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Omaha Magazine

A Bald-Faced Story: Jill McCormick & a Lifetime of Horseplay

Feb 25, 2021 10:37AM ● By J. D. Avant
jill by barn with bald-faced horse

Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Horses are some of humankind’s oldest domesticated animals. According to National Geographic, they were originally tamed as beasts of burden around 4,000 years ago by Asian wanderers, and people’s views and feelings towards the equine species have since evolved. 

Loving owners such as Jill (DeMontigny) McCormick cherish the animals for more than their function. She considers them part of her extended family and appreciates their beauty and unparalleled athleticism.

McCormick’s seven-plus acres, located off of 120th and Giles streets, is home to a mixture of horses, donkeys, and mules. Her family has always appreciated steeds, dating back to her father’s days as a rodeo rider.

“Dad probably rode rodeo in the ’50s,” McCormick said. “He met my mother in Ralston...and had a pen down the tracks where he broke and traded horses. He stopped riding rodeo when he started working for Burlington Railroad.”

Her father, Jim DeMontigny, may have stopped riding rodeo while working for the railroad company, but he never stopped loving horses. McCormick recalled DeMontigny trading, training, and rehabilitating broken steeds until his passing in February 2018. One of his most memorable animals was a beautiful bald-faced horse he rode in parades around town.

“Dad really went out of his way to name things,” McCormick said when trying to recall the animal’s handle. “So, his name was probably Bald-face. They’re considered bald-faced if the white goes behind their eyes and behind their muzzle. Best horse you ever saw.”

She remembered the horse was striking to look at, with a chestnut-colored coat, white legs, black legs, and a splash of white covering his face. While the horse’s name was unassuming, McCormick referenced her late father’s Native American heritage as justification for the moniker.

“That’s what Natives did,” she said. “That’s how they named things. Whatever they were, that was the name. Dad was a registered Chippewa Indian from the Turtle Mountain reservation in North Dakota.”

Bald-faced horses are prized in Native American culture, including the rare “Medicine Hat” with its mostly white body and colored patch on top of its head and ears. Native legends claim these unique animals held magical powers that protected both horse and rider.

McCormick claimed her father’s bald-face was equally beautiful and unpredictable, showing a different personality any time someone mounted him. Her father rode his prized steed in parades around town wearing a full headdress and authentic Native American riding gear. 

McCormick remembered DeMontigny always wanted a black bald-faced horse. He even wrote a poem to one of her sons professing his desire.

“The last line of the poem was about something he wanted for his birthday and rhymed with ‘a black horse with a bald-face of course,’” she recalled.

McCormick’s own love of horses evolved as she grew up. Since her father constantly acquired injured and unbroken animals, the horse pen in the back of their house was always full. He would rehab and break them before reselling them, and she admits being afraid of horses until she was nearly a teenager.

“I was scared because my dad always had the wild ones,” she said. 

Around age 12, McCormick worked up the courage to ride at a horse show. She then started riding horses with organizations holding rodeo events at arenas around the Midwest. 

She experienced nationwide success with one of the oldest youth-centered rodeo organizations, National Little Britches Rodeo Association, culminating with the top prize at the final competition in 1979. Her former teammate, Kevin Gale, remembers the day his longtime friend won her title.

“I’ll never forget in Huron, South Dakota, when she won her Little Britches National Championship in Pole Bending,” Gale recalled. “I ended up fourth in bareback riding. She and I celebrated together.”

Based in South Dakota, Gale recalls watching the tournament broadcast a few months after the event.

“Guys came to our house and watched it on TV. It was pretty cool,” Gale said. The families have remained close throughout the years, a testament to how long rodeo friendships last.

“When you get to be 60 years old, the number of really good friends you can count on one hand gets to be difficult. Jill and Mike are probably on the first two fingers,” Gale said.

McCormick attended Fort Scott Community College in Fort Scott, Kansas, where she was a walk-on member of the rodeo team and met her husband, Mike. 

The couple moved to La Vista on the first Saturday in May, also known as Kentucky Derby Day, in 1983. Her father found the former dairy farm that the couple live on to this day while maintaining train signals nearby. The couple started Haunted Hollow in 1999.

The McCormicks worked hard to support their two sons and a collection of animals, including horses. Their horse pen, coined “The Arena,” was used to teach horseback riding for local 4H horse programs.

The couple acquired DeMontigny’s coveted bald-faced black horse after he passed in 2018. McCormick named her gelding J.D. to honor her father, but the purchase also included a mare they named Honey.

“I really didn’t want her, but the seller wanted to get rid of both of them and I wanted the bald-face,” she said.

Mares are notoriously bad-tempered when in heat, and within a month Honey triggered a tragic accident, leaving J.D. with a serious hip injury. McCormick’s beloved gelding’s leg was broken up high, and she was forced to put him down shortly after. 

Hopefully, old Jim DeMontigny is looking after his daughter’s steed in the afterlife. 

This article first appeared in the 60 Plus section of the March/April 2021 issue of Omaha MagazineClick here to subscribe.