By Lisa Warffeli and Katherine O. Rizzo (first published in the May 2020 Equiery)
It was a rainy Maryland day in the late 1940s when Bert Lytle pulled his homemade horse trailer along side Edna Griswold who was riding her horse to a nearby show. Bert had been offering Edna rides to horse shows on several occasions but she kept turning him down, stating she found him a tad arrogant. On that particularly rainy day, she said yes.
The two had known each other through Buddington Riding Stable in College Park and Edna had been impressed with Bert’s way with horses, having witnessed him wrangle a runaway at the barn. The story goes that a particularly naughty horse got loose and was running out of the barn with just a halter and lead rope on. Bert snagged the lead rope as the horse ran past and swung up onto its back. He then leaned forward, placed his hand over the galloping horse’s nose and the horse stopped when it could not breathe properly. Edna was finally impressed.
They were married in 1955 and over the past 65 years have touched so many aspects of Maryland’s equine community, from building horse trailers to supplying the jumps for the Washington International Horse Show to producing top quality show ponies. With head-strong personalities and Bert’s clever wit, the Lytles have become a Maryland institution of their own, passing on their skills and knowledge to their two daughters, Sandy and Cindy, as well as the countless horses and riders who have come under their guidance.
A Homemade Trailer
Bert was born in Pittsburgh, PA, and moved to the Takoma Park area early on in life where his mother ran a boarding house. Horses became an interest of his and when he was 15, he used the money he earned from selling newspapers and cutting lawns to buy his first horse. From that point on, horses became the focal point of Bert’s life although he worked for the U.S. Government in the Division of Forest Pathology.
With best friend Bernard Synovec, Bert worked in Beltsville, experimenting with chestnut tree survival. It was Bert and Bernard who grafted the Chinese and American chestnut trees after discovering that Chinese chestnut trees had a resistance to blights. American chestnut trees survive today because of their discovery!
During this time, Bert discovered he had a talent for building things, specifically horse trailers. In those days, very few people owned horse trailers and instead would ride their horses to shows and other activities. Those who did have trailers built them or if they had the funds, purchased trailers from places like Hartman Trailer Company in Pennsylvania. Bert looked at several homemade trailers as well as the ones Hartman produced and built his own. This became Bert’s first step into the horse industry as a career as he began hauling not just his own horse to local shows and fox hunts.
Edna on the other hand was an “Army brat” traveling around the country with her family. Her father was top marksman and army rifle expert Army Colonel Harland Griswold. After completing his military career, Colonel Griswold became the Assistant Dean at the University of Maryland, College Park campus.
Edna saved the money her parents gave her for lunch to buy her first horse and quickly became a gifted rider. She rode at Buddington Riding Stable and competed their horses in hunters and jumpers. After being spotted by Colonel Rene Studler at a Washington Bridle and Trail Association show, Edna was invited to teach at Pegasus Stable.
Bert and Edna did not cross paths until Edna’s college years attending the University of Maryland. Bert taught a farrier course at UMD before being drafted into the U.S. Marine Corps during the Korean War. By this point, Bert had expanded his hauling business and also built a bigger trailer to accommodate more horses, as more equestrians were hiring him to transport their horses to shows.
But the horse hauling business had to be put on hold while he headed to Parris Island for boot camp. From there, Bert was stationed at Cherry Point, NC, and, still keen on Edna, would travel back to College Park on weekends to see her.
Training for the Marines
While traveling back and forth from Cherry Point to College Park, Bert found out that the Marine Corps had a stable at its base in Quantico, VA. Intrigued, Bert made a detour one trip and found the stables, along with a frustrated Warrant Officer. The Warrant Officer confided in Bert, telling him that few of the Marines assigned to the stables knew much about horses. Bert offered to help and soon the two were communicating on a regular basis, with Bert offering advice and tips whenever he could.
Bert laughed telling the story of riding out with the Commanding General one day in civilian clothes and the General having no idea what Bert’s rank was or even who he was in relation to the base. The two quickly became friends.
The day came when Bert got orders that he was to ship out to Korea. He broke the news to Edna, who told her father, Colonel Griswold. Shortly after, Bert’s orders were changed and he was assigned to the Quantico stables. To this day, no one truly knows who changed the orders but thankfully, Bert remained stateside and was once again immersed into the horse world.
Approximately 60 horses were stabled at Quantico and were owned by various officers. Despite the fact that Bert was an enlisted man, he was allowed to stable his horse there as well. He took his horse to Quantico in the horse van he had built out of a Sears Roebuck delivery truck, which quickly drew notice. Some officers liked to fox hunt with Bull Run Hunt, so every Saturday, Bert would put their horses in his van and head out hunting. Because they were in the military, they did not have to pay to join the hunt, and the officers gave Bert gas money for the trip.
Hauling More than Just Horses
After Bert was discharged from the Marines, he went back to hauling horses and saw the need for a bigger trailer. At the time, no one was building what we would consider commercial size trailers. With the help of friend and farrier Jim Burgholzer, Bert built a six-horse trailer from a furniture van. Together they started a business building and repairing trailers for others.
Even today, at 90 years old, Bert still repairs and builds trailers… on his own time. “I will fix a trailer at my leisure but I’m not guaranteeing anyone a completion date,” he said with a twinkle in his eye. He also jokes about what he calls the “necessity rate” for hauling horses. Basically, if you hired him to haul your horses and you simply let him do everything, there was one rate. If you decided you needed to help him, he added to his charge. Now, if you also decided to provide instruction on how to handle your horse to get it on the trailer, well Bert added again to the rate out of necessity.
While Bert’s transportation business galloped along, he began developing a whole new business building horse show jumps. Like his horse transportation business, the jump business came out of identifying a need and having the skills to meet that need.
It was the mid 1960s and Bert and Edna were members of the Bit & Spur Riding Club. The club hosted a show every year and had to rent jumps from other horse shows. Bert suggested to fellow member John Ammerman that they start building their own jumps. The two quickly went into business together, founding “Ammerman and Lytle” in 1967 and became known for their elaborate designs. This was at the time when Grand Prix show jumping was just becoming popular and Bert and John’s jumps were highly sought after.
Colonel Studler, who was a member of the WBTA, noticed their jumps and asked to borrow the jumps for WBTA shows. In the 1960s, Colonel Studler was also the Executive Vice President of the Washington International Horse Show. He hired Bert and John to refurbish and spruce up WIHS’s jumps. They ended up building the entire course and would rent the jumps to WIHS each year.
Over the years, Bert and John hauled their jumps all over and were featured at important shows, including the 1976 Pan American Games in Puerto Rico, 1984 Olympics in Los Angles and the 2010 World Equestrian Games in Kentucky.
Bert sold his portion of the business in the early 1980s to Chuck Kinney of Ohio, but stayed on for another five years to help ease the transition to new ownership. However, the WIHS jumps, as well as the arena wall, are still stored to this day at the Lytle’s Otasaga Farm in Dickerson and hauled to DC each October.
The Business of Ponies
While Bert was hauling and building jumps and trailers, Edna was making a name for herself as a rider and trainer. Edna rode at the major shows, such as WIHS where she competed Gypsy Jinks. The Lytles stood a few stallions, broke Thoroughbred racehorses and bred show hunters, but it was the ponies that became Edna’s passion and niche in the horse world.
Edna graduated from UMD with a degree in journalism. She wrote for The Washington Post, sitting at horse shows with her typewriter and reporting on who won what. But she had higher ambitions than just horse shows and wanted to “chase fires” to report on the hard news stories of the time. This was considered very un-lady like and the Washington Post kept her on horse shows until she quit.
Having a knack for numbers, she moved on, and worked at Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab for some time and was part of the staff that launched the Polaris Missile in 1960.
With daughters Sandy and Cindy growing up in the equestrian community, Edna turned her attention solely on horses and became a full time trainer. She was often searching for the right ponies for the girls to compete. As the girls would grow out of their ponies for one reason or another, they just could not let go and sell them! To solve this “problem,” Edna basically invented the business of leasing ponies. “There were a lot of professionals out there that were not happy with my mom,” Cindy explained, “she was cutting into their sales profits by leasing ponies instead of selling them.”
Sometimes it was not the fanciest pony that was the most valuable either. Often, the steady eddy type would be the pony with the longest career, being leased by generations of children. Many current trainers will agree that today, a good pony can be worth more in years of leasing to the right homes than a one time sale!
Edna had a good eye for quality ponies and had been keeping an eye on the Fox Hollow Singing Star ponies. In 1978, she earned the contract on these ponies and the Lytles were sent eight to 12 yearlings a year to break and train into show ponies. The contract lasted several years, with the girls working with 60 or more ponies. Some Edna would sell, some would be leased and other times trades would come through the farm, with Edna always being sure the pairing of kid and pony was suitable.
Clydesdales and Arabians
The number of top quality horses and ponies to come through the Lytle’s farm over the years is too many to mention. There were the homebred hunters like The Woodsman and Sportsman. There was Jingo, a horse with a troubled past that Bert bought while he was in the Marines, and then all the Fox Hollow Singing Star ponies. But there were also the famed Budweiser Clydesdales and Arabian racehorses that spent some time with the Lytles.
Bert met Anheuser Busch at Madison Square Garden where Busch wanted to buy all the jumps they had at the Garden, plus some Bert and John had stashed away in reserve. After some back and forth haggling on pricing and delivery fees, something that Busch was not accustomed to doing, Bert loaded everything up and drove from New York City to the Busch farm in St. Louis.
He ended up having lunch with Busch, and touring his safari park. The two kept in touch over the years and at the 1975 WIHS, a young Cindy rode Jeffery, a Budweiser Clydesdale wheel horse in a pony class. Bert laughed remembering ponies running in all directions to get away from the huge Clydesdale.
The Lytles have since hosted the famed Clydesdales on more than one occasion while the horses were touring the area. Bert was even able to drive a team of four while they were at the Lytle’s farm.
So where do Arabians fit into all of this? The Arabians were an idea of Bazy Tankersley, who was the top Arabian breeder in the 1960s and had her main farm, Al-Marah Arabians, in Barnesville. Her daughter was riding with Edna, and Bert would transport her horses. Bazy wanted to race her Arabians and sent them a few to condition and get ready for racing. Betty Webb was already riding the Thoroughbred racehorses at the Lytle’s so she became jockey for these Arabians as well.
Somehow, Bazy was able to get an Arabian race schedule at Laurel Park and Bert arrived with a van full. He remembers most of the track officials turning their noses up at the Arabians but quickly changing their minds when they saw the wealthy owners flooding to the track to watch their horses run.
It just goes to show you, smart people with passion, dedication and ideas can shape an industry and community in so many ways.