Montana Therapy Horse Touches Hearts of Local Residents

By PERRY BACKUS Ravalli Republic

The Horse JR has Touched a lot of Lives in 30 Years

Mike Dawkins poses with JR, the horse that helped teach him to ride at Bitterroot Therapeutic Riding ~ photo by Laura Lundquist

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.

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21 comments on “Montana Therapy Horse Touches Hearts of Local Residents

  1. Although every horse I have ever met takes my heart away, there has also been many who have stolen my heart also………………… I will always remember one in particular who not only stole my heart but also my soul A beautiful Black Tennessee walker , she came when my life I thought was over , My Husband Passed away at only 44 yrs old, I thought I also was finished, then I met the Black mare, she is Black as coal with a mane with beautiful Mahogany streaks in it, full and stunning , she renewed my life and made it worth while again………I named her Spirit, because she is so willing to give it to you……… I met her in a pasture with 6 others , she was never broken by her owner, or haltered . I spend the best 6 weeks of my life trying to halter her which no one else including her owner seemed to be able to do, she renewed my patience and trust , gave me a reason to be !!! We were both lost now we both are found !!!!!!! She is the most loving horse I have ever met !!!!!! Now she gives her magic to everyone who meets her…………..Her owner will not sell her , but we are always together , I have taken many 16×24 photos of her she is truly a ham when it comes to photos even posses herself when he sees me coming with my camera………………..

      • Dear horselady I have them on my other computer , i can send them to you , I am so very fortunate to have met this Beautiful mare, she changed my life , when I thought there was nothing left !!!

    • Touched to the core. I have a similar story, Arlene. Only my horse was a shy, very fearful mustang. And she is how and why I came to R. T.’s page. I was desperate to learn all I could about wild horses so I could understand her fears and help her to overcome them, but I got way more than I bargained for, more than I would have ever chosen had she not become part of my life. But she is part of my life, and I come here, and I choose to do for her what she cannot do for herself now—try to protect her family and prevent other wild horses from having to go through what she has been through.

      Those who do not understand the powerful bond that can exist between a horse and a person who loves that horse are doomed to failure eventually because they do not understand the power of love, the strongest force in the universe. It is the only emotion that is stronger than fear, stronger than hate, and strong enough to penetrate the walls that separate life and death.

      I thank you for everything I have learned through your dedication and hard work, R. T., and every time I thank you, I hope that both you and Terry realize that I recognize that you and she are a team, and my thanks and appreciation is to and for what both of you do every day where ever you are for horses and burros and the people who love them.

      • Dear Hoofhugs, Your story is also wonderful, there are here so many beautiful stories of horses, and how much they care , and how much they belong here with us…… When I met Spirit she had no name, her owner said if I could Halter her i could name her, So the quest was on… I forgot how to just be, through her I remembered , I had searched every method of Haltering a horse tried them all, none of them worked , until one day I was about to give it up, I spent many hours talking to her, could clearly see she was so worth the effort, Spirit had a weakness she loved one of the other Walkers in the pasture , she couldnt bare to be without him, was always next to him( Eric his name), wherever he was she was, took off his halter on and off on and off rubbed it on her , let her smell it , gave him a carrot and her one held the halter up put the carrot down by the mouth opening held it there low and behold she placed her own head directly in the halter to get the carrot i quickly tossed it up and over head OMG clipped it shut we both looked at each other in amazement, there was nobody more surprised then she was ran around trying to get it off, then returned to us settled and happy !!!! She now loves to be groomed and fussed over, and yes she now has her own halter with her name on a brass bar ………………….. During this process she gave me many things to work through, she gave me a reason, to just be,the rest comes………………..

      • Oh my, another wonderful story! I found my precious partner 17 years ago. She was 4, was to be a brood mare, never been out of a pasture. I was helping unload a group of horses for an overnight rest. I walked her out of the truck, she was so frightened. I promised her I would take care of her. It was love and trust immediately. I was able to buy her and our life began, neither of us knowing about ANYTHING! So we learned together, stalls which had to be repaired many times from her kicking, halters with the shaking head out of my reach, tieing to one huge oak after replacing numerous fences and posts, bathing with that splashing stuff everywhere, scarey wash bay inside where we finally entered backing up instead of running out, accepting the saddle, and finally riding lessons leading to horse trials and eventing – together as one. We think, breathe and act as one. I am told I am the only one she trusts and accepts, (she NEVER ONCE refused a jump with me – others didn’t give her right cues and came off when I couldn’t ride). My husband keeps trying to win her over with treats which she will take but not let him pet her. God brought us together and I am so very blessed for the years I have had with Shahera.

      • Your story is also a wonderful one God Blessed you and Shahera, an awesome bond, may you have many many more years together, i believe that this is what life is all about,…………………

    • Sweet story, but how can you have a great horse for 15 years and get rid of
      rid of him? I have a mare that’s 27 and doesn’t do much but I would never .
      never dream of selling her and she is taken care of the same as all the
      horses

  2. Beautiful story. I also can’t imagine having a horse for that long, & then letting him go when he’s retired. I would be way too attached, just like with any other pet/companion. I’m happy he went to an equine assisted therapy program though, & hope his remaining years are happy & good. He deserves nothing but love, pampering, TLC, & lots of attention! :)

  3. This story brought tears to my eyes. He reminds me so much of my beloved Sandman, my heart horse for 32 years. There is no describing how wonderful it is to be a part of such a relationship. Whether it is a dog or horse, there are those individuals that touch our hearts deeply.
    JR is a fantastic representative of the equine world.
    Thank you for the beautiful story.

  4. Love this story…hits home with me, because my special needs daughter does therapeutic horsemanship and it means the world to her to be with the horses and feel the connection!

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