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New documentary spotlights Billings horse rescue's flood recovery

Angel Horses Inc
Posted at 5:48 PM, May 13, 2024
and last updated 2024-05-14 13:08:27-04

BILLINGS - Montana PBS is producing a documentary about two-time Women's National Finals Rodeo world champion Jonnie Jonckowski, who currently runs a nonprofit called Angel Horses Inc. out of her home in Billings.

The nonprofit, which gives seniors an opportunity to experience horse therapy for free, washit hard by the flooding last June, and Jonckowski feared that it might have been the end of the organization.

Because Montana PBS had already started working on the project, much of the storyline involves Jonckowski overcoming both her challenges as an athlete and her later years trying to help rescue her charity.

Drone footage of flooding

During the course of her eventful life, which includes nearly qualifying for the Olympics in track before winning two world titles in bullriding, one thing has remained a constant.

"I mean I was the girl that just loved horses," Jonckowski said last week. "I remember hanging out with my friend who had them in Baker growing up, and I just always loved them since."

That love is why Jonckowski was drawn to a flyer advertising the Red Lodge Rodeo one summer after her track career had concluded due to injury.

"I thought, 'Well, how bad can this be?'" Jonckowski said.

Jonckowski took the flyer home to her parents, looking for their approval. She got the go-ahead, although she said neither parent really understood what the world of rodeo looked like.

"The biggest struggle I had during my career was my parents' fear of me getting hurt," Jonckowski said. "They just never had grown up around it. They were city people."

Apprehension aside, Jonckowski made her way to the rodeo in Red Lodge and had her first successful ride. She said she scored a 50, while burrowing all the necessary equipment, and at the end of the day, she was hooked.

"This is our addiction," Jonckowski said. "People ask what it is about it and I wish I could say, but it's just an addiction. If I knew what it was, I would've tried to stop it sooner."

Now, after a 25-year career, Jonckowski is recognized as one of Montana's best. She competed for multiple world championships, winning two, and was recently named to the Rodeo Hall of Fame.

Jonckowski at the NILE

"All you really ever want it to be is that you got noticed, I guess," Jonckowski said, getting emotional. "Just for going out there and doing what you loved doing."

And while her bull riding was captivating for many, she might be more well-known as an advocate for women in the sport. Her career came at a time when it wasn't common for women to ride bulls, and on many occasions, Jonckowski would be competing against the men.

She also wasn't afraid to speak up for more opportunities for both herself and women like her.

"Most of the girls just wanted to ride, and there's nothing wrong with that," Jonckowski said. "But it didn't grow our sport."

Jonckowski served as one of the main spokespersons for the growth of women in rodeo, constantly appearing on talk shows and pushing for them to be hosted at larger venues with the men.

"I sort of did the hard stuff," Jonckowski said. "I did the autograph events, I did the press conferences, I did the stuff outside of riding because I thought it was important."

When it came time to hang up the spurs, Jonckowski was in a bit of a conundrum. She said her resume didn't look appealing to employers and that she struggled to find her next endeavor.

Jonckowski pictures

"It said that I could ride a bull and I appeared on some talk shows," Jonckowski said. "So, I just think most people didn't think I'd be happy."

One day, after working in physical therapy, she brought one of her horses to visit a patient. She said the person was overwhelmed with joy, and from there, the idea of Angel Horses was born.

Now, for nearly 20 years, that's been Jonckowski's focus. It's a business she describes as her "happy place," but it was nearly lost for good last summer after disastrous flooding wrecked the property.

"It was just a mess," Jonckowski said. "No insurance for flooding and hundreds and thousands of dollars of damage. There was no recovery. Honestly, there was no recovery."

When word spread that her organization was going under, the community she served for years rallied to help her.

"It all helped, and what it helped is it made me stronger not to quit," Jonckowski said. "Because I was going to quit."

The donations poured in, making it impossible for Jonckowski to close their doors. She said that within three days of her story appearing on Q2, more than $100,000 had been raised.

Angel Horse Inc

"You go through life, I think, hoping you made a difference," Jonckowski said with tears in her eyes. "That was a validation that I made a difference. It's not for me. It's for them... Everything about this is for them."

Jonckowski's incredible story will soon be hitting the big screen. Director Sabrina Lee said they were looking to do a story about the history of women in rodeo in Montana, but after one conversation with Jonnie, those plans changed.

"By the end of our hour-and-a-half conversation, I said, 'This woman absolutely warrants her own film,'" Lee said. "Through the course of making the film, I've learned the depth of her resilience and determination."

The project is in the final production stages, but Montana PBS is hosting a kickstarter fundraiser hoping to help put the finishing touches on the film. As of now, it is scheduled to be released in October.

"It's a Montana story," Lee said. "I think it's one that will appeal to everyone but really emphasizes the toughness of one Montana legend. That's why I think it's important that the project gets completed."