Home On The Range

“I’ve just been crazy about horses my whole life,” said Nathan Jones, founder of Wild Serenade Ranch in Pike County. “Even still yet today, I just love a horse and I always will.” Jones shoes and trains horses and raises longhorn cattle on his roughly 130-acre Stendal ranch. On Oct. 26, Jones herded cattle back to the field at the ranch.

Story by Jason Recker
Photos by Jacob Wiegand

Nathan Jones grew up near Merrillville, not far from Lake Michigan and around the bend from Chicago, a region not conducive to pastures and barns.

Horses, then, were an unusual infatuation.

Yet there was little Nathan in first grade telling anyone and everyone that he was going to grow up and be a horseshoer. He wasn’t even sure how he knew people actually did that for a living or if that was an actual job. But somebody has to put the shoes on the horse and Jones liked the animals enough that he remained latched to his dream years later.

Jones shoed Dirty Harry, a horse belonging to Julie Cannon of Owensboro, on Aug. 25. Despite his duties in maintaining the ranch and its cattle and horses, shoeing horses is Jones’ primary source of income. Jones has been shoeing for 35 years.

Now, he’s nestled into southwest Indiana at a Pike County ranch just west of the Dubois County border between Stendal and Zoar. There are 130 acres of the kind of place he always dreamed of — pastures, barns, horses.

The job isn’t normal nor is Jones’ path. But he’s made our area the epicenter of equine care. At Wild Serenade Ranch, there’s horses to shoe and train and envelop in the kind of attention paid only by those who are truly invested — emotion, time, money — in their beloved animals.

“Anybody can do anything they want,” Jones insists. “But there’s always sacrifice. And you have to be able to take criticism and instruction. My motto is never be average.”

Jones travels the Midwest to visit customers whose horses need attention. For a barn in Pennsylvania, he leaves at 4 a.m. for an eight-hour drive, gets under a horse by midafternoon, works until maybe 7 o’clock, rises before sunrise the next morning to finish the job then heads to a barn three hours west in Ohio for a few hours of shoein’ there. (He never pronounces the “G” in shoeing). Pennsylvania. Ohio. Illinois. Missouri. Kentucky. Northern Indiana back near his roots. He burns up a truck with about 80,000 miles a year. Other patrons visit him in Pike County. This fall, a brain surgeon’s wife brought one of her rescue horses to be outfitted with new shoes, a one-hour job with a bill north of $200. Another horse was on its way from St. Louis.

In bed at 11. Up at 5. Jones does not differentiate between weekdays and weekends.

Paul Kozlowski of La Porte helped Jones herd cattle to the barn area Oct. 26 at the ranch.

Fine with him.

“I get out of bed every morning because I love my job, love the people here,” he says. “I just think if you work hard and you’re honest and treat people the way you want to be treated, good things happen.”

To absorb the expertise to build such a far-ranging clientele, Jones immersed himself in a rather direct manner. He attended shoein’ school but, harshly judging himself, said he spent about five years “doing terrible things.” He saw a peer’s work and deemed it far better than his own and decided he’d get up at 2 a.m. and drive to Cincinnati to shadow a highly-respected shoer. Eventually, that man, a willing teacher named Dave, let Jones try everything solo.

He learned to train horses by taking a similarly forthright route. He’d already become a trusted shoer when he yearned to train and ride and show horses. So he went to a guy named Sean Flaherty (“He’ll be a $5 million rider this year,” Jones gauges). Called him up, explained his story, invited himself. Flaherty said c’mon over. For two days, Jones accumulated all the knowledge he could. Flaherty and others to whom Jones attached himself operated with the same style of honesty in part because convincing a horse to do exactly what you say requires something close to perfection.

Flaherty or some other star rider would look at Jones and ask, “You know why that horse let up? You relaxed your left leg.”

Dumbfounded, Jones stared back.

Jones prepared to brand a horse.

“I don’t think I did that, but he wouldn’t have told me that if I didn’t do it,” Jones recalls thinking often. “When we ride a horse, we need mirror images. It’s hard to do.”

It takes 18 months to train a reinin’ horse (it’s technically a reining horse, but again, Jones drops the “G”). Still, some folks contact Jones, asking him to train a horse in a few days or weeks. Jones takes his reiners to an outside patch of land that stretches 170 feet one way and 275 feet the other. There is no fence around what is known as a sliding track, packed with clay and rolled to give the horses a base on which to slide.

Reiners go from full speed into a skidding stop. They’re the sports car of the equine industry, though you can teach any horse similar moves. Quarter horses, because of their shorter back and lower hips, are better suited for reinin’ and if you want to get technical, Jones will saturate the conversation with nuggets of information that require careful listening and multiple explanations.

The condensed theme is this: You can train a dog to sit in five minutes, but a horse has to learn over time because if you build panic and fear into the regimen, you’re making the mission nearly impossible. In one 30-minute training session, Jones picks out dozens of faults — the horse won’t stay hooked when moving in a circle, the horse anticipates the stop command, the horse stiffens its front side. He wants a mechanical animal.

Jones utilized liquid nitrogen to freeze brand a horse Nov. 29. Jones said the brand signifies that the animal belongs to him and acts as a way to advertise the ranch when people see his animals.

“We make them to work harder and eventually, they’ll take the path of least resistance,” he says. “Punishment is pressure. Release of pressure is the best reward. So we quit on a high note.”

The man training the horse was Chris Hermes, a native of Denmark who relocated to Indiana a few years ago but has since left Wild Serenade. Jones has had other farmhands. Valerie Mehringer is from Evansville, she worked at a barn where Jones shoed and came north to work for Jones when he said he needed some help. Jack Dooley, a family friend, moved to Wild Serenade from Scottsdale, Arizona, where he worked at trail ride spots and spent time around his grandparents’ horses. He needed something to do, so he came east. The staff is young — Mehringer at 20 and Dooley at 18 — and accompanies Jones on the other part of his ranch, showing horses at arenas all over the country.

The action never stops. Only rarely does it pause.

Jones, a sturdy man in dirty jeans who gives away only that he’s older than 50, likes it that way.

His parents moved to southern Indiana a while back and when he came to visit, he liked the juxtaposition of the countryside and his more urban upbringing. The old days brought back memories when he first longed to have horses. The new place, complete with howling coyotes for which Wild Serenade is named, gave him a chance to live the life he always wanted.

“I’m just a working guy, get up every day and work as hard as I can and stay focused,” he says. “This is my dream.”

Jones worked with a horse Nov. 29. He said seeing horses make progress in their training is something that’s gratifying. “It’s like you ride them and you don’t think you got anywhere, and you come out tomorrow, put the saddle on them and set up and it’s like, ‘Who rode this horse last night?’” he said.

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