Wheeling into the coffee shop parking lot to interview Jonnie Jonckowski, I assumed that since she was a two-time bull riding champion, an inductee to the Cowgirl Hall of Fame, and the first woman to ride in Men’s World Bull Riding Championships, I would see a F250, horse trailer attached, a belt buckle the size of a ’57 Chevy hubcap, and a herd dog guarding her rig while she waited inside with Stetson pulled down.
As I sat down to interview the hatless icon about her upcoming Angel Horses Charity Ball, Jonckowski asked if I had seen her Mini Cooper convertible parked outside and told me how much she loved it. Her golden retriever, Tally Ho, sat at her feet with his service dog vest on.
Jonckowski explained that Tally Ho was accredited to detect seizures before they happened and was actually now responding to heart attacks as well. She said that with the type of clients her Angel Horses attracted, Tally Ho was an indispensable tool … and a good friend.
The forging of the quiet champion is one of disappointment followed by disappointment, injury followed by injury, failed relationships, debilitating medical issues and superhero athletic ability bolstered by supportive parents, friends and a trust that God helps those who help themselves. Perhaps when one views the world from the back of a one-ton raging bull, and one’s prayer is to live for just two seconds more, the prism changes.
As a high school athlete, Jonckowski dominated in four events. State titles and scholarships were in plain view. But an obscure rule mandated disqualification if qualifying in more than three events. The disqualification from the state finals in her senior year meant no titles and no scholarships.
Several years later, aided by a scholarship to a junior college in Kalispell, Jonckowski was ranked second in the United States and third in the world in the pentathlon. Competing in the nationals for a shot on the U.S. Olympic team, she stumbled on a hurdle. Jonckowski soldiered through and finished second in the event, but the injury knocked her out of Olympic contention.
As that injury healed, Jonckowski saw a poster for an all-girl rodeo in Red Lodge and paid her entry fee. She was hooked. At a bull-riding school, she was kicked in the face and had her first reconstructive surgery. Soon she quit her job and was chasing weekend rodeos.
The prize money for women riders did not cover travel costs. Compared to the local girls she was riding against, Jonckowski figured she would soon be the World Bull Riding Champion and make up for the lost Olympic gold, two years tops.
Ten years later, out of money, pipes frozen because the utilities had been shut off, alone because her rodeo lifestyle could not sustain relationships, she again qualified for the nationals. Her mom and a home refinance check funded the three-ride effort. She had enough points that two good rides meant that the national title was hers at last. The buzzer sounded and Jonckowski was still on the bull. She had scored well. As she dismounted, the bull stomped the back of her leg. Another cowgirl helped her out of the arena and away from the rampaging bull.
Her right calf was so swollen it split her jeans. The injury was a compartment syndrome. The blood flowed in but could not flow out. The pressure could kill the nerves, causing permanent injury, and the danger of blood clots was imminent. The doctor gave her pain killers, blood thinners, and no hope of riding again.
Jonckowski iced and elevated the leg for the night. She took no pain killers as she needed a clear head. She arrived at the arena on crutches, “turned out” her second bull, and banked everything on the third bull.
Jonckowski threw her dangling leg over the bull and settled in. The gate opened and the crowd went wild as “the cowgirl from Billings” rode with only upper body strength, leg flopping and no way to dismount. When the buzzer sounded she was still in the middle of the bull and the new World Bull Riding Champion.
Rodeo clowns were ready and got her down. When she got home to Billings her best friend and physical therapist gave her a pendant of five connected gold rings … the Olympic symbol. Two years later she was crowned the World Bull Riding Champion again.
A tumor was found in her face that was growing so fast that it exploded bone and dissolved tissue. Blindness was imminent with death predicted to soon follow. It claimed her palate, upper jaw, half of her lower jaw, her teeth, and the rim of her eye before it was conquered. Five surgeries and 232 procedures later, including bone shaving, tissue grafts and “tweaking,” Lynn “Jonnie” Jonckowski was beautiful inside and out once again.
Nowadays the national rodeo champ is the founder and chief executive officer of Angel Horses. The concept is simple. After a lifetime of work, people do not flourish being warehoused and in “nine months they die emotionally.”
Animals are the same way. After a life time of cutting cows, packing or being a pleasure horse, horses want to work, but euthanized or standing in a pasture is the common ending. By putting both together, magic happens as people and animals both rejuvenate.
Many relatives claim that Alzheimer’s patients have increased long-term memory capacity after visiting with the Angel Horses. For some a “one last ride” is the final request. One was recently granted via a buckboard in lieu of a hearse ride.
Special needs kids get riding lessons. And a star boarder is Elvira, an aged donkey that loves the attention of children and the elderly.
An average of 30 people per day are delivered to the Angel Horses three-acre plot or are visited by the horses. About 150 more per month have to be turned away.
There are eight horses and several donkeys on site. Thirty-five more horses in “foster care” are being cared for by people who have a plot of land and big hearts. All of the horses are “rescue horses” being given a quality of life in their final days by serving human counterparts in a way no other can.
All feed must be bought as three acres won’t produce nearly enough. The animals all need supplements, trimmings, worming and sheltered. Thirty-five have had to be buried.
Veterinarian Mark Robinson of Alpine Veterinary supplies medication at cost and several philanthropists chip in. Many who use the services or the facility pay what they can, but the costs are huge. So at 6:30 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 7, Angel Horses is having its annual Boot Scootin’ Barn Dance and Benefit Ball at the White Aspen Ranch, 481 S. 56th St. W.
Music is provided by the Bruce Hauser and the Sawmill Creek Band, with comedy by Doug Hunter, and a special appearance by Dan Haggerty, who played Grizzly Adams. Pulled pork buffet and western dance contests are included; two-step, waltz and swing dance winners all get trophies. According to Jonckowski, the income from the event is “a major source” of the money needed to keep the operation afloat.
When asked why people support her brand of therapy, she replied, ”Because people see it work and would rather give money to a local effort than to a national organization where the money may never be used to help local people.”
When asked how much of the money gets to the animals’ needs and that of her clients, without blinking Jonckowski said, “Everybody that works here is a volunteer. If they really bust their ass I take them to Wendy’s.”
On Aug. 15, Maggie Parker, the only woman competing in professional bull riding, suffered a broken back when thrown by a bull while still in the chute. Who is giving support and understanding in a world that just does not understand? Lynn “Jonnie” Jonckowski.
“Now I know how my mom felt,” she said.
Horses don’t retire, special needs kids strive every day, and champions always scan for new mountains to climb. After spending a year looking for a “black and white blue eyed jumping horse,” Jonckowski spotted a black-and-white blue-eyed horse standing in a pasture. It took months to find the owner, who turned out to be an acquaintance. It was not a trained jumper. She named him Ringo and announced that she would ride in the hunter/jumper competition at the Big Sky State Games in less than a year. Experts told her that with neither she nor the horse having any experience in such competition, it was a fool’s errand. The team of Johnnie and Ringo won every event they entered.
More information about services and the ball is available at jjsangelhorses @msn.com. For details on Saturday’s event, see the Insider Calendar in this issue.