Hundreds of cheering fans flocked to the train depot in Caney, Kansas, on Sunday, October 24, 1920, to welcome the Yankee Robinson Circus to town.  When the coast and crew alighted from the multiple cars, the men, women, and children on hand to greet them applauded excitedly.  Most of the townspeople followed after the performers and workers as they made their way to the location where the circus was to be created.  In a flurry of organized chaos, canvas tents were raised, the Big Top was sprawled on the ground, men stood over the seams, lacing pieces together, other men with sledgehammers pounded stakes into the ground at breakneck speed.  Teams of men raised enormous poles with combined weight, chanting: “Pull it!  Shake it!  Break it!  Again!  Now stake it!”  At last, the magnificent translucent tent was in place.  Again, the onlookers applauded, in awe of the finely tuned madness. 

The following evening ticket buyers hustled into the tent as tall as the sky and watched in raptured wonder the camels, llamas, zebras, bears, and lions as they were paraded around the arena by trapeze artists, jugglers, clowns, and acrobats dressed in elaborate costumes.  A ring master hurried to his place in the center of the activity and announced the start of the show.  The lights slowly dimmed, and a hush fell over the crowd.  Suddenly, a stunning woman on a black horse emerged from somewhere no one noticed and rode out in front of the transfixed patrons.  Hazel Hickey, known as the Prima Donna Equestrienne, led her ride through a series of trots, pirouettes, and canters before serenading the audience with a beautiful rendition of Irving Berlin’s song “Blue Skies.”  She was adorned in an elegant gown of her own making, her hair and eyes shimmered in the spotlights, as did her horse’s mane.  Hazel urged her ride over to a large box in the middle of the arena and the animal used his nose to life the lid.  A dozen doves raced out of the box and flew to various points in the rafters.  Hazel continued guiding her horse through a myriad of dressage steps while she sang in a high contralto voice.  One by one the doves flew to her and lighted on her head and shoulders and on the back of the horse.[1] 

A twenty-two-piece band furnished the music throughout Hazel’s performance.  At the conclusion of her act, she dismounted the ride and bowed to the audience who applauded appreciatively.  Cheers and whistles erupted loudly when Hazel instructed her horse to bow to the crowd.  She climbed back on her ride and coaxed the animal to raise his hooves.  As the pair exited the arena, Hazel waved to the grateful spectators.[2]

The gifted equestrienne who entertained fans across the country for more than three decades was born Hazel Elizabeth Hickey on June 25, 1902, in Watertown, New York.  Her parents, John and Maude were circus performers.  Her father was a horse trainer and trick rider turned canvas superintendent, and her mother was a trapeze artist who excelled at the iron jaw trick.  She would be lifted in the air by the trapeze supported only by a bit clamped between her teeth where she would swing or spin.[3] 

Being raised under the big top, Hazel was exposed to a variety of animals, all of which she enjoyed playing with and helped to train. She attended Catholic school off and on in her early years but living on the road she was unable to establish herself in any one institution.  Hazel didn’t graduate from high school.  Cast members in the circus the Hickeys signed with were responsible for making sure she excelled in the basics of reading, writing, arithmetic, and geography.[4] 

Hazel’s father instilled a love of horses in his daughter.  He was a dressage trainer and developed the gymnastic exercise the horses performed nightly.  Hazel expanded on her father’s teaching and created dressage demonstrations using multiple horses and riders.  She spent her early years in the circus appearing with a troupe of equestriennes in group acts executing the tricks she invented.[5] 

The respected German horse trainer Max Le Bon spent time teaching Hazel the art of English riding and liberty training.  Liberty training is riding bareback and without a bridle.  The idea behind it is to build trust and partnership between horse and rider.  In her later years, Hazel recalled working with Max as she rode around the circus ring.  He used a whip in his training and was so accomplished with it he could tap her on the top of her hands if they weren’t correctly placed on the horse’s reins.  He would also flick her with the whip on top of her knees or the calfs if her leg placement wasn’t right.  Hazel admitted the strict discipline was helpful in becoming an accomplished equestrienne.[6] 

Because she was versed in liberty riding, a few of the tricks were performed bareback, or resin back.  Riders often used resin, a powdery substance that enabled them to maintain a firm grip.  Not only did Hazel choregraph a variety of acts but she also made the costumes the riders wore.  Using the small treadle sewing machine she owned, and brightly colored fabric and spangles she purchased, Hazel created outfits and bareback pads adorned with feathers plumes, tassels, and sequins.[7] 

By the time Hazel turned eighteen, she was featured in an act of her own.  She found that the dressage basics, introduced by her father, were an important element in teaching horses in her solo act to jump.  Dressage exercises helped the horse feel comfortable with their rider and to trust them.  Once she had the horse’s trust, she placed a pole on the ground and persuaded the horse to jump over it.  She raised the pole up a bit in each training session.  Before long, her horse was jumping obstacles more than four feet high.[8] 

In 1923, Hazel and her parents were working for the Sells Floto Circus, the Lockery Brothers’ World-Famous Circus, and John Robinson’s Circus.  She performed her jumping horse act in all three companies.  The posters enticing people to come to the show read, “Miss Hazel Hickey on Count, Highest Jumping Horse in the World!”  Hazel had always had confidence in Count’s ability.  He was one of five horses owned by her father and the stallion had won several blue ribbons at Southern horse shows.  She was so sure of Count’s talent she entered the mount in a jumping contest in Louisville, Kentucky, in 1916.  Hazel and Count won first place awards in each division of the contest.[9] 

By 1924, Hazel was being courted by a number of circus executives to bring her talent to their productions.  Her highly sought-after act was the subject of many newspaper articles.  “The Walter L. Main Circus introduces to its patrons this year, Miss Hazel Hickey an Equestrienne noted for skill as a trainer of high school horses, a rider of unusual skill, graceful pose, hazardous stunts and perfect command at all times of her mounts,” the May 24, 1924, edition of the News Herald read.  “In addition to her remarkable exhibition of menage riding, Miss Hickey with her champion high jumping horse, trained by herself, gives a thrilling display of jumps over the bars.”[10]

Walter L. Main sold his circus to the Miller Brothers 101 Ranch Wild West Show in late 1924.  The Miller Brothers’ show had taken a hiatus during World War I and at the conclusion of the war they decided to return to the road with a new lineup of performers.  Hazel’s work with the 101 Ranch Wild West Show was short-lived because the show was struggling financially.[11]

By mid-1925, she was on tour with the Sparks Circus.  The massive show traveled by rail and more than twenty cars were needed to transport performers, animals, and sets.  During one of the shows in Iowa in May 1926, Hazel was injured in a bareback riding stunt.  According to the May 13, 1926, edition of the Dubuque Telegraph Herald, Hazel “misjudged a running leap to the back of the horse.”  She fell face first off the front of the animal and suffered a fractured jaw when the horse stepped on her.  She was immediately transported to the hospital.[12]

The following month, Hazel was back in the ring performing for circusgoers at Bass Park in Bangor, Maine.  The Bangor Daily News referred to her as the “charming equestrienne who won the admiration of the crowd.”[13]

In early 1927, Hazel signed with the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus, the second largest circus in America.  Promotions for the circus highlighted the many women with the show.  “Scores of pretty and comely girls find employment under the mammoth canvas canopy of the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus, as circus mangers have realized for a number of years that nothing attracts the public like an assemblage of beautiful women,” an article in the April 28, 1927, edition of the Evening Standard read.  “Owing to the presentation of a new oriental spectacle, ‘The Geisha,’ it was necessary to enroll as additional half hundred young lassies for the ballet.  These girls were trained for several weeks under the direction of Rex DeRoselli, noted moving picture director.[14]

“The girl performers with the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus, which is scheduled for two performances here on Friday, are of the healthy, outdoor type.  And one will go a long way to find better looking girls than the Marin Sisters, Aerialists; and Hazel Hickey, equestrienne….”[15]

Hazel left the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus a year later and went to work for the Sells Floto Circus Wild West Show and High School Horse Act.  Both circuses were owned by the American Circus Corporation and the various acts would transfer from one show to the other.  The High School Horse Act Hazel starred in consisted of a variety of trick horse performances from high jumping horses to waltzing horses.  All riders in the show, including Hazel, wore jodhpurs, full length trousers that were close-fitting below the knee and made with reinforced patches on the inside of the leg.  Hazel made the majority of the jodhpur costumes worn in the act.[16]

Between 1929 and 1930, Hazel lent her talent to the Robbins Brothers’ Circus.  The circus advertised as having the “Earth’s Largest Menagerie” and “Bingo, the World’s Largest Elephant.” 

While traveling with the various circuses during the early part of the 1930s, including the Cole Brothers’ Circus and the Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus, Hazel met a bronc rider named Percy Moore.  Not only did he compete in rodeos but performed in Wild West shows.[17] 

According to Hazel’s grandchildren, Percy and Hazel dated briefly before marrying on May 13, 1932, in Kings, New York.  The pair continued working and riding for Ringling Brothers after they were wed.  Percy participated in rodeos in the cities and towns where the circus was held over.  Hazel would take time from her circus act to compete in rodeos at state fairs.  She and her horse, Perfect Lady participated in jumping contests.  Perfect Lady was owned by the Moore’s friend and parttime employer, Joe Greer.  Greer’s Society Circus and Wild West Show featured cowboys and cowgirls who rode steers and broncos, and who were experts at fancy roping, shooting, and jumping horses.  Greer believed Hazel was the “finest rider of jumping horses in any arena.”  Hazel trained Perfect Lady to jump more than seven feet.[18]

The Moores welcomed their first child, Lydia on March 31, 1933.  Their second daughter was born on June 14, 1937.  Hazel and Percy were working for the Colonel James EsKew Rodeo and Wild West Show at a New York venue when their little girl made her debut.  Her grand entrance into the world made the news.  “It is a seven-and-a-half-pound baby girl, who arrived at the Percy Moore’s tent in Edgerton Park in true frontier fashion at 9:20 P.M. last night,” an article in the June 28, 1937, edition of the Democrat and Chronicle announced.  “There was no physician in attendance upon the mother, Hazel Hickey, a trick rider in the arena.  Her only attendant was Jerry Parker, a Western graduate nurse, who travels occasionally with the show.[19]

“The proud parents promptly named their child Percina Rochester.  Both mother and daughter are doing well.

“The blessed event heightened excitement occasioned by the arrival of the Rodeo in Rochester for its annual two-week stay.  Members of the show crowded around the tent which the newly augmented Moore family calls home.”[20] 

A year after Percina was born, Hazel and Percy left the Eskew Show and signed with rodeo performer and wild west show producer Monte Reger.  Reger’s show had become popular because of its star, a longhorn steer known as Bobcat Twister.  The steer could jump over anything including a convertible.  The Moore family enjoyed their time with Monte Reger’s cast and all was going well until October 6, 1939, when Percy was seriously hurt in the rodeo arena.[21]

“Percy Moore, 34-year-old ‘top hand’ at the Mississippi-Alabama Fair rodeo, was critically injured when an outlaw horse reared over backward and fell with its full weight on the St. Charles, Iowa, cowboy,” the October 7, 1939, edition of the Clarion Ledger noted.  “Moore had just leaped into the saddle from another horse when Preacher Dunn, described as the worst horse in the rodeo corrals and one used only on special occasions, reared upward and over instead of breaking into a bucking run as usual.[22]

“Moore was unable to free himself from the saddle and the horn struck him in the chest and the full weight of the seven-year-old horse crushed his legs.

“Rushed to the community hospital, he was believed to have a fractured leg and internal injuries.”[23] 

When Percy recovered, he and Hazel decided to make a career change.  They moved to St. Louis and settled on a ranch near Sylvan Beach owned by the Weimeyer family.  Not only did the couple manage the Weimeyer raiding stables on the property, but they trained horses to be sold to Glenn Randall.  Randall trained a number of horses used in such films as Ben Hur and the Black Stallion.  He also trained Roy Rogers’ horse Trigger and Gene Autry’s horse Champion.[24] 

In addition to working with horses, Hazel trained goats.  The goats would accompany her to local events where she performed a circus style act with them.  The goats were able to do a variety of tricks and pulled fascinated children in a small cart.[25]

Both Percy and Hazel enjoy teaching their three children how to ride and jump horses.  Their daughter Lydia recalled that during the winter months at the ranch, Percy would set up a show ring in the barn using bales of hay and their daughters would ride horses in the ring and help Hazel train the mounts.[26]

In time, Hazel and her family moved to their own home near Fenton, Missouri.  Percy went to work for the Absorbent Cotton Company and Hazel turned her attention to sewing.  She excelled at embroidery and one of the first major sewing to task she took on after Percy began his job at the Absorbent Cotton Company was making embroidered handkerchiefs for the ladies at the plant.[27]

Two of Hazel’s daughters pursued careers as rodeo performers, regaling spectators with their abilities as trick riders and ropers.[28] 

Hazel Hickey Moore passed away on July 24, 1977, in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, at the age of 75.[29]

[1]The Caney Daily Chronicle, October 22, 1920, The Ottawa Herald, August 4, 1920

[2] The Ottawa Herald, August 4, 1920, The Caney Daily Chronicle, October 22, 1920

[3]  Hazel Hickey, Moore Family Records

[4] Moore Family Records

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] The Beemer Times, June 14, 1923

[10] The News Herald, May 24, 1924

[11] The Evening Times, August 23, 1924, The Davidsonian, October 9, 1924, The Evening Times, August 16, 1924

[12] Dubuque Telegraph Herald, May 13, 1926

[13] Bangor Daily News, July 6, 1926

[14] The Evening Standard, April 28, 1927

[15] Ibid.

[16] The Dayton Herald, April 30, 1928

[17] The Tampa Times, December 2, 1927

[18] Moore Family Records, Times Union, May 14, 1932, Des Moines Tribune, July 25, 1935, The Boscobel Dial, March 9, 2000

[19] Democrat and Chronicle, June 28, 1937

[20] Ibid.

[21] Big Country Journal, September 8, 2019

[22] Clarion Ledger, October 7, 1939

[23] Ibid.

[24] Moore Family Records

[25] Ibid.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Ibid.

[29] Ibid.