A Perfect Match
By Carole W. Long
The first meeting was an emotional one for all concerned. For Montana horse trainer Wendy Malone it had been 2-1/2 years since she had spent time with the big gray Quarter Horse gelding that she had so lovingly raised and trained. She hadn't planned to part with the gentle horse named Montana Oh, but when his lifelong pasture companion died suddenly, Wendy felt the horse's loneliness as much as she felt her own loss. Shortly thereafter a family visiting Wendy's Spotted Fawn Paint Ranch saw the lonesome horse and begged her to sell him to them. Wendy did finally agree to their purchase of Montana, but not without feeling that part of her heart was going with him.
For myself, a relative newcomer to Montana's Bitterroot Valley and new friend of Wendy's, I had heard stories about Montana and thought it would be wonderful to own such a horse. I had listened as Wendy talked about her philosophy of gentle training - how she "leaves everything in the horse" as she trains them. I knew that for his first fourteen years Montana had been utilized by Wendy in a variety of situations. As a youngster Montana was raced, then he ponied race horses, was trained in arena work and Dressage, and as a trail horse where he also excelled. He had no fear of water and loved to swim rivers. Wendy's husband, Gary, had not ridden much, and when he underwent knee surgery and was in a cast for six weeks, Montana was clearly the horse that he could safely ride. Montana, I was told, could sense a rider's need and would adapt to that. When I realized that a horse advertised in the newspaper was indeed Montana, I contacted the sellers and purchased the horse sight unseen from the family that was now relocating and would not be taking all of their horses with them.
The horse easily proved to be as well trained and gentle as I had heard, but he also is quite tall, and I am short. Although the horse would stand patiently for saddling, I found it difficult to lift the saddle onto his tall back. Mounting him was another challenge, requiring that I find some sort of mounting block - not what I had in mind in seeking to resume riding after a 15-year hiatus. I began to mention to friends that I might sell the horse - but only to the "right" person. One of these friends, Shannon Minnis of Paints1 Ranch, remembered this conversation and forwarded to me an email message that she had received. Here is that message:
My name is Chuck. I live in Deer Lodge. I
have been searching for a new horse. I came across an ad from your
I am looking for a horse that is calm, smooth riding, not overly sensitive and well neck reined. The perfect horse right! My major concern is that the horse is calm and will stand still while being saddled and bridled and/or brushed.
I don't have any arms, and do everything with my feet. I need a horse that will stand still in case I drop something, and it will happen. I have to have a platform on each side of the horse to stand above the horse to put the saddle and blanket down onto the horse. Saddling a horse is a time consuming project for me and I need a horse that will stand still and tolerate to all my movement and noise. I currently have two horses that I have been able to train to stand still as such. However, they are getting very old now so I must look for a somewhat younger horse to replace them. Most of my riding experience has been the mountains and/or on trail rides.
I have never had a horse that cues to the
legs, but I hear they are rather incredible.
If you feel that you may have a horse that could meet my needs, please get back to me at your earliest convenience.
I will be looking forward to hearing from you in the future. If you do not have a horse that would meet my needs, would you be so kind as to put the word out to your friends for me that I am looking for a horse?
Without hesitation I contacted Chuck and told him about the horse Montana. Chuck sounded excited and asked to set an appointment as soon as possible, stating that he had expected to spend a year searching for the right horse. A tentative appointment was made, as I explained to Chuck that I needed to check Wendy's schedule. I wanted to have the trainer present to demonstrate the horse's training and knowledge, since she would know that better than anyone.
Friday, the day of the meeting, Wendy went into the stall, put her face close to that of the big horse she had raised, and spoke quietly to him. It was obvious to me and to Chuck that there was communication between Wendy and Montana.
Chuck watched as Wendy went about grooming and saddling Montana. Standing in front of the horse and slightly to the side, Chuck slipped his bare foot out of his shoe and reached out to the horse with that foot. Montana stood still - the only change, and one that was noticed by all three of us, was that Montana 's eyes seemed to soften - almost as if in recognition. Chuck stroked the horse's face and neck with his foot, then slipped his foot back into his shoe.
Wendy rode Montana into the pasture and put him through various moves, demonstrating the horse's capabilities. That was fine, but it was obvious that Chuck was eager to learn for himself, so Montana was led over to Chuck's sport utility vehicle where he could mount the horse from its tailgate. First, however, Chuck's specially adapted reins were attached to the hackamore that was being used on the horse. As soon as the reins were on, Chuck rode Montana into the pasture and began performing some of the moves that had just been demonstrated to him. It was obvious that the horse was receiving slightly different cues than he had from Wendy, but it was also clear that he was trying to do what his rider was asking. Things were going quite well, until Chuck dropped the reins, then leaned forward to try to pick them up. Montana had been raced as a youngster, and a rider leaning forward meant "go faster" to him, and that is what he did. Shifting from a trot to a lope, he headed straight for the barn, as both Wendy and I quit breathing... Two things were evident as the duo headed for the barn, Montana was not "running away", he was gently loping, and Chuck was remaining calm. Luckily the 12 foot doors on both ends of the breezeway were fully open, and Montana and Chuck emerged no worse the wear out the other end of the barn - at which time both Wendy and I began to breathe again. Undaunted, Chuck wasn't finished yet. Once the reins were again in his possession, he headed back through the breezeway and into the field to finish what he had started.
Once the ride was completed and Chuck was ready to get back on the road to Deer Lodge, he indicated he would think it over and be in contact. He apparently did a lot of thinking on the drive home, as he phoned me that night to say he had decided that he wanted Montana and would like to pick him up on Sunday.
I really wasn't surprised at Chuck's decision since I had witnessed the connection between him and the horse. In fact I had been thinking about what a remarkable person Chuck is and how inspiring his story could be to others. I proposed to Chuck that a television program called Horsin' Around in the West might be interested in this story, and asked his permission to contact them. Chuck readily agreed, stating he would do anything to promote the good done by the connection between horses and challenged individuals.
Chuck explained that he in fact has done volunteer work for seven years with the Helena Riding Academy for the Handicapped in Helena, MT. Chuck was the riding instructor for the program, which served riders of all ages and disabilities. They had riders who were mentally retarded, riders who had multiple sclerosis, and riders who were recovering stroke patients. Chuck's volunteer work has also included Camp Make A Dream, the camp for cancer victims. He plans to use Montana if he is called upon again by that program.
Chuck also has a dream - he would like to start a therapeutic horseback riding program using Montana and several of his other horses as the facilitators. He is currently searching for funds to develop that dream.
I asked Chuck about his background, curious as to how he became so involved with horses. He explained that as a youngster he was unable to pull himself up to develop his balance for walking and was slow to learn to walk, in fact just "rolled across the floor like a barrel.". His father began putting him on his ponies and leading them around, improving Chuck's center of balance, and walking soon followed.
As a child growing up with a disability, Chuck had few friends, and was often teased by other kids who would not play with him. During junior high and high school, his uncle would saddle his horse for him and he would spend many hours just riding around town or down country roads. He was excluded from sports in high school, although he always wanted to run fast like the cross country runners in his school. Without arms to swing for momentum, however, he "was about as fast as a snail." With a horse under him he felt that he was equal to his peers and as fast as anyone else.
Chuck left his horses behind when he went to college and in fact didn't ride from 1972 until 1983 when he went to the Black Hills of South Dakota. It was during that trip that he went on a trail ride to the top of Mount Rushmore and experienced one of the most powerful events of his life. "I sat upon that magnificent creature high upon the mountain looking down at the world. Independence and mobility became clear to me. I knew I needed to become involved with horses again. I also wanted to share the feel of freedom of mobility with others involved in their own prisons created by their disabilities. That is when I actively searched for a handicapped riding program to volunteer my time with."
"My philosophy with horses is if one of us (my horse or myself) can't do something, we will just try another way. Until we overcome our fears we are not good thinkers nor are we able to work together to create the feelings of self worth and confidence that will take us down the next trail ride of life."
For the last six months Chuck has been taking riding lessons in an arena as he hopes to someday compete in horse shows. "Someday I would like the show announcer to call Montana and me forward to receive the first place ribbon and ride up to the show judge and say, "look judge, no hands."
I, for one, plan to be present when Chuck
shows Montana. For this special pair it is only a matter of time
before that ribbon will be awarded.
- The segment of Horsing Around in the West featuring Chuck and Montana was aired on Sunday, March 14 at 8a.m. on ABC 23 out of Missoula
- Wendy Malone raises and trains Paint and Quarter Horses at her Spotted Fawn Paint ranch in Victor. She has also recently released a video on foal imprinting called "A Member of the Herd"
- Chuck Petersen is a Special Education Teacher in Deer Lodge
- Carole Long raises part Arab Pintos at Montana Bold Pintos in Corvallis