Dick Solmssen: Education in the saddle

Thursday, August 2nd, 2012
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“I learned a lot from horses – probably more from horses than from anything else,” said equestrian, musician and teacher Dick Solmssen of Waimea. “To be patient. To have no expectations about instant gratification. A step-by-step, metered approach to achieving what I want to achieve. That may be why I’m still in one piece.”

Solmssen began the horse program at Hawaii Preparatory Academy (HPA) in 1958, while he was a young Latin and English teacher. He stopped teaching in 2010 after 53 years, although he continues to run the horse program. Solmssen will receive the Hawaii Island Humane Society’s (HIHS) “Mana Award” at its 2012 Hawaii Horse Expo on August 12 at the Paniolo Preservation Society’s Paniolo Heritage Center at Pukalani Stables in Waimea. Presented by Veterinary Associates and HIHS, the third annual Mana Award is named in honor of a rescued mare who lived her final months in HIHS’s Waimea shelter.

“The award is based on education, because most abuse is based on lack of knowledge,” said event organizer Nancy Jones. “It goes to someone who has been a powerhouse in the education area, who has sought to enlighten young people about the treatment of horses and the sensitive nature of horses.” Jones owns and operates a sanctuary for 15 horses, soon to be 16 when their pregnant mare gives birth.

“The main purpose of the Horse Expo is educating people about the way horses need to be treated and to stop abuse,” Jones said. “Dick, with many, many years of experience, is an ideal candidate.”

“At first, I had borrowed horses from Jimmy Spencer,” Solmssen said. “Jimmy figured out he only needed horses one or two times a year for branding.” The arrangement proved to be a win-win and Solmssen would haul the horses back and forth in a converted pre-war International garbage truck.

“Then Parker Ranch started selling 3-year-old ‘grade’ horses—not halter broken or anything—for $250,” Solmssen said.

Parents would donate the $250 for a horse, but selection was literally “the luck of the draw,” as the horses’ mothers were not known.

“One was a Mauna Kea mare named Amaryllis,” said Solmssen, “Her father was a mustang bred to a Percheron mare. So she was one-quarter mustang – with feet like steel—and she never got tired. The 22 horses we have now are all descended from her.”

As a result of their steel-toed great-grandmother, none of the 22 HPA horses are shod, and Solmssen takes care of trimming their hooves himself—in addition to the myriad other chores and responsibilities of the horse program.

“I just make sure to get the horses, breed them—we’re in our third generation now—raise them, train them, make sure they stay good,” Solmssen said.

When only ridden by students, he said that horses can lose skills.

“Our horses can play polo, jump fences, rope cattle,” Solmssen said. “If you ride a lot, and ride correctly, there’s almost no limit to what they can do.”

Kind of like their trainer, who has taught thousands of students, equine and human.

“When I was 10, I got polio and my parents figured I wouldn’t be walking much,” Solmssen said, “so they sent me to this military riding program called the Junior Essex Troop (a cadet auxiliary of the National Guard’s 102nd Armored Cavalry.) I took to it like a duck to water … In 1949 I won this big bowl at their horse show in Newark. My parents were afraid I would be a polo bum, so they sent me to boarding school.”

After graduating from Darrows School and Trinity College, Solmssen applied and got the job with Hawaii Episcopal Academy, a small prep school on the Big Island. It was a two-day trek from New York for him, his wife and their baby.

“I’d never been farther west than Philadelphia,” he said.

At the time, the future HPA was located in buildings near St. James Church. “During the war, Waimea School was used as a base hospital by the military,” he said. “Bishop Kennedy got the Seabees to build temporary buildings out of Canec (a fiberboard made of sugar cane bagasse) and two-by-fours.”

He has been with the school ever since.

“It’s easier to get to know horses if you trained their parents and grandparents; horses pass on personalities,” he said. As to whether that applied to human students, he said, “No – I’ve known plenty of kids whose parents I taught—and the kids are totally different.”

“He was very good at teaching – I learned a lot from him and he helped me to graduate,” said Tioni Judd of Waimea. “He was kind of like a mentor – and I started playing guitar, more or less because of him. He’s an incredible classical guitarist.”

“I come from a musical family,” Solmssen said. “My grandmother was a Mendelssohn, and they made all the kids play chamber music. Mom played violin and made me play the cello. Guitar was a rebellion.”

He continues to play guitar, including at a recent HPA alumni event in the chapel and a 50th class reunion.

“He was incredible, one of the best teachers,” said Alvin Wakayama who took Latin classes from Solmssen. “Dick was very inspirational, how he made a ‘dead’ language come alive with history and his insights.” Wakayama remembers traveling to Rome when he was in the military. “I could read all the writing on the walls and interpret for my group,” he said. “Ne Quid Nimis—Nothing In Excess.”

“I don’t know if all of our teachers were eccentric or that’s just what we remember,” said Sherm Warner, an HPA alumnus. “He was this laconic, Gary Cooper type, very mild-mannered, and laid back.

“He related well to kids; he treated everybody with respect, more than most adults,” Warner said. “Something about Dick is consistent – the way you remember him in your ninth and 10th grade years – the key personality traits, the things we found admirable then are still that way.”

Hawaii Island Humane Society’s 5th Annual Hawaii Horse Expo takes place Saturday and Sunday, August 11 to 12 at the Paniolo Preservation Society’s Paniolo Heritage Center at Pukalani Stables in Waimea. Events include 16 different clinics by internationally acclaimed horse experts, free museum admission, a silent auction and traditional blessing of the horses. Tickets start at $30 (tax deductible) and proceeds benefit the HIHS Horse Rescue Fund. For tickets and details, visit www.hawaiihorseexpo.com, or call 371-4803.