There’s a horse that lives at the top of Sunmount Hill in Tupper?Lake. Driving by it almost every day, it becomes a friendly sight and something to wonder about.
Will it be standing there eating hay? Will it be lying down? (Horses lie down when they are comfortable and feeling safe, not when they’re sick, as some may say.) Will it be in its enclosure or romping around or something?
It’s not a place where one can stare at a horse for long, though. It’s at the corner of the Old Wawbeek Road and the busy Route 3/30 as it leaves Tupper Lake, and there are often cars turning into Sunmount D.D.S.O. or emerging onto the state highway. Mostly it’s just a glimpse of a golden brown and pure white horse over on the right, if you notice it at all.
So it seemed like it might be a good adventure to go over there and check it out and find out the story. Everyone has a story.
It turns out the horse is a 20-year-old pinto paint named Princess, and she’s owned by Debbie Jones, who lives in the little ranch style house on the other side of the corral which she refers to as “the little house on the prairie.” She agreed to talk (with reservations) because she said she didn’t know if she had much of a story to tell, “But OK, I could do it,” she said.
At her house on a Monday afternoon, the first one who greets visitors is Cali, her 10-year old golden Lab, the kind of dog that even though she barks and attempts to growl, you know she has a happy look and she’s actually glad to see you and far from ever biting anyone.
“She is horse trained,” Jones said.
Cali gets the horse moving when it stops and runs with it on rides.
One thing is clear: everyone is happy it’s spring, as the ground thaws out and the door is open and the saddle is hanging over the fence.
A plastic box straddles the fence and holds all the items for a good currying and cleaning. The evidence of it is on the shiny coat of the horse, which is freshly combed.
“I hope she can hold off rolling in the dirt long enough to get a picture,” Jones said, laughing, emerging from the door.
After a few photos, she tells the story of her horse named Princess. Looking forward to summer is an understatement, according to Jones. She couldn’t wait to start riding, and the horse seems glad for warmer weather, too.
Princess has a nice well-built enclosure with storage for hay on one side and a stall on the other, but “she hates to be inside,” Debbie said of her horse. “She goes in for her grain, but she wants everything else outside.”
Jones said she bought Princess in 2012, about two years ago in July, and “It seems like I’ve had her forever.”
She came from a lady in Westport, who had her for eight or nine years, “and they weren’t able to ride her anymore.”
She loves to be ridden, and Jones said she rides her a lot in the summer. So do a lot of other people. Her riders are mostly kids, but she can carry just about anyone, as she weighs in at about 1,100 pounds, not a tiny horse by any means.
Recently, Jones said she has started offering Princess for birthday parties and riding lessons and she has provided her services at a number of different benefits, mainly to raise money for people who have cancer, she said.
The Girl Scouts have come over and had riding lessons and a chance to canter around the yard, and even a lady who was pregnant got a chance to ride.
She has offered her for rides at Relay for Life and other clubs. “Often they are cancer benefits,” Jones said.
Maybe it’s because Jones’ mom died of cancer and her brother died of cancer at a young age. Her grandmother succumbed to cancer and even one of her best friends, Mike Straub, died of cancer when he was just 21 years old.
Raising money for cancer awareness is high on Jones’ to-do list. Princess seems to be right on board with that.
Recently, Jones has incorporated her riding school with the name “New Beginnings, Where Dreams Come True,” which describes much of what she and Princess do for people.
“For some, it’s like the ‘bucket list.’ They’ve never ridden a horse before and they’ve always wanted to. For others, it’s just that one more ride that brings them up and lifts their spirits,” she said.
It’s amazing how the horse senses things, Jones said. She seems to know when the person is afraid or nervous and she walks very gingerly. When the lady who was pregnant came to her, she nuzzled the lady’s belly and it seems like she knew, Debbie said.
Recently, Jones was able to buy the lot behind her house for a new corral. She got plenty of help from friends and people she knows clearing the trees and filling in the previously wooded lot. She credits the town and village of Tupper Lake and Sunmount, which were able to donate some fill from road jobs last summer, and the new terrain is just about ready for summer riding after building it up by 6 or 8 feet in some areas.
“Everyone has been very kind to help me. I’ve got awesome friends and neighbors,” she said.
On a blog on the internet, Jones relates a story of one person whose life has been changed by “a little horse therapy,” as she calls it. It’s one of many stories.
Once Jones was boarding a horse for a friend, and she recalled, “I was up on my deck wondering who was here and what was going on. When I saw Caroline, I noticed she had a cane in her hand and knew right away that she was not well.
“When we saw the cane, we told Caroline to stay there and we would bring the horse to her. Caroline loved horses but never had the opportunity to be close to one,” Debbie wrote.
“We all started talking and Caroline told us she was suffering from brain cancer which had gone into her spine. She was in pain all the time and on ‘medication that would put most people in a coma!’ She told us how much she loved horses and always wanted to ride. We asked if she wanted to get on the horse, Debbie recalls, “I was a little hesitant at first since the horse is a little feisty, as she can be sometimes.”
As the story goes, “I looked at my friend and she looked at me and said ‘It’s ok!’
“I looked at her eyes and said ‘OK,’ knowing we were taking a big risk if anything happened to Caroline. Knowing by the way she looked at me, and knowing the way horses can sense when someone’s not well, I agreed.
“Caroline crawled through the fence with her cane in hand, climbed the rock and got on the horse.
“Jim, Caroline’s husband, was really nervous. I told him it would be OK?- the horse knows.
“The horse was gentle as she could be, being ever so careful with Caroline. Caroline was thrilled. One of her biggest dreams was to ride a horse but never believed she would have the opportunity especially as her cancer was progressing.”
Jones has many stories like this, about first time riders, kids who are thrilled to have a chance to ride a horse and others who have overcome deep anxiety to ride, thanks in part to the horse sense that knows what a person needs.
Jones said she got her first horse when she was 30, and has had a number of them over the years. She has taken a couple in, boarded others, and saved the life of others.
“Ever since I was about six,” Jones said of wanting a horse of her own.
She remembers she “begged for one,” but with six other siblings in the Bell household and no place to keep a horse, it was out of the question.
She always stayed out of trouble since her uncle, Jim Ellis, was the principal of the high school at the time, her Uncle Tony Ellis was the judge and her father, Clarence Bell, was the chief of police.
Jones’ son Josh was born in January 1983.
Six weeks after Josh was born, they moved to Watertown, where her husband Todd served in the U.S. Army and she went to work at a grocery store.
“I moved back to Tupper when Josh was 9-and-a-half-months old,” she said.
A few years ago, her son Josh was injured in Iraq, when he lost his leg to a roadside bomb while driving a Humvee. The soldier beside him lost both feet, and it was only because of the bravery and quick action of other soldiers behind Josh, who got a tourniquet on the injured leg, that he wasn’t lost in action.
Josh is really doing well now, “but he has his battles,” she said.
Getting back to Princess, Jones said she teaches a basic Western Pleasure style of horse riding and that’s a whole different ballgame, from standing and looking to getting on. A horse that weighs at least a thousand pounds has to learn to control turns, commands and body language for stops and go, and where there are trails it still starts learning to ride in an arena, she said.
It’s amazing what horses give to people, and to the kids who come here and ride them, Jones said. There is an amazing connection there that’s good for everyone. It’s good for the horse, and good for the kids and adults who ride, and it’s a healing experience on many different levels.