With a lifelong passion for horseback riding, Jim Wright spent 38 years and drove 2 million miles inspecting horses for AQHA.
Editor’s Note: Longtime AQHA inspector Jim Wright died February 7, 2013, less than three months after the death of his wife, Anita. His impact on the Association was substantial, as recounted in this Journal story from 2006.
Jim Wright knew good people, he knew good horses, and he knew the importance that both had in his life.
Jim spent 38 years, drove roughly 2 million miles and went through nearly 30 cars as an AQHA inspector on the road.
Throw a dart at a map of the United States, and the odds are pretty good that wherever it might land, Jim could have told you all the best roads around town, a horse he saw near there or an interesting character he met along the way.
Jim had never been a stranger to horses. He grew up just like any other horse-crazy kid in rural Oklahoma living on the back of a horse. Crossing creeks and roaming the countryside horseback were part of Jim’s everyday routine as a child, and before long, he found his way to the arena, thanks to his uncle William Lusk. He taught Jim to rope and ignited a passion that Jim carried for the rest of his life.
Jim left his childhood home of Anadarko, Oklahoma, at 17 and took a job working on a farm in the Texas Panhandle. Soon after he hired on, the family bought a ranch in South Dakota, and Jim made his first of what would become countless trips across the country. He spent nearly eight months working on the ranch before he decided the harsh winters were not something he wanted to make a habit of enduring.
“It gets cold where I’m from, but I knew when it got so cold to freeze a water pipe that was 6 feet below ground, it wasn’t the place for me,” Jim said. “It was on my birthday, December 6, that I decided to give myself the present of getting out of there.”
He headed back to the Panhandle, and it wasn’t long before another opportunity opened up for him. He became friends with a man who said he had just the job for him in California. He handed Jim a piece of paper with a phone number and the name Ken Fratis on it.
In 1950, he loaded up his car, drove to the nearest phone in town and placed a call that would end up being what Jim said was the best decision he ever made.
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A Great Place to Start
Jim talked to Ken about going to California to start colts and manage Ken’s horses.
“I remember him telling me that I could come out there to see if I liked it, and he told me if I didn’t that he would pay my way home, so I didn’t have anything to lose,” Jim said. “I didn’t have anything to lose where I was anyhow, so I agreed and packed up my belongings for California.”
It was at a service station in Arizona that Jim encountered not only car trouble but the first big realization of the chance he was taking by moving to California.
“The guy that worked on my car asked me where I was headed to by myself, and I told him I was taking a job in California. Well, he told me he spent 20 years out there and the best thing I could do was get back in my car and go directly back where I came from,” Jim said. “I told him I didn’t have anything to go back to, and I think he realized how much he scared me, because when I paid my bill, he told me he thought I’d be all right out there.”
And he was. It turned out the chance Jim took on working for Ken paid off and was how he got his first tie into AQHA. Ken became AQHA president in 1959.
Like a lot of young men at that time, Jim was drafted into the Army and served two years before he returned to California to Ken’s place. Soon after he returned, Ken scaled down his racehorse operation and encouraged Jim to take a job working for AQHA.
He was hesitant to take the job because he wanted to try his hand at roping for a living, but his family talked him into taking the secure job at AQHA.
“When I started, I told them I would only stay for five years,” he said.
Jim started down the road for AQHA, spending nearly every day of the month somewhere other than home. In fact, he didn’t have a home in Amarillo for quite some time because he was never there long enough to make it a good investment. He just bounced between his family’s homes scattered across the Southwest and made his home wherever he could.
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Jim had met countless people down the road, but when he decided to settle down, he headed back to Amarillo and married Anita Brown. Anita also worked for AQHA and had been friends with Jim for some time before the couple started dating.
After they married, Jim decided it was time to leave AQHA, and they went north to Colorado to work on a ranch and start a family. Four years of rough winters and bad drought forced Jim, Anita and their new son, Will, to sell their cattle and find more stable work, so they headed back to Amarillo.
Jim returned to AQHA in 1980 and stayed there until he retired in 2003 at 73.
One Tough Job
A magazine once wrote a story about Jim, “A Look at a Guy With a Tough Job in the AQHA.” It was a pretty good indication that Jim’s responsibility as an inspector was a tough one.
Telling people the horses they had invested money in couldn’t be recommended for AQHA registry was not a job many would call a lot of fun. But Jim had an uncanny knack with people.
“He never met a stranger,” Anita said. “He hardly went anywhere when they weren’t glad to see him.”
When Jim left members’ ranches, they always knew where they stood before he pulled out of the driveway.
“Some of the other inspectors would wait and send a letter when they got home if the horse didn’t pass inspection, but I never did,” he said. “I figured I at least owed it to them to shoot them straight right then.”
A Good Trade
Jim never tired of looking at good horses. It was one of the things that kept him on the road for nearly 40 years. One definite perk of his job was getting to see some of the greatest American Quarter Horses.
He said some of the best horses he ever saw were racehorses, due in part to their conformation.
“They’re made right, or they wouldn’t be able to run,” he said. “There is something about great horses you can just feel when you approach them. They have some sort of unexplainable aura about them.”
The sheer number of horses Jim evaluated through the years molded his knowledge of good horses into invaluable wisdom.
Although Jim spent most of his time at work evaluating horses, he never went without horses of his own. Between team ropings and horse shows that Anita and Will both competed at, there wasn’t much time he didn’t spend beside or aboard a Quarter Horse.
A Friend of Many
One thing he talked about more than horses is all the good people he met through the years. It’s the one thing he missed about his job after retirement.
“After you meet so many people through the years, it’s what you start to look forward to on trips. It was like a reunion of friends every time,” he said.
Jim probably had direct contact with more AQHA members than anyone through the years. He was an icon of the Association and a testament to the value of relationships with the people and the horses in our industry.