This past weekend, I had the distinct pleasure of attending a ceremony in Des Moines as the greatest horse I have ever known, Omar Man was inducted into the Iowa Quarter Horse Hall of Fame. It has been 23 ½ years since this horse passed away so what in the world makes this honor so special to me? What makes it special is that I knew this horse. I rode this horse. Omar was a horse that I fell in love with when I was just a little boy and who has never left my mind. Omar was my Old Yeller.
To be honest, I did not know a whole lot about Omar and what he did before I met him, but I learned a great deal this past weekend, which made me appreciate him even more. His life started in 1963, when Omar was born in Atlantic, Iowa. Omar found his way into the hands of Dave Kunkle, who found it in his heart to sell Omar to my aunt Jayne in 1975 so she could have a good horse to ride. I learned amazing tales of all the classes Omar won in the 70’s and all the points he earned on the Quarter Horse circuit. He was a horse who could do just about anything.
Since I did not enter this world until 1977, I missed out on a lot of those amazing years, but what I do know a lot about was Omar in his later years when I knew him. I was not aware of the celebrity of this horse when I knew him and to be honest, I doubt it would have mattered to me much then anyway. I knew the personality of Omar and that is what I fell in love with. He was my best friend when I had trouble relating to other people. Omar and I formed a very special bond that forever changed my life.
One thing I did learn as tears of remembrance filled the room when Omar was being inducted was that this horse touched the hearts and souls of many more lives than just mine. He was a horse that lived his entire life in the state of Iowa. He was a real gem as far as horses go from the state of Iowa. Omar represented the state of Iowa and anyone who had the pleasure of getting on his back well throughout all of the 27 years he was with us.
Although I do not feel qualified to share with you about who Omar was and what he accomplished before I knew him, what I do want to share with you is the memories I have of this amazing horse that I do know and remember. This is the Omar that I knew.
Some of my earliest memories in life involved horses. I can remember living on my Grandma Rose’s farm in the late 70’s. My aunt Jayne would be there during her breaks from college and I remember the horses. Jayne would saddle up the horses and spend a lot of time in the saddle. Sometimes she would stick me in front of her and let me ride along with her. The two horses I distinctly remember were a Palomino named Monte and a dark brown Quarter Horse named Omar Man. Believe it or not, I was just a little boy and those two horses seemed so incredibly large to me. I loved when I got to ride with my aunt because it felt like I was so far up and above everything else. It was almost like flying through the air like Peter Pan in one of my bedtime stories.
As time went on, I grew and got older. Jayne got married and moved away to live with her new husband, Grant. Along with her went the horses and for the first time in a very long time at the Triple JJJ Farm, there were no horses around. One of my favorite things to do as a kid was to go around and explore on the farm and play with the different animals. There were dogs, cats, chickens (which I tormented to no end), some bottle calves my grandma and mom got to have me help raise, but no horses. I really missed the horses.
After a while, my grandma and mom decided that it was time to bring horses back to the farm so I could learn to ride on my own. The bought a little Shetland pony for a couple hundred dollars. She was not anything fancy, but she was mine and I loved her. I named her “Brenda.” I did not have a saddle, because grandma said I need to learn to ride without one first so I did just that. I learned to stay on her and learned the basics of riding which consisted of mostly not falling off running down the lane and when she would buck. Over time, we added more ponies to the mix. There was Cocoa, Beauty, and Star. They were all great ponies, but nothing fancy.
Then the day came when grandma wanted me to really learn the finer points of being a rider. That meant she needed a good horse who could teach me. She called Jayne and talked her into letting us have Omar Man back. Omar was coming back to the farm. I was so excited. By this time, I was about 8 years old. I had memories of riding Omar when I was just a tiny boy, but I had no idea what a special horse he really was. I did not understand all the years of winning he had accomplished, all the points he had earned on the circuit. I did not understand what versatility meant and I certainly had no comprehension of the versatility of this amazing horse.
Shortly after Omar returned, it was time for me to try to ride him for myself. Let’s just say it was a disaster. While Omar was ready and able, I was not ready. I was used to riding rough ponies that you had to crank their head around just to get them to turn. I only knew how to steer a horse with my hands and had no concept of leg pressure. All I managed to do was confuse Omar. Arms flailing and legs going all over, it was painful for grandma to watch I’m sure. Grandma quickly recognized that it was too soon so she took me off Omar and I was stuck riding the ponies the rest of the year.
The following year we tried again. This was to be my first year in 4-H and it was time to learn to ride. Grandma put me back on Omar and the lessons began. Grandma taught me how stay on by using my thighs and how to steer with my lower legs instead of my hands. Once I mastered this concept, I was able to ride Omar and he knew what I was asking him to do. I was amazed at how smooth his trot and lope were. I learned how easy it could be to back up and spin on a dime. Going from the ponies to Omar was like going from a Volkswagen bug to a Cadillac. It opened up a whole new world to me.
We worked hard and by county fair, I had come a long way. We loaded up Omar and headed to the Cattle Congress grounds. I never thought anything about it at the time, but how crazy it must have looked to people who knew Omar and all of the great things he had accomplished. Here was this regal horse showing up not in a fancy gooseneck trailer, but a small double axle gold-colored bumper trailer and an old blue and white 72 Cheyene pickup. Instead of a master trainer, he showed up with a grandma and a little boy who was a green as could be. Even though I had learned so much in that half a year we had together, I still had so far to go and that was evident by our performance. My classes resulted in mostly red ribbons and a couple of blues. It was not great, but it was a start. There is no doubt that I was the part of the team that was holding us back. It was the summer of 1987 and we were on our way.
Omar and I continued to work hard as a team. I would ride almost every day and I continued to improve and Omar patiently kept teaching me what he knew and just waited for the light bulb to go off in my head. The days of Quarter Horse shows were well past him, but we rode in the Black Hawk Creek Saddle Club shows at the Silver Spur Arena as well as the 4-H county fair at the Cattle Congress grounds. Most of the riding occurred at the Triple JJJ Farm with no audience and no cheering. Just a committed grandma, a green little boy, and a seasoned old horse named Omar.
Over the next couple of years, Omar’s age caught up with him a bit. He started losing his teeth. We started to have to feed him a diet of steam-rolled oats because he had trouble chewing regular oats. He developed moon blindness in his right eye and went totally blind in that eye. A lot of horses will develop a head tilt to compensate for the lost sight, but Omar never did. He kept his head as straight and regal as that first year he ran through a pasture way back in 1963, when JFK was still this nation’s president. Most horses would no longer be able to be ridden if they went blind in one eye because they would have a fear of running into something. Omar was never that way. He trusted his rider would not let him run into anything. This amazing horse trusted me that much. I admit that there was one time I was not paying attention and he did bump his face on his right side, but I never let that happen again. He trusted me and I was not going to let him down.
The other thing that happened over the next couple of years is that I became a better rider and we started to win classes. Omar was amazing at about anything you put him in. The exceptions to this were games classes, he was not a horse built for speed, and halter/showmanship classes, because he was a very ordinary horse to look at by mere appearance. But as great lesson to those who judge a horse on appearances alone, he excelled at horsemanship, western pleasure, western riding, reining, and trail. My friend Sarah and I even became outstanding at tandem bareback on him. This horse taught me how to do reining and especially trail. He was so good at trail. He would go through the obstacles like he was on auto-pilot, even though he had one less eye than all the other horses. It was really amazing to watch and the view from his back wasn’t too bad either.
Then came the day of July 4th, 1990. It is a day that is burned into my memory for a lifetime. It was a very hot morning and you could tell it was going to be one of those really hot days. We had a BHCSC show we were going to that day so early in the morning I went out to the barn to start getting the horses gathered up to get ready for the show. When I went out to get Omar, I could see something just wasn’t right. I could not see it immediately, but the one side of his body was all scrapped and cut up and it was clear that he had run into a fence. We would later figure out that he had most-likely suffered a stroke. When I tried to get him to walk, he quickly lost his balance and fell over hard. I was terrified. I ran to the house and got grandma and soon a call was made to the local vet, Dr. Jim Grover and in a matter of minutes he pulled up to the farm. We soon learned that there was nothing that could be done and Omar would have to be put to sleep. I was beside myself with grief. I ran from the barn and went and sat in the truck and just sobbed. I was 13 years old, but I had never really faced the death of someone so close to me before. I could not imagine life without Omar around. Eventually, I brought myself to go back to the barn and was able to take a minute and lay on the ground with my dear old friend and say my last goodbye. I laid on his neck and stroked his face and told him how much I loved him and thanked him for everything he had taught me and that I would never forget him. Soon it was all over and Omar left this world at the age of 27. I distinctly remember the kindness and gentleness Dr. Grover showed in those moments and that really stuck with me and helped me decide that I too wanted to be a veterinarian and show that level of kindness to other horses.
The next morning, a hole was dug in the field behind the farm and Omar was laid to rest on the farm he knew so well. I made a cross out of wood and carved “Omar Man, 1963-1990” on it. We put it out on the fence right in front of his grave. I cried the entire time I was making it. I cried so much in those days following his death.
Soon after Omar’s passing, it was clear that I needed to get another horse and Dave and Judy Kunkle were kind enough to let us buy Judy’s horse, Docs Glo Socks. This was a whole new challenge for me because all Doc had been trained to do was English. The lessons Omar had taught me stayed with me though and over the next couple of years I was able to train Doc to be a Western horse. It was very strange for me to be the member of the team with the most experience, but we both continued to learn together. We did everything together and it all culminated in winning the All-Around High Point Trophy in the FFA Show at the Iowa State Fair. There were many horses I worked with and trained after Omar. There was Doc, Wreckless Jody, Sir Kid, Miss Sansy Joe, and Pearl. They were all special in their own way, but none had the impact on my life that Omar did. In fact, if you drive by the Triple JJJ Farm south of Waterloo today, you will see Doc and Pearl in the pasture. After all these years, they are still there. The day will come when they too are gone as life always reminds us how precious and short it can be.
Life moved on for me after Omar passed, but his impact on my life will never leave me. A couple of weeks ago, My wife Stephanie and I were back on the farm in Waterloo for a late Christmas and as my mom, Steph and I were returning from breakfast, I slowed the car down along the fence to see if Omar’s cross was still there and sure enough, it is. This was before I knew anything about this honor Omar was receiving. Omar stays on my mind to this very day.
Most horses who have the kind of career that Omar had retire in glory on some large and fancy horse farm. God had a different plan for Omar. He sent him to a boy in Waterloo to teach him how to ride and more importantly, teach him how to love a horse and about what life and death really means. I never knew Omar as a young horse and Omar never knew me as the man I am today, but I am so thankful that our paths crossed, even for the short few years that it did. God sends us gifts in all shapes and sizes. He uses them to teach us about what it means to really live. It turns out that the teacher he sent me had four legs and could never speak to me in words, but what he told me though everything else changed me forever.
Our family was blessed twice through this amazing horse, first my aunt Jayne and then me. Omar was the greatest horse our family has ever known. Some people go their whole lives and never get to work with a horse like this, but I was blessed beyond measure the day he walked into my life. Our time together was short, but the lessons this great teacher taught me will last me the rest of my life.
Congratulations my old friend for an honor well deserved. With Omar’s induction into this Hall of Fame, I am so excited because now everyone else can remember Omar and know what we already knew; you were the greatest!