After the famous lady bull rider retired from the arena and Hollywood, she became a physical therapy tech and built a place where rescued horses bring joy and connection to people short on both.
When Jonnie Jonckowski puts her mind to something, it’s a good bet it will happen. First, there was bull riding. A little obstacle like being a woman athlete in a tough-guy sport wasn’t going to stop her from climbing aboard rank beasts, riding like hell, and becoming the Women’s National Finals Rodeo Bull Riding champion in 1986 and 1988 and a 1991 inductee in the National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame.
The lady likes a challenge, odds and obstacles be damned. What fires her up these days is her nonprofit, Angel Horses, and her dream of building a cowboy town on her 10 acres outside of Billings, where she’ll eventually be able to deliver even more compassion, care, contact, and entertainment to an increasing number of elderly and at-risk youth.
“It’s not equine therapy, it’s comfort-compassion therapy — it’s just reviving someone again,” says Jonckowski, who got a degree as a physical therapy tech after retiring from the arena and Hollywood. “When I got out of rodeoing and my TV series, my mom got really sick with Alzheimer’s. While I was caring for her, I lost my niche in Hollywood.
"When she ultimately passed, I tried to find work. I had ridden bulls for 25 years then did talk shows and game shows — it wasn’t real attractive on a résumé. I couldn’t even get a dishwashing job back then. So I went back to school in PT, then trained a golden retriever to do rounds with me in a nursing home. That was really calming.”
It wasn’t long before she moved from the retriever to something a tad bigger. “I had a patient who was going to be 99. She was blind; her fingers were all gnarled. I asked her what she wanted for her birthday. She had grown up on a ranch and said she wanted a paint pony. So I bought her a Breyer paint horse. When I gave it to her, she was a little disheartened that it wasn’t an actual horse. But she named it Happy, and we set Happy on the nightstand.”
“When I came in the next day to do PT with her, she told me someone had stolen her Breyer horse. It was the only thing she had. It absolutely crushed me.”
Soon enough Jonckowski came up with a solution. “I had a paint horse that could be trained. We Pine-Soled him up, made some rubber boots out of Vet Wrap for his feet, and clippety-clopped him into her room. We put a grain bucket in her lap. She said, ‘Jonnie, I can smell him!’ I thought, Oh, my God, I did the right thing. The horse let out a whinny and everyone knew that there was a horse in Ruby’s room. Then of course everyone wanted to see and touch the horse, so we hung grain buckets in people’s windows so they could feed my horse. I got pink-slipped the next day.”
The biggest thing she says she learned in the nursing homes “was that the people were clothed, fed, medicated, and bathed, but there’s no stimulus. Within a short time, they’re sitting in the hall or in front of their dinner plates like zombies. The loneliness was all-encompassing. These people just need touch and connection.”
Putting Angels To Work
If Jonckowski wasn’t going to be able to bring the joy to nursing homes, she’d bring the nursing homes to the joy. “I thought of how easy it was to make this person so happy,” she says, “and I ultimately started bussing seniors out and just using my own horses on my own property. I talked friends into helping me with the seniors who would come out to pet and be with the horses.”
It took years — and lots of volunteers — to turn Angel Horses into what it is today. The program now has seven mostly older horses and donkeys, all rescued from a kill pen, who have become rescuers themselves. “They all function,” Jonckowski says. “They seem to know they’ve been given a second chance, and they seem to be extremely grateful because of that.”
Angel Horses is expansive in who they serve: veterans, cancer patients and caregivers, memory-care patients, at-risk kids — they even do “last ride” requests for old cowboys.
Sometimes, Jonckowski says, memory-care patients who can no longer recognize their own children will experience complete lucidity.
“The mom or dad will say their son’s or daughter’s name and look in their eyes with incredible clarity and start a conversation. It doesn’t last long—maybe 15 or 20 minutes. We don’t understand why it happens, but it’s real and it’s amazing.”
It's all about stimulus, Jonckowski says. In addition to the interaction Angel Horses provides, there’s lunch and entertainment — “someone to play guitar.” It’s an expensive undertaking as it is, and Jonckowski wants to grow the program. “We have the mortgage, insurance, vet bills, food … all of it. It’s huge. It’s a big nut each month. The hardest part for me and all of us is that the demand is so great. People who come out here want to come back the very next day and again and again.”
That enthusiastic demand has birthed a vision to take the property from what it is today—a large indoor arena, a small white chapel, a kiosk with a kitchen where snacks and treats can be prepared, tepees, hitching rails, a gazebo that they use for weddings—to the next level.
The Trail Ahead
“My huge goal is to build a little Western town out in front of our long arena, with a general store, a Delmonico’s, a saloon,” Jonckowski says. “I want a farrier there shoeing a horse and a blacksmith working so people can watch. We’ll have Gunsmoke on the TV, and people can have a beer at the bar. Seniors can man the town. If we had that, then we’d be a destination. People could hang out for the day, and we could go from hundreds of seniors a summer to thousands or more.”
As it stands now, the operation is completely volunteer and relies on donations and grants. “When someone makes a donation, 100 percent goes right back,” Jonckowski says. “There are no paid employees. I work 70 to 80 hours a week, and 60 of that is volunteering where I get nothing. I’m digging post holes, etc. I’m not a kid and can’t be doing that forever. I’d just as soon be giving hugs in my cowboy town.”
Without that vision coming to pass (naming rights are on the table for the visionary donor who helps make it happen), she’s afraid for their future. But Jonckowski’s nothing if not irrepressible.
“Someone somewhere will see my vision and want to be a part of it, of this I am certain. My mom's favorite saying whenever I would get stressed out or worried was ‘Honey, have a little faith,’ and those simple words would get me through and still do.”
It’s just a matter of time, money, and having a little faith. Jonckowski knows she’s in the right place to make it happen. “When I first visited this property, it had an energy,” she says. “It was like I’d walked across the threshold of God, where we would provide so much love, smiles, and hugs — and change some lives. My cowboy town is what’s missing. But we’ll get there.”
For more information and to donate, visit angelhorsesmt.org.
(Photography: Courtesy Jonnie Jonckowski and Angel Horses Inc.)