Great-great-grandmother rides again thanks to hospice program

2011-12-16T17:30:00Z 2013-02-28T16:05:25Z Great-great-grandmother rides again thanks to hospice programBy DONNA HEALY Of The Gazette Staff The Billings Gazette
December 16, 2011 5:30 pm  • 

A 98-year-old hospice patient took a lap around the arena on horseback Friday as her family applauded her spunk.

Gladys McLarnon, of Laurel, a plucky great-great-grandmother, sat proudly in the saddle. She made the brief loop with one helper leading the horse, another gripping a belt around her waist as he walked beside her and a third with his arm beside her opposite leg.

"I practically lived on a horse until I got into high school," said McLarnon, who grew up on a homestead north of Terry.

Before she took to the saddle Friday, she hadn't been on a horse in 15 years.

She made her way determinedly from the car to a mounting block with the aid of a walker. Beneath a vest and parka, she wore a beaded necklace around her bright red turtleneck. McLarnon regularly navigates a flight of stairs at her home in Laurel and has always kept physically active, said her daughter, Marilee Wold.

"She thought she could still do it, so we went for it," Marilee Wold said. "Mother was always game for pretty near anything."

A social worker at Rocky Mountain Hospice heard that McLarnon was eager to ride from McLarnon's granddaughter and live-in caregiver, Renee Wold.

The social worker contacted Jonnie Jonckowski, who runs Angel Horses, a program that provides therapy for youths and seniors with horses rescued from slaughter. Jonckowski has no indoor arena but organized the ride at her friend's arena, the Rimrock Equestrian Center on Shorey Road.

On Friday, Jonckowski trailered her 29-year-old Arabian, Jesse James, to the arena. Jesse, a steadfast rescue horse, is more of a trooper than an outlaw and "loves to be loved on," she said.

Over the years, Jonckowski has fielded other requests from old-timers who want to swing into the saddle once more.

"It's pretty hard to say no," Jonckowski said. "I hope somebody tries it for me when I'm old."

An old cowboy will sometimes ride 50 yards, then sit and reminisce for hours, she said.

"Just the view from the saddle and looking between those ears, it's a pretty precious moment for them," she said.

Jonckowski once saw a cowgirl who had turned 100 get on a horse. The woman climbed into the saddle from a pickup truck's tailgate.

"We've had people with dementia get back on horseback and you'd be amazed. They give the horse the right cues to get 'em going," she said.

Jonckowski regularly handles requests from nursing homes and assisted-living facilities to bring groups of seniors to her arena just to hang out with the horses, sing campfire songs and toast marshmallows.

When McLarnon's ride ended, the family's matriarch sat in the saddle as she posed for photos with several generations of her family.

"Have you done your Christmas cards yet? Because this would be perfect for them," Megan Tenney, a dressage instructor at the arena, shouted out as relatives snapped photos.

McLarnon has nine grandchildren, 18 great-grandchildren and six great-great-grandchildren.

She often went on trail rides with her husband, Paul, who was a longtime member of the Sheriff's Posse Cowboy Polo team.

The couple, who were married in 1935, also enjoyed bowling. Gladys picked up her first bowling ball in 1948 and went on to compete in 50 state tournaments. For more than 10 years they both bowled in the Senior Sports and Arts Festival. Gladys also competed as a golfer.

Her husband, who had retired from the railroad, died on Christmas Eve in 2005 at the age of 95.

After Friday's ride around the arena, McLarnon registered some discomfort during her assisted dismount.

"I'm just so old and stiff that it isn't any fun like it was when I was younger," she said afterward.

Asked if she would be sore in the morning, she smiled before she answered.

"I won't be sore," she said, "I'll just be lame."

Contact Donna Healy at dhealy@billingsgazette.com or 657-1292.

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