The Congenial Smile, Once You’ve Met Him, He’ll Know You, And Al Davis Continues A Leader In Kansas Agriculture, And Of Youth, Often Through Horses
By Frank J. Buchman
“Horses can change children.”
Al Davis of Manhattan proudly quoted his grandpa’s philosophy from nearly four decades ago on the small family farm in Pennsylvania.
Never forgetting that statement and relating it often, Davis is “children, horses, Extension 4-H, agriculture leadership,” and a whole lot more.
Appropriate quick synopsis of the always-smiling, most-congenial, never-knew-a-stranger cowboy, there are even more terms appropriate to distinguish his true diversity.
First perhaps, identifying Al Davis as a cowboy could be insufficient; he is a horseman in every sense of the word.
Furthermore, Davis is an athlete, strong advocate of camping for youth development, and today most important of it all to him husband, dad, family man.
Although likely more Kansans recognize Davis from his ties to many aspects of the horse industry, he’s also widely known for service as the Johnson County 4-H agent, and then as education director of the American Royal.
Presently, Davis serves as director of the Kansas Rural Ag Leadership Program (KARL), a leader within the group for more than two years.
“I grew up in the historic rural community of Waterford, Pennsylvania. My dad passed away when I was just five, and I spent most of my time at my grandparent’s place. They loved children, and horses, too, and took in many foster kids, whose lives changed to the better with horses.
“Lucky for me, I got to ride horses and be around children. My life was set at an early age, one might say. I’ve always liked horses, and know the positive influence they have on children.
“I’ve always wanted to work with both children and horses, like my grandparents, and I’ve been fortunate in my professional life to do that in one way or another,” Davis said Friday afternoon in his now “more uptown office position.”
“Grandpa handled many horses of all kinds actually. While there were a lot of different children around the place, I was the one who he called on to ride the new ones, some good, and some not so good. You might be able to interpret, Grandpa was a horse trader, of sorts, but I learned something from every one of them, until he sold it, and brought another one in,” reflected Davis, with an obvious fondness of his youthful times.
Before he was even old enough to join 4-H, Davis tagged along to 4-H meetings and competitions. “They even called the club: ‘4-H plus one,’ because I wasn’t really a member yet. I’ve always had a love for 4-H, for the horse activities, and the camping programs are so important for youth development, too” he insisted.
Not yet a teenager, Davis was inspired by an Extension agent. “Ray was from the old school. He knew everything about anything a kid with horses and on the farm wanted to know. Ray was my mentor, too, and like it was yesterday, I remember him telling me: ‘you’re going to get an opportunity to make a difference.’ Ray made a difference in my life, and I’ve always tried to make a difference in lives of others,” Davis heart fully divulged.
Further setting his future, Davis, as a teenager, had a strong appreciation for his county agent. “I just idolized Carolyn. She was everything that I wanted to be helping the 4-H program. If I ever had an opportunity, I wanted to be a 4-H agent.”
Competing in horse shows successfully from an early age in nearly every division, never with those-arena-ready-reins-handed-over mounts, Davis always exhibited horses his family had developed.
“Yes, there were stock horses, Quarter Horses, some Paints, but also Saddlebreds, Arabians, Morgans, there are a lot more of the gaited pleasure type horses in Pennsylvania. I like them all, always have, and still do today,” the true horseman insisted.
Always quite athletic as well, Davis excelled in all sports, especially in wrestling. “Actually, I might have been a better football player than wrestler, but a high school coach took a special interest in me when I was just seven or so, and I competed in wrestling all over Pennsylvania, and all the way to the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Finals,” Davis recalled.
A leader in 4-H and FFA, Davis also served in student government and as president of his class. “Significance of that was it was an all-white high school. For a black student to be class president was unheard of in those days. My family has attended school there for generations though, and with seven blacks in the school, I was related to five of them,” Davis smiled typical of his way.
Considering attendance at Penn State, where he’d have been forced to walk-on to be involved in sports programs, Davis attended Thiel College at Greensville, Pennsylvania, a four-year Lutheran affiliate, where he excelled on the wrestling team.
“Going to horse shows and sporting events all of my life, I’ve never been shy, nobody would question that, so I majored in communications, because Thiel didn’t have an agriculture curriculum,” he related.
As would be expected, Davis, right out of college, went to work as an Extension agent, serving in Pennsylvania seven years before deciding to move “West,” to Kansas. “I didn’t know there was anything west of Kansas City, until I moved to the state,” he grinned.
Through high school, college and early professional years, Davis continued heavy involvement with horses. “I didn’t have any judging experience in 4-H or FFA, but I’d been showing all of my life, so when I was a freshman in college, I was asked to judge a local show. I didn’t consider myself a judge in the beginning, but I knew horses, knew what I liked and placed them that way.
“Before long, I was getting calls from all over to judge horse shows. I don’t have any association cards, but there’s always a lineup of shows to judge. I’ve judged all over the country, a lot in Kansas, and still get asked to judge in Pennsylvania,” said Davis, who judges a dozen or more shows annually.
However, the horseman quoted his grandfather again. “He contended: ‘Anybody can be a judge. Only two people are going to agree on placings at a horse show, anyway, the judge and the exhibitor who wins.’ I place horses the way I see them, and stand by my decision, no matter what anyone else says,” Davis stated.
Too often, according to Davis, exhibitors are too concerned about their placings, and not how good or bad their rides are. “I think of judging as a great opportunity to teach. That’s the reason I like to be involved with 4-H events, and more local shows.
“I’m always anxious to visit with exhibitors about their rides. I don’t judge riders, I judge horses. When an exhibitor asks me what was right or wrong about the ride, I usually refer to the horse, and how they can get more out of it.. I generally remember horses, more readily than the riders,” stated Davis.
“Of course, because of my judging, training horses and giving lessons, I never had an opportunity to compete in the amateur division, so from the beginning at the Quarter Horse and Paint shows, I was put up right against the leading exhibitors in the nation.
“I had this little bay I was showing for a client, and took a lot of beatings. But, when it was the right judge, the given day, I got a third, and it was a good day for me, you’d have thought I’d won the world, the way I felt,” the all-around horseman related.
A Paint mare, owned by Davis, is still as close to his heart as any he’s trained and shown. “A lady gave me that nasty, ugly, skinny yearling filly, and she stayed that way for a long time. When the mare got about four, she came into her own, won more than $30,000 in futurity monies, and was leading the nation at one time. That was my heyday,” Davis assured.
The Quarter Horse Congress in Columbia, Ohio, can be “very economical to compete in when you live in Pennsylvania,” so Davis showed there. “When one of my horses made it to the Top 15 in a class, I was pretty excited,” he verified.
However, Davis freely admitted, “Showing at the major Quarter Horse and Paint Horse competitions are a great experience, and I’ve learned a lot about horses, horse people and horse shows. But, it takes lots of time and lots of money to compete at that level, so I’ve backed out of world shows, and the like,” he said.
Never shy about his true feelings and observations, Davis evaluated, “One thing about it, people never forget the black guy who judges, or the black guy who is competing, whether they remember his horse or not. People remember me, so I’d better not mess up; it’s a blessing, and can be a curse.”
Significant seemingly to relate at this time, a Davis’ cowboy experience. “I’ve competed in just about every competition there is for horses, the English classes, team penning, sorting, cutting, but really never had roped until I came to Kansas and had a friend invite me over to a team roping practice at his place.
“I watched them for a while, and decided, I was an athlete, my Paint stallion would chase a steer, if I pointed him in that direction, so I’d try roping, too. Believe it or not, I caught the first steer. Everybody said it was beginner’s luck, then I caught the second steer, and the third one. But, the next roper came out, dallied and popped his thumb off. I vouched then and there, that was the end of my roping, and it is,” Davis smiled yet in sincerity.
Perhaps seeming a bit odd, an easterner coming to Kansas, Davis felt it another opportunity to help youth, through Extension, while building his own professional career.
Of course, Davis brought his horses with him, and feels fortunate to have acquired a small acreage near Spring Hill to live and continue his personal horse interests while helping Kansas youth as a 4-H agent.
Quickly recognized across the Sunflower State for his diverse leadership, not only with horses, judging shows, training judging teams and assisting with all 4-H and youth programs, Davis takes special satisfaction from organizing camping opportunities for many different young people.
“Camping was a big part of my 4-H experience, getting to know other 4-H club members, be close to nature and learn about the outdoors, and have experiences away from home, so I’ve worked to get more youth involved in camping,” Davis noted.
“Rock Springs Ranch is great facility, and during my work as 4-H agent in Johnson County, I helped organize many camp outings there. I also started a nonprofit Cabins 4 Kids program for inner city at risk children. It really made a difference in their personal development,” Davis insisted.
“Programs through Kansas State University were also important for the inner city kids; it was like Leadership 101. They lived in dorms, found out about campus life, changed and grew. I’ve kept track of those kids, and 75 percent of them have gone on to college,” he credited.
Davis continued close ties with youth through his service with the American Royal, and sees many of that group’s scholarship recipients as likely candidates for enrollment in the KARL program.
As KARL director, Davis plans and implements educational programs designed to enrich the skills of emerging Kansas leaders with agricultural or rural backgrounds and interests.
His responsibilities include fund raising, programming, public relations, participant recruitment and trainer/speaker relationship development for the 12 leadership seminars for each KARL class and for the program’s support network.
“I have had the opportunity to be part of a lot of different leadership programs. The KARL program gave me a great opportunity as part of Class V to really explore my leadership style, while learning more about the assets and challenges of Kansas. I am looking forward to helping others develop and improve their personal leadership skills and direct them towards their passion in their own communities,” Davis said.
Living in Manhattan, Davis rents acreage near Westmoreland where he keeps a handful of horses including two Paint stallions.
“I go out twice a day to take care of the horses and have been doing limited local showing. I am not doing any breeding at this time, but that may come again in the future,” Davis said. Several horses are also still at the Johnson County property he’s retained, but has rented out.
Married to his wife, Michelle, “a Kansas farm girl,” four years, Davis is the father of their two-year-old son Beckett.
“I don’t know if he’ll be involved with horses, or in sports, but there’ll be every chance we can provide. Even though I said I’d never get him a pony, Beckett has one. Guess you’d call it Brainwash 101. But, Beckett enjoys going to help chore, his pony, and all horses, so that could be a positive sign. Whatever he becomes will be just fine,” Dad assured.
“I enjoy my life, but my goal will always be to help develop others, and I know horses will always be one of the best ways to help youth change to the better,” Al Davis concluded.