Over coffee during a recent morning in her horse barn west of Tonganoxie, Valerie Francis admitted with a little embarrassment she didn’t know exactly how many horses she owns.
“I own about 25,” she said. “That’s not the most I’ve ever owned.”
Laughing, Laureli Orona, the trainer at Francis’ Moriah Training Center, ducks into an office at the barn to confirm Francis does indeed own 25 horses.
Francis said horses have been a lifelong passion.
“I was born that way,” she said. “I was one of those little kids from the beginning of time who was crazy about horses. I can’t remember when I wasn’t.”
But with her earliest years spent near downtown Kansas City, Kan., her dream of moving from horse lover to owner was frustrated. When that situation didn’t change with her family’s move to a Wyandotte County suburb, Francis hung out at barns doing what she could to be around the animals until she could have a horse of her own.
“I was an adult when I got my first horse in 1980,” she said. “I worked for a man who had horses. He had a 2-year-old mare for sale.”
Her first horse was a Morgan, as have been nearly all that followed. And if Francis couldn’t pinpoint the number of horses she owns, she knows all but two are Morgans.
The Morgan was one of the first horse breeds developed in the United States, tracing back to the stallion Figure owned by Justin Morgan of Vermont. Foremost among the attractions of the compact, sturdy breed was its versatility, which allowed the Morgan to work in farm fields, be harnessed to the family buggy and be ridden, Francis said.
Morgans remain versatile today and can excel in such things as trail riding, English and Western competitive events, jumping, dressage, and carriage or buggy driving (a favorite of Francis).
“If you can have only one horse, go get a Morgan,” Orona said. “They can do everything.”
Its intelligence and good looks also accounted for the breed’s early popularity, and more than 200 years later the qualities still enchant Francis.
“They are extremely intelligent and beautiful,” she said. “My philosophy is if you’re going to own a horse, it should be pleasing to look at.”
Since buying her first Morgan, Francis has done her part to advance the breed — first at a barn in Basehor and the last 15 years at her Tonganoxie farm. She has and continues to participate in regional and national shows and is regular each October at the Morgan Grand National World Championship in Oklahoma City.
With the support of her husband, Dean, she and her horses have won too many championships “to even try to remember,” Francis said. She has been named the nation’s No. 1 Morgan breeder by the United States Equestrian Federation, has had several top horses of the year by the same organization, and had the stallion who was the foundation of her stable named one of the top-10 producing stallions based on how well his offspring did in the show ring.
With the show season starting, Francis will attend one to two shows a month through October. But she also has a goal of adding a children’s focus to the “adult” activities at Moriah Training Center.
Orona is a part of that change. She came to Moriah about 18 months ago, succeeding Michael Graham, the barn’s trainer of 14 years who Francis said grew up attending horse shows with her four children.
The California-raised Orona has been a professional trainer for 11 years and was working at a north Kansas City barn when Francis’ insurance agent told her there might be an opening at Moriah.
“It worked out great,” Francis said. “Things have improved here dramatically.”
Together the two women are working to share their love of horses with a new generation by starting a one-day-a-week horse camp for the summer, Francis said.