How a Motown veteran is using his passion for wild horses to help at-risk children.
Jean Albert Renaud sleeps in a barn. His bedroom shares a wall with the stall of a stallion named Incitatus. On winter nights, he can hear the wind whistling across the hills, but Renaud (or Jar, as he is known) is warm in the company of his eight horses. He sleeps there because he wants to.
From humble roots in the Baltimore projects and a musical career touring with Motown royalty, right up to his current abode, Jar’s life has never been conventional. But today it is focused on his noblest effort yet—preserving and nourishing what he calls America’s two most precious and least appreciated treasures: the wild Mustang and our marginalized children.
Mustangs and children share the same free, untamed spirit that has always invigorated the American imagination. Yet instead of celebrating this spirit, in an increasingly controlled and fenced-in world, both mustangs and inner-city children are often considered more of a nuisance than an asset.
“We treat children like we treat the wild horses,” Jar says. “We rarely take the time to look at the world from their viewpoints. So many of them know and survive the streets without us. They are like wild horses. So, like the horses, how do you approach these ‘wild’ kids?”
The view from a mule
If you visit Jar’s home in the summer months, you can watch what happens when children and horses are brought together. Sunshine Acres, a farm in Northern Maryland with the ambiance of the American West, is graced with buildings that feature exposed wood and Native American motifs: carved totem-pole door frames, ceiling murals of horses and riders, and Indian blanket pillows tossed on the furniture.
At 69, Jar exudes an intense and joyful energy, not unlike that of the wild horses he loves so dearly. High cheekbones and dark, deep-set eyes hint at a Native American lineage—Blackfoot on his father’s side and Cherokee on his mother’s. But for his mother’s extraordinary strength and pioneering drive, he might have been one of the struggling children he now welcomes onto his farm.
Dorothy May White was Baltimore’s first female radio disc jockey. She was an inspiration to Jar and his sister, Evonne, and worked hard to get them out of Baltimore’s Somerset Court Housing projects. Her efforts paid off when Jar became Baltimore’s first black male national recording artist of the era.
Dorothy May also gave her children another gift: a means of escape from the city. She regularly took Jar and Evonne to visit their great-grandfather’s farm in Virginia, where Jar experienced the most pivotal event of his life: “When I was three years old my great-grandfather lifted me up and put me on the back of his old mule. I realized then and there, that’s where I needed to be.”
But Jar’s dream of owning horses would be delayed for several years. Like so many young men of the late 1950s, he joined the Army at age 18. Unlike most others, though, he won a contest for Best Male Vocalist and spent the final 18 months of his eight-year stint entertaining the troops. When he later started his own group, Renaud and the Junction, he was offered a contract by Motown talent scouts.
Even in the frenetic world of touring and performing with groups like the Jackson Five and Sly and the Family Stone, Jar couldn’t escape the pull of his true passion. “Everywhere I went,” he remembers, “I ran into people with horses. I remember David Ruffin [of the Temptations] had a little paint he rode.”
It was in these same years that Jar began exploring the American West. He befriended members of the Apache, Navajo, and Sioux tribes, and rode horseback with them through New Mexico and Colorado. Here, he first laid eyes on the wild mustangs. He was immediately smitten by their majestic beauty and a desire to learn more about them.
To understand the wild horses, Jar realized he needed to observe how they interacted without human interference.
“We never take time to learn who horses are without that dominant control factor that mankind provides,” he points out. “They survived for thousands of years without us. I wanted to know how to approach a horse in the wild, a horse that had never been ridden or fed by a man. I wanted to learn how they took care of themselves. So I went on a crusade to study wild horses.”
The tonic of wilderness
Horses originated in North America some 55 million years ago. The earliest were the size of small dogs, and over millions of years they evolved to look much like the horses that roam the plains today. They crossed over the Bering Strait to populate the rest of the world before becoming extinct in North America some 12,000 to 14,000 years ago.
The species was reintroduced in the 16th century, when the conquistadors transported them on ships to help subjugate the New World. The mustangs that roam the West today are descendants of these hardy steeds.
In 1971, when Richard Nixon signed the Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act to ensure protection for these animals, he began with a quote by Henry David Thoreau: “We need the tonic of wilderness. Wild horses merit protection as a matter of ecological right, as anyone knows who has stood awed at the indomitable spirit and sheer energy of a mustang living free.”…(CONTINUED)