Jennifer Head owns a buckskin Quarter Horse named John Deere, a miniature horse named Little Ricky AND a chestnut pony, Jabbo, whose age is estimated to be close to 40!
And while she isn’t certain about her own future profession, the 15-year-old thinks it will likely center around horses, most likely some type of therapeutic equestrian program.
The Clay-Chaulkville freshman wasn’t always "horse crazy." It began simply enough, her mother Vyckie explained.
"When she was younger, if she’d done well at school that day, we’d stop in the road and watch Brian Hill’s horses near Palmerdale. One day I saw them outside and told him we weren’t stalking them, but Jennifer just enjoyed watching his horses.
"Of course, he invited us to get out and come see the horses closer, and it was love at first sight between Jennifer and the little horses."
Brian, who has since passed away from cancer, later allowed Jennifer to buy Little Ricky (whose mother was named "Lucy") and he became her first "real horse" love.
Jennifer, who was born with spina bifida, began attending Camp Coleman every summer because they had a therapeutic riding camp so she could take riding lessons.
Jabbo was one of Camp Coleman’s special horses. Elizabeth Stanley had taught him when he was younger to pull a cart. When Jabbo became too old to participate in the Camp’s activities, he "retired" to the Head’s home atop Pine Mountain, near the Jefferson-Blount County lines.
Jennifer and Vyckie, and loads of their friends, rode the little cart all around before Jabbo truly retired.
"One of the neatest things was that Elizabeth now works with the Talladega School for the deaf and blind," Vyckie explained. "She called Camp Coleman to check on Jabbo and discovered he had been retired.
"She came out twice, once bringing Jabbo’s original saddle and riding him briefly."
Jabbo’s age has been estimated to be anywhere between 37 and 40, from deductions the Heads have made through investigating his past owners.
Jabbo now has some arthritis and other problems, but generally "does just what he wants to," Jennifer laughed.
Jennifer’s dad Tim brushes Jabbo while he eats feed placed on their concrete driveway, then Jabbo is left to roam the yard like a pet dog until he decides he wants to go back into the pasture with Little Ricky.
John Deere came into the family in a special way as well.
Jennifer knew she would need a larger horse, so over two years she saved more than $1,000.
In the meantime, she missed a summer of riding at Camp Coleman due to a surgery. When she returned the following summer, instructors had changed and she would be the only wheelchair-bound rider. So the Heads began their search for a more intensive riding program.
"We went to Oak Mountain hunting a new program and ended up buying a horse," Vyckie laughed.
While there wasn’t a program fitting Jennifer, Shelley Jones, who also volunteers with the Hand in Paw Program, noted, "We’ve got just the horse for Jennifer."
John Deere is "one in a million," she noted, "because of his laid-back attitude and special demeanor. You can put anyone on him, even your grandma, and he’ll react just as calmly."
Since Jennifer bought John Deere last October, her dad has been especially busy. He’s building a 2,700 square-foot, two-story barn with special stalls and special accommodations so Jennifer will find it easier to mount and dismount her horses, and to provide a better environment for her riding training.
Jennifer also noted it would be "just the thing" for a future therapeutic riding program of her own where she can help others, possibly 10 to 15 years in the future.
According to the March of Dimes’ website, "Spina Bifida is a birth defect that affects the lower back and, sometimes, the spinal cord. It is one of the most common birth defects in the United States, affecting about 1,500 babies each year."
Spinal bifida is the most common of a group of birth defects called neural tube defects. The site notes, "The neural tube is the embryonic structure that develops into the brain and spinal cord." Usually the neural tube folds inward and closes by the 28th day after conception. When it fails to close completely, problems can develop in the spinal cord and vertebra.
But Jennifer is always looking ahead, not back. The straight A-B Honor Roll student isn’t certain whether she’ll attend the special riding programs at Auburn or the University of Alabama, but they’re both options she’s considering since she has friends at each.
During her first nine years of school, she had been accompanied every day by D.A. (for District Attorney), a beautiful black lab who knows about 60 commands and helps Jennifer by picking up things she’s dropped, opening doors and more.
The family had to submit a video to even qualify for a service dog and then spent two weeks in Concordia, KS, being trained with D.A. when Jennifer was in the first grade.
D.A. was so named because he and his litter mates were named after judicial offices like "Jury," "Judge" and "Marshal."
This year when the weather turned cold, D.A. began staying home from school since he’s about ten now.
Jennifer and her family attended the professional rodeo held at the Blount-Oneonta Agribusiness Center in April which set Jennifer to thinking about possibly competing. Her first step will likely be in the showmanship category in 4-H.
Tim works at H&M Mechanical, Pelham, and Vyckie works part-time at Professional Engineering when they aren’t thinking of new ways to interact with all their farm’s animals.
And while Jennifer loves her horses best, she also plays in the school band, now playing percussion and previously playing clarinet.
"I love my teachers and I love school," Jennifer explained, with her ever-present smile. "But I’d still rather be home with my animals.
Suzy Lowry Geno is a freelance writer from Blount County who can be reached through her website at www.suzysfarm.com.