The Heart of a Champion

He's a perfect therapeutic riding horse with a most unusual history - Hall of Fame endurance horse, cancer survivor, and the inspiration for a Breyer horse model. Meet AA Omner.

Story originally posted by Horsecity.com Staff

Therapeutic riding centers are always thrilled to receive the gift of a healthy, sound horse whose attitude inspires confidence in riders of all abilities. But, never before has the perfect therapeutic horse also been a Hall of Fame endurance racer, the inspiration for a Breyer model and cancer survivor. In September, the National Ability Center in Park City, Utah, accepted a 20-year-old Anglo-Arabian gelding with an incredible life story.

AA Omner has run more than 9,000 miles in 179 endurance races, many of them 100-mile races. He’s won close to a third of those competitions and beaten some of the world’s best horses. But the hardest victory the Anglo-Arabian won wasn’t against world-class athletes. It was his victory against death – the ultimate test of his endurance.

Omner’s test began in May of ’91 at the Race of Champions in Montana, an elite race for endurance horses when owner Beverly Gray noticed that the gelding wasn’t eating well. Later that evening he became colicky, and when the veterinarians checked him, they found an enormous blockage in his lower abdomen. Gray trailered him to a clinic in Salt Lake City.

“Tests revealed a cancerous growth on his left kidney the size of a gallon bleach bottle,” said Gray. “When they did a blood test, the vet said he’d seen dead horses with better results.”

Three veterinarians told Gray that the gelding had only weeks to live. “I took him back home and all teary-eyed put him in his pasture,” said Gray. “I’d already picked out his burial site and chosen his burial halter.”

Unwilling to give up, Gray started Omner on special feed supplements. Her veterinarian gave him acupuncture treatments. Even his half-brother AA Bravo helped by sharing his grain with Omner, something horses never do. “I put some grain in a bucket for Omner, and Bravo picked it up by the handle and held it up while Omner ate,” said Gray.

The Miracle of Omner
Then the miracle occurred. Omner didn’t die. He began gaining weight. Gray could tell he was getting better when he started sparring with his buddies in the pasture.

Gray asked her veterinarian to do another ultrasound. This time it showed that his tumor had shrunk to the size of an orange. By October, his blood tests were normal, and Gray’s veterinarian told her she could begin conditioning him.

In March 1992, Gray entered the gelding in an easy 50-mile ride. He came in second. In July, he went top ten at the Race of Champions and got a standing ovation. The veterinarians who had found his tumor the previous year were amazed he was even alive. Omner continued to turn in outstanding performances. At 20 years old, he was still racing although Gray no longer let him gallop up front.

Gray attributes Omner’s toughness to his breeding. Anglo-Arabians are a mixture of two racing breeds – Arabian and Thoroughbred – and are registered by the International Arabian Horse Association (IAHA). Omner is three-quarters Arabian, a breed prized for its stamina and soundness.

The American Endurance Ride Conference, the national sanctioning body for endurance rides, inducted Omner into its Hall of Fame in 1997. Four years later, he became a Breyer model.

Breyer Animal Creations, a division of Reeves International, Inc. in Pequannock, N.J., debuted its AA Omner model in late 2000. It honored endurance star AA Omner not so much for his feats on the trail but for his courage in the face of death and the hope he brings to others. Nearly 10 years after Omner recuperated from terminal cancer, the Anglo-Arabian was still competing in endurance racing, and his amazing recovery continued to inspire everyone who heard about him. A picture of Omner still hangs in the Primary Children’s Hospital in Salt Lake City and his owner Beverly Gray receives touching letters from people all around the country.

Still A Star
In 2001, this incredible 20-year-old found a new career helping children and adults with disabilities. As a therapeutic riding horse, Omner is helping both disabled and non-disabled riders develop strength, coordination, balance and self-esteem. His calling is giving unconditional love and hope.

“The National Ability Center seems like a perfect fit for Omner,” says marketing assistant Brooke Hafets. “In 1992, he had a tumor the size of a football and was given a few weeks left to live. Well, nearly 10 years later, he is still alive, cancer free and considered one of the top 10 endurance horses of the millennium. His story is truly inspiration for anyone, but particularly for the participants of the National Ability Center, who overcome huge obstacles every day.”

Beverly Gray rode Omner to the center in Park City, Utah, when she donated him during their fall fundraiser in September. “I wanted to share his gift, his message of ‘never give up hope,’ ” says Gray. “I believe the children and adults at the center will benefit from the miracles he has to send their way.”

“He immediately became a member of our staff, and we started getting him used to things like wheelchairs and screaming, flailing children,” says Natalie Joy, the Equine Program Director.

After his training, Omner became a therapy horse, working with kids and adults with a full range of disabilities, ranging from spinal cord injuries and visual impairments to autism and developmental disabilities.

“We feel fortunate to have a former champion, and it makes the kids feel special that they can ride a high quality horse like Omner,” adds Joy.

Omner loves his new line of work. His gentle nature and kind disposition make him a hit with the kids at the National Ability Center. Many of them know he is a famous horse, but what matters most is that he is their star now.

Information for this article provided by the International Arabian Horse Association.