By Caitlin Switzer
MONTROSE- Imagine a well-trained team of veterans packing into the Black Canyon of the Gunnison on horseback with rafts and flyfishing gear, or heading out to a local ranch for a day of branding, driving cattle, or other cowboy tasks.
“Big country grows big spirits,” says John Mayer, a 33-year military veteran who now serves as foreman of the Jinx McCain Horsemanship Program, which is part of the Semper Fi Fund. The horsemanship program provides confidence-building horsemanship clinics to wounded, critically ill and injured service members and their families, and gives them the opportunity to learn basic horsemanship and more advanced skills including the competitive aspects of horse and rider, Mayer said.
“We focus on building horsemanship skills primarily through conducting cowboy activities,” Mayer said. “Clinics we’ve conducted in the past include cutting horse training and competition; rodeo type events such as barrel racing, pole bending, and tie-down and team roping; mounted shooting; team penning and sorting; and cattle branding and drives on historic ranches throughout the west.”
After learning of Mayer and his work, Montrose business owner Doug Roberts was among those humbled at the spirit of the warriors who had stepped forward to serve. Now, Roberts is helping to bring the Semper Fi Fund’s Jinx McCain Horsemanship Program to Western Colorado, as a way of giving back to the wounded warriors who have given so much.
“The Jinx McCain program hold events all over the country, in Mississippi, Arizona, Wyoming, San Diego,” said Roberts, owner of New West Marketing in Montrose. “Here in Montrose, what we are looking at would be a packing seminar, a multi-day training that would create a mission that they can do together.
“These are patriots,” Roberts said. “No matter what we do, it will never be enough.”
Roberts, who head the Association of Independent Oil Distributors (AIOD), said that his organization has been so impressed with the work being done by Semper Fi and the horsemanship program that they have donated $20,000 to the cause. Roberts is also working to facilitate a program in this region, with a local outfitter.
Mayer believes the Jinx McCain program is a natural fit for West Central Colorado, which has a history of ranching and agriculture.
“I love that Southern part of the Western Slope in Colorado,” he said. “It’s so beautiful. I even went to the Ridgway Ranch Rodeo this year, and it was just amazing.”
Mayer said that he hosts events for veterans “wherever he can find horses,” and is deeply grateful to Roberts for connecting him to people who can help bring the program here.
“Getting out on a horse means putting away the cell phones and the trappings of the city,” he said. “It’s hard to do that East of the Mississippi.”
Excellent instruction is essential to the success of the program, he said.
“We bring in top instructors, working cowboys, and expert horsemen and women to teach horsemanship skills and guide us through the more technical aspects of each activity,” Mayer said. “No matter the seriousness of the wound, illness, or injury, or whether the warrior is an ‘old hand’ at riding or just starting out, we’ll do our best to fit each wounded warrior with the right horse and equipment for a safe, enjoyable experience.
“Our participants benefit physically and mentally by working with the horses, learning new athletic skills, and sharing in the experience with fellow service members,” Mayer said.
Also essential are the right equine partners.
“You’ve got to have good horses to put these guys on,” Mayer said. “Most of these veterans are young guys and gals who have graduated from high school, and they go into the service and get banged up. They are searching for a purpose, and they miss the brotherhood. The beauty of our program is that we bring them together, and give them a challenge to overcome, like learning to ride a horse, and then a mission, like moving a herd of cows.”
“The best clinics happen when we are sponsored by a horse association or club, or by a ranch that has enough horses and tack to outfit our riders,” Mayer said.
Because post-911 service members all enlisted knowing full well that they were going to War, “You can’t have ‘em just trot around an arena,” Mayer said. “If you love horses, you love cows. We love cowboy activities, so we go to ranches for sorting and branding, and we also go to the wilderness to learn new skills like packing.
“We want to go into the Black Canyon,” he said. “Do a pack clinic, and then have them pack in rafts. The only way to get rafts in is to bring them on mules. And we could have another group fly fish the Canyon.”
Mayer said that he is currently working out the schedule for upcoming events. Community members who would like to be involved or contribute can contact Mayer at 830-992-9581, or email him at John.firstname.lastname@example.org.