By Chandler Gory
It’s like a scene out of a Disney movie—10 or so children on horseback, trotting along lush pathways behind their fearless leader. You can imagine the laughter, the smiling faces, the sheen of sweat on the horse’s coats.
This was the typical Saturday morning for the young equestrians who attended the Mountain Brook Riding Academy near the Country Club of Birmingham. The stable and academy were owned by Dr. Gibson, a local veterinarian, and Ed Gomien was the manager and riding instructor.
Today many of these routes are walking trails, but starting in the 1920s they were reserved for horses.
The bridle trails wound through Crestline, past the Mountain Brook Country Club and what is now Old Leeds Road. Developed by the Jemison Company in the mid-1920s, an advertisement for the trails boasts “on Mountain Brook bridle paths horseback riders can see nature in many different moods. Twenty-five miles of turfy trails wind through wooded hills, cross lovely country roads, follow along field edges, skirt the banks of rippling streams.”
There were 15 trails to choose from, and though many of the serious riders had their own horses, people wanting to enjoy the trails could rent horses from the riding academy.
June Jaynes Garza, now 99 years old, rode at the academy back in the 1930s, when Mountain Brook was a budding community on the outskirts of Birmingham. She remembers the Saturday morning rides fondly.
“It was healthy for one thing, to keep us out and riding and exercising, and the other, it was very nice for kids from 6 to 7 to 10 to 12,” June says. “We had a good time, and enjoyed it. And oh, we loved Mr. Gomien—he was the one from Cincinnati—he was very patient for one thing, and a good instructor and he would lead us on many of the trails.”
A Mr. Kirkpatrick sometimes led the Saturday morning rides too. Kirkpatrick was a former member of the U.S. Calvary, but June makes a point to say he wasn’t a Rough Rider.
June was among the youngest to ride at the academy, spending most of her childhood there.
“I tell people I grew up in a barn, and I almost did, because if I wasn’t in school, I was in the barn. It was a healthy life,” June says. “It was, you know, I could’ve been in much worse places.”
Susan Hutson also rode on the bridle trails, though she trained at and boarded her horse at Mary Leonard’s stables on Leach Drive in Crestline. Leonard owned a large piece of land, complete with a barn, stables and riding ring. She eventually sold it in the early 1960s and moved to Leeds.
Like at the Mountain Brook Riding Academy, Leonard also had a cadre of children under her wing. Hutson rode with Leonard while she attended Mountain Brook Junior High in the 1950s. In yellowed newspaper clippings carefully preserved from her childhood, you can see Hutson sitting astride her horse, Derby Bourbon, smiling.
“We were just sort of like a family, and I think it taught us a lot more, it taught us values and how to work hard and achieve things,” Hutson says. “I mean, it was a great experience during the junior high years to have the discipline of the training program, and so, I guess it’s like any sports…that’s what you get out of it: the friendships.”
Hutson says she and the children that rode with Leonard would often get finished riding on Sunday and pile in the back of Leonard’s truck for a trip to Golden Rule, where they’d enjoy a barbecue together.
Hutson, like June, says she loved horses from a very young age. Before she started riding with Leonard, Hutson’s parents would take her to dude ranches and up to the Great Smoky Mountains to ride horses during the summer.
“I have a postcard somewhere, where my brother wrote a postcard home to our grandparents and said you know, that he thought I was crazy: ‘We went horseback riding and Susan talked the whole time to the horse,’” Hutson says, laughing. “I was just always drawn to it, and I think most people that you talk to that had horses. I mean it’s just something that you’re born with a love for them.”
Hutson and June, like many other children in Mountain Brook, spent her childhood on the intricate network of bridle trails under the hot Alabama sun, enjoying her friends’ company and training for horse shows across the state.
“It was a healthy life, and it was a good thing for children to do on Saturday morning,” June says. “It kept them out of trouble.”
Editor’s Note: Thanks to Blair Cox, Susan Little Hutson, Erin Hutchinson and June Jaynes Garza for sharing their family’s photos, memorabilia and memories for this story.