“A Nude Horse is a Rude Horse”

On May 27, 1959, a man named G. Clifford Prout appeared on The Today Show, NBC’s long-running news and talk show that airs every weekday morning. He was there in his capacity as president of a new non-profit called the Society for Indecency to Naked Animals, or SINA (pronounced “seen-uh”) for short. SINA was on a mission: to make sure that every dog, cat, horse, and cow wore pants.

Ridiculous? Maybe — but maybe not. After all, SINA argued, we need to think of the children. They shouldn’t be exposed to naked animals, which were prone to engage in certain acts without shame or consequence. There could be no higher calling than protecting the youngest in our communities, they argued. Their mottos  — “A Nude Horse is a Rude Horse” and “Decency Today Means Morality Tomorrow” — helped SINA find a following.

Within a few years, per SINA’s estimates, more than 50,000 people across the United States wrote to their offices headquartered in New York City, asking to join the cause or start local chapters of the organization. In the summer of 1962, for example, a would-be chapter founder in Utah told the Salt Lake Tribune that she was on board with the organization’s mission: “We are interested mostly in animals who appear in front of the public” and believe that “farmers and ranchers should think about clothing their animals that appear in front of the highway.” Further, argued the SINAphile, “we’d like to do something about the bears in Yellowstone Park.” The movement became so big and notable later that summer, CBS invited Prout to appear on the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite. 

And that was the beginning of the end for SINA. After Prout’s interview with Cronkite, other CBS employees noticed that the SINA president seemed somewhat familiar — and for good reason. Prout was really Buck Henry, an improv comedian who had recently worked with the network. Henry wasn’t really looking to clothe animals; it was all a prank. And he wasn’t even the brains behind the hoax, just the face. The man behind the curtain was a notorious prankster named Alan Abel.

Abel wasn’t originally planning on launching what would soon be known as a critique of moralist conservatives at the time. Rather, this was intended to be a form of literary criticism. As he told NPR, “one day while I was driving along the highway, I rounded the bend and all of a sudden traffic was backed up three or four rows and I was actually second or third from a herd of cows. And they seemed to have formed a circle around a cow and a bull mating in the middle of the highway.” The incident amused him so he wrote up what he thought was a satirical piece arguing for the need for pants on roadside cattle. Abel submitted the piece to the Saturday Evening Post, but “it was rejected angrily by the editor who said this is a deplorable organization, we want nothing to do with it in this magazine.” Realizing that he had just fooled one of the most highly-regarded publications of his day, Abel decided to continue the hoax: “I printed up leaflets about clothing your pets and left them everywhere. And before I knew it, I was going on the television and radio.”

After Cronkite’s staffers caught Henry, he and Abel came clean about their prank. Abel would later say, per Priceonomics, that SINA “was a satirical riff on censorship: it mocked the moral maniacs who were banning films, books, records, and plays during that time period,” and not a money-making grift on his or Henry’s part; the pair declined all donations and, according to Ripley’s Believe it or Not, “Abel even had to turn down a $40,000 donation organization, stating that he never wanted to cheat anybody.”

The hoax didn’t die off immediately; even a year after the CBS story came out, the Harvard Crimson ran an article suggesting that the “college may ban animal nudity” as part of SINA’s efforts. But within a year or two after that, SINA — and the idea for pants for cows and horses — were gone from the public sphere.

Bonus fact: Until 2013, it was illegal for women in Paris to wear pants unless riding on a bicycle or horse. (They were allowed to, and were expected to, wear dresses, just to be clear.) The law, which prohibited women from dressing as men, was almost entirely unenforced for decades; as the Guardian explains, earlier efforts to strike down the law were rebuffed “in part because officials said the unenforced rule was not a priority, and part of French ‘legal archaeology.'” 

From the Archives: No Necks Allowed: Why Yogi Bear, who does not wear pants, wears a tie.