The article, "He Put the Life Back in Me," was the highest placed entry in the 'Personality Profile--Circulation Under 15,000' catagory, which drew 30 entries. Written by editor and publisher Stephanie Lawson, it appeared in the June, 2003 issue of Pennsylvania Equestrian.
"What a neat story this one is, about a handicapped lady and her wild horse," the judges, a panel of publishing industry executives, journalists and college communications professors, said.
The article follows.
by Stephanie Lawson
Jean King 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 at Wave Crest Farm near Kennett Square. 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.
"He loves and respects Betty (Lester, owner of the Chester County farm and a former international Grand Prix dressage competitor)," King says. "But he makes it very clear it's me."
The two have an almost spiritual bond of trust and love that has enabled King in just 18 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's a 73-year-old amateur who's wheelchair-bound. And Cloud, only her second horse, is a coming-four-year-old wild Nokota horse who, until 18 months ago, roamed the North Dakota plains completely unhandled.
A group of prominent Chester County 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 1940's. Charlie Fleischmann, an ex-steeplechase rider and avid foxhunter, and his wife Blair first encountered the Nokota while vacationing in Montana. Blair helped to establish the Nokota Horse Conservancy in 1999, and began bringing Nokotas east where they could earn more exposure.
Cloud was among a band rounded up in order to select a few individuals for a trip east. "He hung back and wasn't a joiner so they felt his personality was not the sort they wanted," Lester said. "They put the horses that were easiest to load on the truck first, and Cloud just followed along and loaded himself.
"They couldn't get him off the truck so they brought him along. A man in Maryland wanted a black horse, but the black horse had no Coggins. It was winter and they thought, well, he's almost black, maybe he'll do." Cloud, a blue roan, didn't suit the prospective owner, 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. I told Frank Kuntz, someone's going to get hurt, you or the horse. Just leave him," Lester said. "He was in my barn and he was completely unhandled and wild as a March hare.
"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."
Hunted and Shot
For decades, the Nokota horses were hunted. In the 1960's 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," Lester said.
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 Lester's barn, he wasn't even broke to lead.
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," King said. "She knew I needed an outlet and was thinking about a horse so she called me."
Jean King, Lester's longtime friend, hadn't owned a horse in 15 years. King, a clinical microbiologist, had ridden as a child, but thought her riding days were over when in her mid-thirties, through her work, she contracted tuberculosis which affected her spine and left her unable to walk.
King founded the internationally acclaimed Independence Dogs, Inc., in 1984 as a result of her own need for help. 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.
King and Lester met through the organization and found they shared the same ideas about training. "We use understanding and patience," King said. "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."
Lester, a disciple of the classical dressage training methods 'used by the (US Equestrian) Team when they were great,' trains horses the way King trains dogs. Which is why she thought King 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 15 degrees toward me, I'd turn 15 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," King said. Although wary of everything, Cloud was never frightened of her wheelchair. Within days, Cloud walked on a lead shank in a paddock, led by King, 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 10 months, King 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 (put weight on his back to prepare for a rider) "and that went well," she said. "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. He hadn't done that 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," she said of the ride. King broke her leg in a non-horse related accident shortly after. She just bought a new saddle and is looking forward to riding again in 6 to 8 weeks.
"He's not an old deadhead, either," Lester said. "I wouldn't get on him."
King makes the quarter mile trip from the barn to the indoor arena in her wheelchair, being pulled by her assistance dog Kurt, her companion Lora McCoy leading Cloud. Normally King would lead Cloud but the constant rain has made the dirt path difficult to negotiate in a wheelchair.
The arena floor has a panel of plywood in the center, on which King's wheelchair rolls easily. Cloud stands with his head close to King'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 King. 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 King, while cavaletti and a 10-foot bounce are constructed. King 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," King announces. "He doesn't do that (paw) unless he's upset with himself. He wants to try again." The rail is put back up and Cloud, a natural jumper, clears it by 18 inches, to applause from the bystanders. The training session ends.
"He wants to please me in the worst way," King said. "He won't do it for anyone else.
"He's given my life a great deal of meaning. I went back to horses at age 72 and he put the life back in me. They give you something humans can't. Everybody, I think, has a natural barrier beyond which they don't let people know them. These guys don't care—they're right there," she says, hugging her chest.
"I know he wants to be ridden again. I think he is going to make a tremendous dressage horse," King said. Because the stout, small Nokota horse is a polar opposite from the huge warmbloods judges favor, she won't compete, but would like to do demonstrations, as she did with her other horse.
If it's OK with Cloud, she undoubtedly will.