by John Paolucci
Shortly after the death of one of my closest friends I needed something to take my mind off of the loss, something that would bring me comfort and peace. I was a New York City resident at the time and lived fairly close to a stable that offered trail rides and lessons. I knew that spending time with horses would be the right path to bring about acceptance and healing so I decided to go for some lessons.
My good friend Jim in Arizona whom I would visit a couple times each year had a herd of six horses. When I’d stay at his house, I’d of course play by his rules. The day started with the sunrise. Stalls got mucked, feeders got filled and troughs got cleaned out or skimmed and topped off. Then we could have our breakfast.
Retirement from my career as a NYPD detective sergeant was less than two years away and I had plans to move into a house I’d bought in Elgin, AZ which is close to where Jim lived in Sonoita. Perhaps that time would come when my living situation would be more accommodating to horse ownership……perhaps when the time was right, but certainly not now.
I had always embraced the history, characters and culture of the “Old West” and a lot of that is kept alive in Santa Cruz County Arizona where Jim’s house is and neighboring Cochise County Arizona which of course is the home of Tombstone and the OK Corral. Working plain clothes in the detective bureau, my attire typically included boots, belts and buckles from the Tombstone area which earned me the nickname, “Sgt. Mcloud” after the old Dennis Weaver television series where he played a cowboy from Taos New Mexico assigned to the NYPD.
Working with Jim I became very comfortable being around these big, magnificent creatures and learned how to clean their feet, groom them, blanket them (the high desert of Sonoita, AZ got pretty cold at night in winter) and even learned a little about tacking them up. I also learned about my fears and about their fears and began forming a unique bond with each horse. I dreamed about one day having horses of my own, but living in a 450 square foot house in the Bronx with a yard the size of a parking spot – well that wasn’t a good fit with the whole horse owning dream.
Although I had acquired what I believed was good experience out in Sonoita, I hadn’t spent much time in the saddle so taking lessons was a good way to start filling in some gaps while in this embryonic phase of cowboy learning. When I arrived at the stable I was introduced to a wrangler named Orville who wore a cowboy hat and spoke with a southern drawl that had been somewhat neutered by years of New York City living, but you could still detect it.
“I’m gonna put you on Montana. He’s good with city slickers like you.” I had given Orville my background with horses out in Arizona and that completely failed to impress him. We were starting from ground zero, and he was right to not take my word for anything. In my universe of concrete,
cops and cars I was somewhat horse savvy, but Orville’s 50+ years of living, eating, breathing all things horse told him otherwise. I didn’t like being called a city slicker but didn’t have much of an argument to prove him wrong and Orville didn’t seem to mind that the term obviously annoyed me. I think he kind of enjoyed it.
Montana was a beautiful white (sorry – I don’t like saying “grey”) quarter horse and he was led out of the stable already tacked up. There was a gentleness about him and I felt very comfortable with him right away. Orville had me mount up off a block, which I was glad my Arizona cowboy friends didn’t see, and down the road we went towards the entrance to some small trails.
Trucks and Harleys roared by, tires screeched, tug whistles blew and Montana proved to me that he was bomb proof or what Orville called “City slicker broke”. We talked and rode and got to a place where we could let them run. I found out that Orville was a musician who played country music and I got to show off my knowledge of classic country which actually did impress him this time. I also play harmonica and Orville told me that he’d be glad to give me a chance to play at one of his gigs. The magic in Montana started working right away and I had two new lifetime friends.
Retirement was getting closer and the dream of owning horses in Arizona was getting bigger as the time passed and at this point Orville now had a new harmonica player in his band called “Orville Davis and the Wild Bunch”.
I took as many lessons as free time and budget would allow. This continued for a couple months, always requesting Orville and Montana for my lessons. Then one day I showed up at the stable and Orville told me that I’d have to ride another horse because Montana wasn’t sound and he was going to be sent to auction. Orville explained to me just exactly what being sent to auction meant and how Montana would be sold by the pound. I felt crushed.
He told me that there was going to be a collection and people from the stable were going to get the money to buy Montana and bring him to a nice home upstate somewhere. I told him to let me know how much money he needed and I would contribute all I can. A couple weeks passed and I asked Orville how the collection was going.
“It ain’t the money Johnny. We raised all we need. It’s just that we can’t find a place to bring him. I mean, everyone was willing to chip in to buy him and the vet even gave him his shots and will do the Coggins for nothin’ when someone’s ready to take ownership of him, but I’ve had no luck finding him a home.”
An old biker friend of mine named Ron had moved up to Dutchess county and had two horses. We had lost touch when he moved all the way up there but I still had a contact number for him so I gave him a call to see if he wanted a horse……for free.
“Are you nuts? There’s no such a thing as a free horse. And this one’s got issues with his feet? No thanks!” His wife Michelle knew the owner of the stable and tried to make a case for the horse saying that if this horse was selected by this stable then he’s very likely a good horse. I was making the case that I KNEW he was a good horse and I’d come visit a lot if Montana was added to his herd.
“You have no idea how much work it is owning a horse. I don’t care about your little vacations in Arizona where you get your feet dirty once a year, you have no idea what you’re asking.”
I was desperate to save Montana as he’d been such a healing force in my life. I told Ron all about what I was going through and how much the horse meant to me, until Ron finally said,
“OK. You’re retiring and moving to Arizona in a little over a year, right? You want that horse so badly, here’s what you do. Build him a stall, chip in for feed and whatever happens, he is YOUR horse. That means your vet bills, your farrier bills, you drive up here to take care of him and you help out with maintaining the property and the fences that will definitely need more maintenance with a third horse. Oh, and when you get ready to move out to Arizona, he goes with you, got it?”
I eagerly agreed to this. I had worked as a carpenter before my career in police work started and looked forward to building the stall. I told Orville that I had a place for Montana once the stall was built and Orville came up to give me a hand on my days off to make Montana a nice stall. Ron saw I was going overboard with a cinderblock wall to divert water and a skylight in the framing for the roof, but he just shook his head and walked away saying:
The day came when Orville was going to bring Montana up in a trailer and Ron helped me put shavings down on the floor of the stall and get buckets ready for water and feed. I have to admit that when the trailer pulled up and this big creature backed out of it, my first thought was, ‘What the heck did I just do??’ Then Ron’s six year old son Anthony came to see what was going on and Montana went right up to him and put his nose against his face. Montana took a couple steps and rolled in the mud, very careful to completely cover both sides then walked up to a feeder with a big round bail in it and began to eat very contentedly.
Ron led Montana to the stall and as soon as he stepped on the shavings, he sniffed and then rolled in the shavings that stuck to the wet mud coating he’d just acquired. They don’t have mud in Arizona like they do in Dutchess county, so my grooming skills fell short of the tasks ahead. Orville took Montana’s shoes off and he seemed to be a little more comfortable walking only on dirt rather than pavement.
I kept my word to Ron and made the trip up from the city to Dutchess county so often that the drive didn’t seem like much after a while. My mom’s cancer had returned so the plan to move to Arizona got put on the back burner, which Ron didn’t seem to mind too much. We’d rekindled our friendship and I was becoming like a part of the family. I became the unofficial Godfather to their two children.
Ron and Michelle’s daughter Charlotte was two years old when Montana became a tenant at their house. It wasn’t long before she was introduced to the horses and the bond she formed with Montana was nothing short of magical.
Montana would follow her around wherever she went. She would pick grass and hand feed it to him and when he was going through a battle with Lyme’s Disease Charlotte would fill her skirt with grass and bring the grazing to Montana while he was in his stall. She’d help wash him and groom him and Montana always kept his head at her level whenever she was around. He was clearly smitten!
Life continued to bring changes and I soon found myself looking for a place to live that would be closer to Montana, Ron and my adopted family. Retirement had been good to me and I started my own business as a forensic consultant that required travel to different states and even different countries. I realized that with all the travel a rental would best suit my lifestyle and would be a better choice should I decide that it was time to move to Arizona.
I found the perfect place for me in LaGrangeville at Ryancrest Farm where I have plenty of room to live and have a home office, and on top of that it’s a horse farm. I bonded right away with Laura and Bucky and the people who board their horses here and again found myself part of a family.
As life’s changes continued, Charlotte and Anthony grew up and have full lives with school and various hobbies so the thought of bringing Montana to live with me in LaGrangeville was something I discussed with all of them. Charlotte was making new equine friends with the 4H group and even competing in events. Anthony had become an accomplished motocross racer. They agreed that it would be great for me to have him right in my backyard and I’m very close so they could come visit any time.
Montana came to live with me at Ryan Crest and he’s now part of a big herd. He has lots of friends and excellent care when I’m away on my travels. My learning continues as I get out there with him every day in all kinds of weather to care for him. I’m surrounded by the most knowledgeable horse people here and Laura has really taken me under her wing and given me so much mentoring. I’m also surrounded by the wide open space that drew me to Arizona to begin with.
Changes keep on coming. Mom’s passed on three years ago now and Dad’s still going at 89, so I don’t have plans to live 2,500 miles away at this time in my life. The people and the beautiful surroundings here in Dutchess have brought a lot of peace into my life. I also met a wonderful woman, Ana, who lives close by and I’m enjoying a very meaningful relationship.
So many gifts came to me as a result of rescuing Montana. I didn’t believe I had the means to be a horse owner, but the bigger picture of getting him out of the city and keeping him from the auction caused me to take leaps of faith, believing that love is the most powerful force there is and that you can’t go wrong by doing right.
Montana and I have been together nine years now. By rescuing him, through God’s grace I was also rescued. I got to be close to my old friend Ron once again and to be a part of his kids’ lives as they grew up. I myself was rescued from the city and now live in a paradise. My relationship with Ana would never have happened had I not moved up to Dutchess county. I’ve enjoyed playing in Orville’s band, meeting other horse owners, going to shows and events and none of this would have happened had I walked away from Montana when he needed someone to help him. This whole incident inspired me to realize a lifelong dream of becoming an author and I wrote a children’s book called “Saving Montana”. Yet another dream come true thanks to the magic in our horses that they constantly bless us with.