On Nov. 2, Olan Hightower, who won the 1976 National Cutting Horse Association (NCHA) Futurity Open, passed away in Chappell Hill, Texas. He was 79.
Hightower was born on Oct. 10, 1935, in Trinity, Texas, to James Virgil and Ural. Growing up in Waller County, he learned about horses from his father, James Virgil (“Ted”), who Hightower said viewed horses as a “tool to do a day’s work on.” He began riding cutting horses in 1959, at age 24.
“I had seen [cutting] at the Houston Stock Show and thought it was the prettiest thing I had ever seen,” Hightower told Quarter Horse News in a 1995 interview. “My daddy’s mother, Elizabeth, was part Indian and she said, ‘Son, put some pride in it when you ride a horse.’ I thought it was beautiful to get a horse to play with a cow.”
According to Equi-Stat, from 1970 through 2012, Hightower accumulated $495,273 in earnings. His was a career that ended almost before it got started. In the early 1970s, Hightower gave up cutting for about five years to focus on the landscaping business he ran with his wife, Peggy, and their four young children – son Faron and daughters Melissa, Margaret and Tina Marie. He showed sporadically during that time, until Bob McLeod talked him into showing a horse at the 1976 NCHA Futurity. As fate would have it, the horse was Colonel Freckles (Jewel’s Leo Bars x Christy Jay x Rey Jay).
Facing a field that included future standouts such as Freckles Playboy, Doc’s Oak, Doc’s Remedy, Doc Athena, Montana Doc and Doc’s Becky, Hightower and Colonel Freckles marked a 223 to win the NCHA Futurity Open and $44,801. The stallion began breeding mares in 1977, with his first foal crop debuting at the 1981 NCHA Futurity. Thirty-six Colonel Freckles offspring entered, seven made the semifinals and four advanced to the finals, including Open Champion Colonel Lil. Colonel Freckles died in 1986 at the age of 13. He has progeny earnings of more than $4.9 million, according to Equi-Stat, and was inducted into the American Quarter Horse Association Hall of Fame in 2004.
Hightower, who was known for his hugs and cutting in his 1960s roping saddle, watched his son, Faron, get inducted into the NCHA Riders Hall of Fame, and his grandson, Hunter, win the 2009 National Youth Cutting Horse Association Junior Scholarship Cutting and the Boys Cutting at the 2011 Texas High School Rodeo Association Finals.
Yet Hightower’s influence extended far beyond his immediate family. As news of his passing spread, cutters from across the country took to Facebook to share memories of Hightower and how he had impacted their lives. It was a touching tribute to the man who, in a 2003 Quarter Horse News article, summed up his philosophy on life by saying, “When I’m dead and gone, if one person will stand up and say, ‘That old man helped me,’ it’ll be worth more than hundreds of folks saying what I’ve won.”
While he’ll always carry the title of 1976 NCHA Futurity Open Champion, Hightower’s lasting legacy can be seen in his family, friends and people he helped in the cutting horse industry he loved for so many years.
Funeral arrangements will be added when they become available.