The Horse JR has Touched a lot of Lives in 30 Years
CORVALLIS, MT — His baby pictures are hanging on the wall at the arena.
There are plenty of other pictures too: photographs of him performing in front of the grandstands, some of him walking in a parade.
As nice as those are, though, they aren’t what catch your eye.
That’s reserved for the pictures of children with smiles that stretch wide across their faces. Some hoist blue ribbons. Others beam pure joy.
JR has touched a lot of lives in the 30 years that he’s been part of the Bitterroot Valley.
Horses do that.
They have a way of winding into your heart and soul. They can put a mark on your life. You remember what they did, how they acted and the places they took you.
JR carried Shannon Minnis Alexander the seven miles into town to pick up her son who was in kindergarten that year. More than 20 years later, she can still remember the smiles JR brought to the faces of the other children who were so happy to see a painted pony show up outside their door.
She bought JR in 1986 after a friend decided he wasn’t much good as a heeling horse in the competitive roping arena. Her first horse was a paint named Pixie that her mother gave her when she was 5.
Pixie and she were best friends for 32 years.
So when JR arrived, she was thrilled to have another paint in her life.
Her children grew up with JR. She used him to give riding lessons to whoever came along. She and her daughter showed him in a variety of different events.
“He was so willing, whoever rode him had a good time,” she said.
When an arctic blast roared down from the north and sent the wind chill down to 70 below, she saddled up JR to help a friend get his cattle into shelter.
“Even though the majority of his footing that day was ice, he was very brave,” Alexander said.
In 1989, she joined the Bitterroot Mountette Drill Team, a local women’s club that created musical maneuvers on horseback. He took all the commotion of competition in stride. Eventually, although she can’t remember why, she sold JR to her friend, Cindy Bratvold, who needed a horse for the drill team.
It was about 19 years ago that Bratvold’s husband gave her JR as a gift.
“He was a really nice gift,” she remembers. “He was just an incredible horse. He knew when he could get away with something naughty and he knew when he needed to keep his mind in the game.”
Bratvold was learning to be a good rider back then.
“JR took care of me,” she said. “He was always really, really good.”
Of course, like any horse, there were a few things he’d just as soon avoid.
He didn’t like the camel that appeared one year at the fair.
“That flipped him out,” she said. “He seriously did not like that camel.”
He didn’t like parades much either.
When Bratvold broke her elbow in a nasty fall just before the Mountettes were scheduled to perform at the Calgary Stampede, JR allowed another rider to climb aboard and performed his role as the lead horse.
“He was awesome,” she said.
When it came time for JR to retire, Bratvold searched out Linda Olson of Corvallis’ Bitterroot Therapeutic Riding. She remembers that Olson was a little skeptical to start.
“I told her I have the perfect horse and she said, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah. Do you know how many people say that to me about some cranky old nasty horse they have?’ “
Olson relented and agreed to take JR on a trial basis.
“The next time I saw her she said, ‘Oh my God, this is the best horse ever,’” Bratvold said.
Michael Dawkins of Stevensville was a young boy with cerebral palsy when his path first crossed JR’s.
“He was very little at the time and really scared of horses,” said Dawkins’ grandmother, Barb Prellwitz. “What I saw happen between those two was remarkable.”
It took some time, but Dawkins learned to trust the old paint horse named JR.
“When you see someone in a wheelchair who really can’t do many things be able to manage this horse all by himself, well, it’s like a miracle,” Prellwitz said. “He really liked riding that horse. The two just responded so well to each other.”
Dawkins is 22 years old now. He still rides, but not on his painted horse.
JR’s back has swayed.
He doesn’t carry anyone anymore.
“He’s done so much in his life,” Olson said on a recent afternoon as Hamilton chiropractor Jim Kostecki worked to tweak the horse’s backbone. “JR has been a great therapy horse who has touched a lot of lives.”
The horse is the only animal whose gait mimics that of a human. For people who have lost their ability to walk, a horseback ride can actually reawaken their body with that familiar motion.
That rhythm can also settle the nerves of an autistic child.
Olson has seen it happen over and over again.
“JR was one of those rare horses that you could put a tiny child on his back and he would sense their inabilities,” she said. “Or he could pick up the pace for someone needing a bit more. He just understood the expectations of the person on his back.”
“He is a remarkable horse who has meant a lot to many,” Olson said.
Bratvold went back to see him once.
“He wouldn’t look at me,” she said. “He kept turning his head away. He was just mad. And so I thought I might as well leave and when I turned and started walking away, he ran up behind me and starting going mmmm, mmmm, mmmm.”
She drives by the field where he lives now once in a while just to make sure he’s doing fine.
“I feel like I made a lifelong friend in the 15 years that I had with him,” she said. “If I think about it too much, it makes me want to cry. I just love him so much.”
Alexander wasn’t surprised to learn that JR had become the perfect therapeutic horse.
“Just like he’s always done,” Alexander said. “He is a good boy, taking care of whoever is on his back, giving joy to someone who needs his strength and support and being an absolute pleasure to know and love. I miss him.”
Horses have a way of doing that, you know.
They take a place in your heart.
They become a part of you.