The Rundown: Just Like You

The Quarter Horse world is a small one, so your path is bound to cross with the Otness family, whose story might not be too different from your own.

By Tara Christiansen
The American Quarter Horse Journal
May 6, 2013

Eboneys Tantrum and Shelley Otness-Graham, O'Donnell photo courtesy of Otness family

The Otness family's story with American Quarter Horses starts with Eboneys Tantrum, shown here with Shelley. (O'Donnell photo, courtesy of the Otness family)

Imagine this:

There you are, sitting at the in-gate of an AQHA world championship show. After hauling days on end and halfway across the United States, you’ve finally arrived in Oklahoma. Seated astride your trusty steed, you run the pattern through your mind one last time for good measure. There are no butterflies in your belly despite this being your very first AQHA world show; you and your American Quarter Horse have done a thousand times what will be called for in the pen. To think, all the training you’ve done back home was down the side of a county road. Brushing a bit of dust off the sleeve of your brand-new shirt, you admire your matching burgundy chaps, handmade by your selfless mother. She made and sold 56 custom pairs of chaps that year to fund your trip to the world show.
Your trainer offers a few last words of encouragement. And they are: “You need to change your shirt.”

“I was going to wear this burgundy outfit and Bruce, all the sudden at the last minute – I mean, I’m at the back gate – says, ‘You need to wear your yellow top,’ ” remembers Shelley Graham. At that time, she was still Shelley Otness, a 17-year-old competing at the 1982 American Junior Quarter Horse Association World Championship Show in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Now AJQHA is known as AQHYA, and its world show has traveled from Tulsa to Fort Worth, Texas, landing in Oklahoma City in 2008. Yet one thing remains: Asking a competitor to change her shirt at the last minute is a bit uncalled for.

But that was Bruce, as Shelley will tell you. It’s a sentiment echoed by many riders hailing from the Northwest.

The late trainer Bruce Gilchrist is still a legend in the Northwest. I never had the pleasure of meeting Bruce – he died right before I was born – but I grew up with many Bruce Gilchrist stories. To me, Bruce has always seemed like a goofy uncle that I never got the chance to meet. One treasured memory my family fondly recalls was an annual Christmas phone call from Bruce. When my dad answered Bruce’s call, he was treated to a personalized jingle, wishing Dad and his horse yuletide greetings. My dad, Terry, was just one of the many recipients of Bruce’s Christmas cowboy poetry.

It seems to me Bruce was the glue that held the horse community together in Washington State. In fact, he still holds the Quarter Horse industry together up there. Even though Bruce died several decades ago, horsemen back home relate to each other based on the impact Bruce had on their lives.

As AQHA Professional Horseman Sue Sultze of Bow, Washington, recalls, “Throughout Bruce’s lifetime he was true to himself, true to others and true to his animals. Simultaneously, he never forgot the ‘fun,’ which was a huge part of his legacy.”

Growing up showing in the Northwest was an absolute blast, I’ll say, and I can’t help but think it was indeed Bruce who taught my horse-show family how to have a good time.
Outside the Northwest, Bruce’s story is one not many know. That just goes to show there are a lot of unsung heroes in the Northwest, as there are a lot of unsung heroes across the entire United States. As you can imagine, I was overjoyed when I had the chance in the May American Quarter Horse Journal to tell the tale of a family of unsung heroes: the Otnesses.

The Otnesses have known me since I was a little kid, or longer, I guess you could say. As Shelley reminds me, it’s been more than 30 years that our families having been calling each other friends. My dad actually grew up showing against Shelley, competing at both AQHA and American Horse Show Association (now USEF) shows. And truthfully, the Otnesses’ home in Duvall really isn’t all that far from my hometown of Snohomish, Washington.  

When I was growing up, I knew Shelley as the stylish lady who kicked butt in amateur all-around classes at the local Quarter Horse shows. That and she volunteered to teach showmanship clinics for our county’s 4-H kids. To me, she was the picture of grace and giving – what I wanted to be when I grew up.

Giving back is a trait Shelley learned from her parents. Carol Otness, Shelley’s mom, is a long supporter of AQHA on the local level, and now she’s promoting the breed on the national front as an ambassador for the American Quarter Horse Foundation. Carol is the person who led her family into the horse industry, and she’s namely the reason they stayed.

“It was Mom that wanted a horse in the very, very beginning,” Shelley says. “She was the one who got me on a horse at a young age. When you really look at it, it all comes back to her.”

Thanks to Carol, the life of Gunnar Otness, Shelley’s dad, has been greatly intertwined with horses. You might recognize Gunnar as the chairman of the AQHA Amateur Committee, or as a Select amateur performance halter competitor. A former commander of the Seattle Mounted Police unit, Gunnar’s path to the committee chairman seat started at the grassroots, when he was volunteering and helping out with the Washington State Quarter Horse Association. Many of his volunteer gigs involved announcing state Quarter Horse shows, where he donated his earnings he raised from announcing to WSQHYA’s youth club. When I think back to my early days, to a time when I was a small fry competing in western pleasure and horsemanship, it is Gunnar’s voice I hear asking me to reverse at the walk.

I was overjoyed to tell the Otnesses’ story: To me, theirs was a story long overdue to be told. I wanted to introduce Journal readers to a family, a family perhaps a lot like their own, who has lived a life rooted in the American Quarter Horse.

Maybe you know Shelley or Carol or Gunnar; maybe you’re lucky enough to know the whole gang. But if you don’t know the Otnesses, don’t worry, you will. The horse world is a small world, and your paths are bound to cross.

The Otnesses are just like you, and they’re just like me. They work to support their horse hobby and they work hard to make what they have just that much better. They bred their own, raise their own, train their own and show their own. Isn’t that your story, too?

Enjoy more horse-showing quips, quotes and anecdotes from AQHA Internet Editor Tara Christiansen by visiting The Rundown archives at www.aqha.com/therundown.