People & Places

Traveling to 1921: Best budding horseback rider

Illustration By Leif Jones

Barbara Worth Oakford

Like so many of our readers, I recently went to the California State Fair. However, thanks to my trusty plutonium-powered DeLorean (What? You thought that was only in the movies?), I was able to attend during 1921. Long before the State Fair found a home at Cal Expo, it was located outside the city limits on Stockton Boulevard. Back then, horses played a more significant role at the fair, providing transportation as well as entertainment. Equestrian events were some of the most popular.

It was at one such event that I had the privilege of witnessing Barbara Worth, a local girl and budding horseback rider, participate in her first competition. As I took my seat in the stands, I noticed a circle of chairs positioned in the center of the arena. This looked like the much-anticipated musical-chairs competition. Yep, you read it right: musical chairs.

Participants were to ride around the arena until the music stopped and then dismount as quickly as they could and rush to find an empty chair. Whoever was left standing was eliminated. After each round, another chair would be removed, and the remaining competitors would repeat the process until the winner sat alone in the one remaining chair.

That day in 1921, the music started, and the competitors began to make their way around the arena. When the band stopped, we cheered as riders dismounted and rushed to find an empty seat. One down; 30-something rounds to go. As the music started again, in no time at all, the riders were back on their horses. Worth, a 7-year-old girl with dirty-blond hair, had a particularly interesting way of shinnying back onto her horse. Placing the instep of her left foot on the horse’s knee, she proceeded to pull on the mane until she had lifted herself up.

But during the next mad dash for the chairs, little Barbara Worth was the one left standing. She mounted her horse (in her remarkable manner) and exited the arena. She may have lasted only two rounds, but we spectators noticed something special about this youngster.

At the end of the competition, it was announced that Worth would be demonstrating her method of mounting a bareback horse again—at Governor William Stephens’ request. Apparently, the governor had noticed Worth’s unusual skill. Little did he know that years later, Worth would become a renowned horseback rider (and trainer). She would go on to act as a stunt double on horseback (in the 1939 flick Stand Up and Fight) and train world-class jumpers (including Snowbound, who won gold at the 1968 Olympic Games).

In 1992, Barbara Worth Oakford (she would marry Bill Oakford in the 1960s) would be inducted into the Show Jumping Hall of Fame. She called the award “a fitting reward for jumping lots of high fences and being dumped on my ass so many times.”

Worth Oakford’s memoir, My 70 Year Trip to the Show Jumping Hall of Fame, was published with her husband’s help in 1997, the year she died. But it looks like her name will forever be associated with great equestrian achievements. Nowadays, the Barbara Worth Oakford Trophy is awarded for outstanding achievement in non-reining Western competition—a testament to this once-budding horseback rider’s remarkable skills.