OYFF Equine Winners: Wishes Were Horses For Morgan County's Cruise Family
By Darryal Ray
Everything about her -- from her Wyoming drawl and easy smile to the soles of her Justin boots -- says "cowgirl," but the truth of the matter is that Jennifer Cruise is a city slicker who grew up eager to "beg, borrow or steal" any chance to pet a horse.
|The Cruises, from left, are Robert, Emma, Katelyn, Alana and Jennifer.|
"All my friends were rancher's kids," says the 33-year-old native of Jackson Hole, Wy. "I didn't have a horse until I was a senior in college. I'd beg, borrow and steal any chance to pet a horse: 'Please just let me pet it! Please!' I was addicted to horses from the time I was born. I was one of those kids who said, 'Give me a horse. I don't care if it'll buck me off -- I'll still love it.'"
It's no surprise then that Jennifer, husband Robert and daughters Emma (5), Katelyn (3) and Alana (8 months) are the first-ever winners of the Equine Division and finalists in the Alabama Farmers Federation's Outstanding Young Farm Family competition.
Nor is it any wonder that JRC Enterprises, their working horse and cattle farm tucked away in a secluded valley near Arab in Morgan County, is drawing would-be cowpokes from 60 miles around to learn the finer points of horsemanship or to compete in one of the four horse shows it stages each year.
Jennifer estimates about 100 students have passed her way since she first began offering riding lessons 11 years ago with a single pony named Chico. Today, she has about 15 students under her tutelage and another 10 under Andrea Pulaski, an assistant who is one of Jennifer's former students.
"Quality, not quantity, is the focus," says Jennifer, who earned a bachelor's degree in equine science from the University of Findlay in Ohio.
That also applies to the number of horses in their stable -- the Cruises have only nine, two of which are Percherons they use to pull a hay wagon.
"A lot of people say, 'You have so much land, you have so many opportunities to bring in more horses,'" says Jennifer, a member of the Alabama Farmers Federation's State Equine Committee. "But our philosophy on the horses -- as with any animal on the farm -- is that they've got to be a productive member of the farm. If they aren't being used for riding lessons or aren't being used to herd cattle, then they aren't here. To do that, they've got to be the right kind of horse."
It's a philosophy that has served the Cruises well. For not only has it enabled the couple to work fulltime on the farm, but has helped the farm grow.
Today, the farm is where Robert and brother-in-law Chris Miller pre-condition about 120 calves (and finish another 200 in a Texas feedlot), and it's where Jennifer runs the horse program.
Robert promised to build Jennifer a barn if she'd marry him and stay in Alabama rather than return to Wyoming. He more than kept his promise, by building her a 262-foot barn with eight horse stalls, five double cattle stalls, a 40-foot by 70-foot indoor arena, cattle pen, tack room, office, hay storage and cattle working area with chutes and scales.
There's also a 125-foot by 125-foot outdoor wood plank sand riding arena and a 150-foot by 300-foot outdoor welded panel riding arena and cattle holding pen.
But their farm is more than just outbuildings -- it's also outreach.
"Our cattle and our horse programs are our primary income, but God has allowed it to be an outreach ministry much more than we ever realized," says Robert. "In the past two years, God's directed it more in that direction. ... Christ has provided all of this for us. He's the number one priority, our family is second and third is our farm, which is really an outreach to the community. The horse program has allowed so many to come in."
The farm has become a field trip destination for Classroom in the Forest as well as a private Christian school that brings about 80 kids at a time during a three-week period each summer. The riding lesson students, too, get an education in agriculture.
"To me, the horse industry is probably the key to tying rural people to urban people because, without the horses, you have cats and dogs and cattle and pigs and chickens. There's that disconnect," says Jennifer. "Horses have really been the connector for people in the urban areas who don't have a clue what a farm is and don't really care until they come to ride horses. When they come to ride horses here, they see this is not a fancy riding stable -- this is a working farm."
Plus, Jennifer, a volunteer leader for both the Morgan County and Madison County 4-H Horse Clubs, urges her students to participate in 4-H Horse Clubs to improve their horsemanship skills.
Then, there are the horse shows.
"We sort of make up our own rules," she says. "There's only one 4-H show in the entire state each year, and we found that it mostly pulls in kids that can really afford nice horses. So we started this program mainly for my lesson kids and for other riding instructors around."
The result is a 10 a.m.-until-dusk family extravaganza that draws about 250 people and 50-60 horses, about half of which are "lesson horses" that may be exhibited by multiple riders. The shows offer 45 events -- from tiny tot to reining -- and riders can enter as many or as few as they want for a flat-rate entry fee of $25. All proceeds go to the Marshall and Morgan County 4-H Horse Clubs.
"With the flat rate of $25 for the entire day, they'll try things that they normally never would," says Jennifer. "It's a real eye-opener for kids -- it gets them trying new things and it keeps it fun because in trying something they normally never would, everybody gets a hoot out of it. We laugh, we kid around. It keeps the competition low.
"These shows are all about learning," she added. "We hire judges that understand that, and they will go up and encourage people. They'll talk to them. They'll say, 'next time, try this.' That's something you don't see at most horse shows because everybody is too busy."
But life at JRC is slow and easy, the kind of life Jennifer couldn't imagine when she first came to Alabama to work as a head trainer. When the job played out, she was ready to return to Wyoming and resume her quest to become a cowgirl.
So, Robert built her a barn, and the rest is, well, history.
"I didn't want to go East and I didn't want to go South," she says. "But somehow I ended up in both places, and it worked out really well."