho; two daughters, Kathy Papendorf and Karen VerHagen; son-in-law, Jeff Papendorf; and several grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
Memorial contributions may be made to the Idaho Horse Park Foundation c/o of the Idaho Center, 16114 Idaho Center Blvd. Suite 2, Nampa, ID 83687; or the Owyhee County Historical Society, PO Box 67, Murphy, ID 83650.