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Even More Opportunities With Horses Despite Industry Transitions, Legendary Horsemen Agree

Legendary Kansas horsemen Jerry Riemann, Dighton; Dr. Stan O’Neil, Salina; and Mark Gratny, Leavenworth, were featured during a panel discussion at the EquiFest of Kansas in Salina. 

Many changes have occurred in the Quarter Horse industry during the past half century. 

Today people have more opportunities with horses for productive use, recreation, mental wellbeing and profit than ever before. 

Three legendary Kansas horsemen agreed with that synopsis during their panel discussion at the EquiFest of Kansas in Salina. 

Moderator was Dr. Justin Janssen, Alma, representing the Kansas Horse Council sponsoring organization for the three-day horse extravaganza at Salina. 

Panelists included:  Mark Gratny, Leavenworth, trainer of many champion Quarter Horses and exhibitors. Dr. Stan O’Neil, Salina, exhibitor of several world champion rope horses. Jerry Riemann, Dighton, breeder, owner, exhibitor of world champion horses. 

After a brief introduction of the panelists, Janssen called upon each horseman to expand on their background and experiences. 

Growing up at Claflin with diverse purebred livestock enterprises, Riemann became a Dighton feedlot manager after graduating from K-State. “We later bought and developed our own farming operation,” he said, “including the Quarter Horse breeding business.” Involvement in the cattle feeding industry has also again been a part of Riemann’s agriculture endeavors. 

“I do ride a lot, but I’m not a horse trainer,” Riemann emphasized. “I’m more intrigued by livestock breeding so we worked on developing quality Quarter Horses.” 

Success is apparent as Riemann has produced a handful of American Quarter Horse Association (AQHA) world champions. Stallions he’s owned have produced an equal number of world champions. Highpoint awards have been earned by his horses several times in Europe and Hawaii. 

 “I feel like we’ve been very lucky,” Riemann said humbly. “As important as our show and using horses are, we’ve produced a lot of nice horses for family companionship enjoyment. Our focus has been raising horses with a temperament that most people can get along with.” 

Growing up near Winfield, O’Neil’s family farmed with draft horses. “I wanted to be a cowboy and ride horses, not drive them,” O’Neil said. However, in order to ride, O’Neil was mounted on a half-Draft horse pulling farm equipment. 

As a 4-H member, O’Neil raised a colt as part of Extension’s breeder mare lease program. “After the colt was weaned, the mare would go to another 4-H member to raise a colt,” O’Neil said. “Mine was a gaited horse not for a cowboy, but I trained him to work cattle and rope.” 

On a KU basketball scholarship playing with renowned Wilt Chamberlin as a freshman, O’Neil eventually graduated from KSU in veterinarian medicine. “In the meantime, I taught at Meade where I met Mike Drennan, an outstanding all-around horseman and cowboy,” O’Neil said.  “Mike’s the one who really inspired me to become a team roper.” 

Developing his Salina veterinarian practice, O’Neil had his children Todd and Kirsten involved in showing horses. “They were successful including winning youth world championships,” he said. “I enjoyed roping and was fortunate to win world titles in team roping.” 

Gratny grew up near Olathe where his grandparents had horses. He was a member of the Rodeo Kids group which did trick riding and roping at rodeos and events including the American Royal.  

During the Vietnam War era, Gratny enrolled at KSU in engineering before transferring and graduating with a feedlot management degree. He was in the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) and joined the Reserves. 

 “I worked for Orville Burtis (former AQHA registration inspector) in his cow-calf operation and also trained some horses,” Gratny said. “I met my wife Linda through mutual horse interests during college. 

 “Linda became a veterinarian and we moved to Leavenworth where I’ve been breeding, raising and training horses,” he continued. “I had the opportunity to work with trainer Denny Hassett. When Denny moved to western Kansas, I took over some of his training horses and stallions.” 

Quarter Horses Gratny has trained have collected titles in world breed shows as well as reining events. “We’ve trained horses in a number of disciplines from reining to jumping, dressage, pleasure, horsemanship, roping and working cow horses. Most recently, it’s been ranch horses.” 

While showing, Gratny coached youth and amateur exhibitors for many years. “Today I work more with amateur riders in ranch horse classes,” he said.  His daughters Kelly and Maggie have been successful training and showing horses. 

The legendary horsemen credited mentors for influencing their lives with horses. “The Winfield veterinarian Dick Warren and an area cowboy J. Blaine Adams inspired me from an early age,” O’Neil said.  

“Of course, Denny Hassett helped me along, and I learned through Dean Smith, Bob Loomis and other trainers,” Gratny credited. 

“I got to see a lot of top horses and horsemen traveling with photographer Alfred Janssen,” Riemann said. “Leading breeders Howard Pitzer, Matlock Rose and other top horsemen helped me a lot too. 

“Billy Allen trained and showed a number of horses for me and we owned some horses in partnership,” Riemann added.  

One major change in the industry has been in the show ring. “I had the opportunity to manage lots of shows at Salina,” O’Neil said. “In the early days many horses would often be entered in every class halter, pleasure, reining, barrel racing and roping. Sometimes there’d be 15 or so horses in a class and we’d be done in early afternoon. 

“Today with open classes there are the youth and amateur classes which are subdivided into novice divisions,” he continued. “Horses are much more specialized and only compete in one event. A show will often run all day and well into the night.”  

Riemann echoed O’Neil, “In earlier days, ranchers used their horses all week and brought them to shows on the weekend. Now there are trainers who work with many of the horses in specific events. It’s much more professional. 

“Many Quarter Horses today are not all-around horses like the objective when the breed organization was formed,” Riemann insisted. 

Exhibitors nowadays typically have outlandish equipment with silver and expensive fitted extravagant outfits, the horsemen agreed. “My amateur riders have become more interested in the ranch classes to get away from that show trend,” Gratny said. 

“They are taking top cutting and reining horses and developing them to be more versatile horses,” Gratny added. “They’re going back to the foundation for more relaxed enjoyment with their horses.” 

While high dollar futurities attracted increased horse investments, that trend is changing. “There are still some futurities,” Gratny said. “But we want to work slower to develop more solid horses for long-term use.” 

Standing stallions for public service and also personal use were important income for Riemann and Gratny, but that has changed.  “Shipped semen for artificial insemination has reduced demand for our stallion services. It has hurt us,” Gratny said. 

Regardless, breeding still makes the difference in the horse. “You have to be a geneticist. Do the research and mate the right bloodlines which will produce the desired outcome,” Riemann insisted.  

“There are opportunities to be successful in the horse business. Attention must be given to bloodlines, quality, conformation and brains, horses with the right mind,” Riemann continued. 

While O’Neil never considered horses as a profitable business, Riemann and Gratny agreed horses have proven investments with return. “Just because a horse is high priced doesn’t mean it’s a smart investment. There are still outstanding horses available at a reasonable cost,” Riemann said. 

Panelists concluded in consensus: horses offer vast opportunities for many people. “They are excellent companion animals for recreation providing physical and mental exercise which relieve stress.” 

Frank J. Buchman
Published on 2021-03-15