The Blind Roper
His american Horse, Duke, sprints from the start box at 40 miles per hour and barrels toward the unwary steer. Jerry Long, the header, quickly ropes the padded and wrapped horns of a 700-pound bovine as his partner, the heeler, focuses on capturing the legs, or “heels.” Long doesn’t focus in the visual sense, because he can’t. Diabetes has taken his sight, so he must rope the steer by following the sound of tinkling bells tied to its horns, a cue diminished by the sound of thundering hooves.
No other exceptions are made here, for life doesn’t often provide those, as Long knows well. It’s a reality-check philosophy he teaches in his Horses’n’ Hearts program—with Duke’s help—to local at-risk youth in Lincoln County’s school district, geographically the largest in New Mexico. The youths—ages 5 to 14, from small towns like Capitan, Hondo and Corona—are emotionally and physically challenged or live in less-than-nurturing environments. Some have never been near a horse until Long introduces them to Duke.
Back in the show pen, this blind roper’s run is accomplished in less than 10 seconds; the clock stops when no slack is visible in either rope and the mounted horses face each other, a roped steer separating them.
Long explains that the tradition of roping originated on unfenced ranches where cowboys lassoed cattle to brand or doctor them. Roping as a sport has remained basically unchanged since inception, and there’s no age limit.
The rope is made of unrelenting nylon, wrapped around the Western saddle horn to secure it against powerful forces. “Get your thumb or finger caught between the rope and horn, and you can pull back a stub,” says Long.
He ropes with all 10 fingers intact, competing in New Mexico and Texas. With his wife, Glenda, at the wheel, he’ll travel 400 miles to pursue his passion. Before his blindness, he’d won 15 saddles and 80 belt buckles—which are a lot more useful than silver cups. Since losing his sight, he hasn’t taken his uncooperative eyes off the prizes: He’s added two saddles and 15 prize belt buckles to his collection.
This staunch competitor has been featured as an expert in a series of horse training videos. During taping, he roped and “turned” 99 out of 109 steers in eight days, an enviable record in anybody’s book. “I had to be fast and I had to be consistent,” he concedes. His cohorts say Long is both, which might surprise a casual observer.
By others’ estimation—most certainly not his own—Long hasn’t been the luckiest person. He has had diabetes for years, has undergone a kidney transplant, and in the spring of this year recuperated from foot surgery to remove a vicious and painful bone spur that threatened his foot and lower leg. He was, once again, he says, “in and out of the hospital. I was already working on a gadget that would work like a stirrup, so even if I lost my foot, I could still ride,” he recalls.
He’s always gearing up mentally for his next roping—and is not about to lose his sense of humor. “I don’t share two things in life; one is my wife and the other is my horse,” Long quips. Well . . . he will waffle a bit on the horse, sharing him in Horses’n’Hearts. Teaching, you see, isn’t new to Long. He earned his master’s in education and was on his way to becoming a school superintendent when diabetes got the better of him—temporarily.
Now, he’s back at it—living life to the fullest and inspiring students. “Maybe they’ve been lied to or cheated,” Long says. “They need a mentor, somebody to look up to and respect who’ll tell them if they screw up or take a misstep. We tell them it’s OK; they can fix it and go on with their lives.”
Long’s program doesn’t exactly teach them roping or, necessarily, how to ride. “The horse is a means to an end, an entity to accomplish the goal,” he explains. The youngsters learn how to “be around” a horse safely, how to care for it responsibly and, sure, how to ride it if they so choose. “They remember this experience forever, and they come to understand that they have a responsibility to others and to themselves,” he says. “It’s a lesson in developing self-esteem.”
Many of them, says Long, don’t possess basic people skills. When he begins the first class, he has a list of names and a description of each child, but doesn’t want the kids to tell him who they are.
He invites them to shake his hand. “If it’s wimpy, I say, ‘Don’t do a fish shake. Give me a strong, firm one,’” Long says. “I’ll ask them, ‘Are you standing up straight and looking me in the eye? Are you doing what your parents tell you to do?’” After four shakes, he can usually match a name to a handshake. “They try to confuse me as a joke when they line up to shake,” Long says. But he isn’t easily fooled. And again, he doesn’t want any concessions.
At a local stable—facilities donated—Long is assisted by volunteers, many of whom are his longtime friends. For two months, twice a week in the afternoons, Long “rotates” the kids through three phases. First, they do requisite stall cleaning, “the grunt work, what you’d do if you owned a horse.” Then they may read horse stories or make horse-related art. He teaches math by having them calculate equine economics: the cost of feeding hay and grain. Finally, in phase three—hurray!—those who want to, and it’s rare that someone doesn’t, get to mount up. But only after learning the basics, with safety top of mind.
Long carefully shows the way by first assessing his “space” around Duke, then shows the kids how to walk properly around the horse, how to groom, put on a halter or pick up equine feet.
He demonstrates how to approach Duke in a friendly, nonassertive manner, just the way one person might greet another.
A Horses’n’Hearts volunteer and Long’s friend of 50 years, Renee Thomas of nearby Ruidoso, New Mexico, calls Long “magical, very giving and caring, providing motivation and direction.” Though most of them have never ridden before, she adds, “The kids learn very quickly once you get their attention, which Jerry is wonderful at doing. He’s just a cool dude.”
School administrators want to extend Long’s program, but the initial grant, which came from a state educational services agency, has run out. Now—when the school and students are both talking about an encore by popular demand—Long does something he rarely allows himself to do: He confesses he could use, well . . . a little help.
Teacher and roper Long talks the talk and walks the walk, even if he’s limping and can’t see exactly where he’s going. For in spite of it all, he’s darn good at showing others the way.
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