From Chicken Soup for the Horse Lover's Soul II

Second Chances

Seize the day; put no trust in tomorrow.


Jean and Bright Cloud share a bond that goes far beyond most animal/human relationships. He is a one-woman horse with strong opinions who, on this day, won’t allow himself to be caught by anyone else. After chasing him around the pasture for awhile, they give up. Minutes later, he comes to the barn on his own to find Jean, who opens the door and watches him walk to his stall at the Chester County, Pennsylvania, farm owned by her friend, Betty.

The two have an almost spiritual bond of trust and love that has enabled Jean, in just eighteen months, to train Cloud to perform at liberty all gaits, jump nearly four feet, extend, collect, halt and stand. She uses just her hand, voice and a longe whip.

That would be a solid accomplishment for most trainers. But Jean’s not a professional—she is a 73-year-old, wheelchair-bound amateur. And Cloud, only her second horse, is a coming four-year-old wild Nokota who, until eighteen months before, had roamed the North Dakota plains completely unhandled.

A local group of prominent horsepeople are helping to preserve the Nokota horse, which were hunted for sport and profit by local ranchers and nearly eradicated by federal and state agencies. The breed exists only because a few bands were inadvertently fenced into a national park in the 1940s. Cloud was among a band rounded up in order to select a few individuals for a trip east.

Cloud, a blue roan, didn’t suit any prospective owners, so they intended to send him back. Cloud as usual had his own idea. “Even with three cc’s of acepromazine we couldn’t get him back on that truck,” Betty said. “I told one of the men trying to load him, ‘Someone’s going to get hurt, you or the horse. Just leave him’.”

For decades, the Nokota horses were hunted. In the 1960s they were rounded up by helicopter, herded into canyons and slaughtered. Those who survived to pass along their genes to today’s Nokotas were those best at avoiding and outwitting people. “They became very wise,” Betty observes. “Cloud was typical of a wild horse from the Plains—when startled his instinct was to run. It was difficult even to lead him. To this day no one can hold him if he wants to go.”

The drivers had struggled with Cloud in an effort to get him back on the truck, making the naturally suspicious horse even more fearful. By the time he found his way into a stall in Betty’s barn, he wasn’t even broke to lead. “He was in my barn and he was completely unhandled and wild as a March hare,” she recalls.

Cloud spent three weeks in the corner of the bullpen. “I didn’t do much with him other than look at him and think, What am I going to do with him? I saw that he had tremendous personality, that he was a horseman’s horse.”

“Betty saw something in him,” Jean said. “She knew I needed an outlet and was thinking about a horse so she called me.”

Jean had ridden as a child but hadn’t owned a horse in fifteen years. She thought her riding dayswere overwhen in her mid-thirties, through her work as a clinical microbiologist, she contracted tuberculosis that affected her spine and left her unable to walk.

As a result of her own need for help, in 1984 Jean founded the internationally acclaimed Independence Dogs, Inc. Independence dogs help those whose mobility is impaired by fetching items, opening and closing doors and bringing ringing telephones. Large dogs are also used to help people with Parkinson’s, MS, muscular dystrophy and other diseases keep their balance and to help them stand.

Jean and Betty met through the organization and found they shared the same ideas about training. “We use understanding and patience,” Betty says. “The severest punishment we have ever used with a dog is to roll it on its back and stare in its eyes until it understands the person is dominant.”

Betty is a disciple of the classical dressage training methods used by the U.S. Equestrian Team in their winning years and trains horses the way Jean trains dogs. Which is why she thought Jean and Cloud would mesh.

“The first time I saw him in his stall he turned his back to me. I opened the door and turned my back to him. When I saw him turn fifteen degrees toward me, I’d turn fifteen degrees toward him. He’d move six inches closer. I’d do the same. Within two and a half hours he had his nose pressed against my forehead,” Jean recalls. Although wary of everything, Cloud was never frightened of her wheelchair. Within days, Cloud walked on a lead shank in a paddock, led by Jean, who turned her wheelchair to lead him. He was hesitant, but never fought her. “We won each other’s trust, respect and love,” she said.

After working with Cloud for ten months, Jean decided it was time for her to take a ride, something she’d known she’d do from the first moment she saw him trot. She had one of the boarders back him and that went well. “We constructed a ramp and I got up there with my wheelchair and each time I would get close to him he would move away, something he hadn’t done with the girl. I finally realized he thought I was getting on wheelchair and all.” She moved into another chair, placing the wheelchair where Cloud could see it and he stood while she mounted. “He was wonderful,” Jean said of the ride. “He’s not an old deadhead, either,” Betty counters, “I wouldn’t get on him.”

The arena floor has a panel of plywood in the center, on which Jean’s wheelchair rolls easily. Cloud stands with his head close to her’s. She talks to him quietly and feeds him treats before releasing him from the lead. Cloud works at liberty. He trots each direction, extending and collecting at signals from Jean. He practices his latest lesson, walk/reverse/ walk with no break in stride. He stops and stays at a halt, never taking his eyes from Jean while cavaletti and a tenfoot bounce are constructed. Jean sends him over the jumps again and again, as the final jump is raised several times. When Cloud pulls the top rail, he retreats to the corner, head down, pawing.

“He’s very disappointed in himself, he doesn’t do that unless he’s upset with himself. He wants to try again. He wants to please me in the worst way,” Jean said, “He’s given my life a great deal of meaning. I went back to horses at age seventy-two and he put the life back in me. They give you something humans can’t.”

The final rail is back up and Jean sends Cloud around for another pass. This time he clears it by eighteen inches.

Stephanie Shertzer Lawson

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