Junior Midnight: Documentary to chronicle life of Oswald-bred horse
September 21, 2014
Many horses are bought and sold every day and most of the time the horse goes on about its life without much fanfare and is forgotten for the most part. One horse, though, took a long journey with some rough spots along the way, and came to his final home with a person thousands of miles from where he first stood and nursed his dam on the gumbo hills in Montana.
John L. Moore of Miles City, Mont., is a rancher, horseman and writer. In June, he received an email from a woman in New Jersey who was curious about a line of horses that John had spoken of in his book "Looking For Lynne." She had googled for information on her horse's bloodlines and John's name had popped up in relation to the book.
The story of a Montana horse unfolded. The woman shared what she knew of the story behind her new horse, Junior Midnight, and it wasn't very pretty. At the end of June 2008, the 1994 black gelding had sold at a big horse sale in Billings. The woman who sold him had assumed that a Wyoming rancher that had looked at him was going to buy him and never knew otherwise. Instead, Junior Midnight made a quick journey to Massachusetts with a trader and was sold in just a few days at an auction barn to a man from Connecticut.
Junior Midnight was then taken to PeeWee Farm in Easton, Conn., where he was kept from July 2008 until December 2011. At that time, the Connecticut Department of Agriculture seized five horses of the nearly 100 that were at the farm, as the five were near death from starvation. Three of the horses were euthanized, but there was something about the black horse and his demeanor that stayed the hand of the officer in charge. He was spared, despite having acute lameness of a hind leg, a lung infection and extreme breathing difficulties. He was transferred to the East Niantic Correctional Facility where the Connecticut DOA has a program that places farm animals that have been seized with the inmates of the facility for care and rehabilitation.
Once the animals are brought back to health, they are sold at the University of Connecticut's annual sale. By this time Blackie, as he was called there, had regained his general health and gained around 500 pounds. Since Blackie wasn't sound he wasn't a candidate for the sale, so was in a "no-man's-land" situation. No one would want to adopt a horse that was lame and had costly health conditions, but Kelly Colbert heard of Blackie's plight.
She had never owned a horse before, but through a friend, was given a special dispensation to visit Blackie in the prison and June 26, 2012, he went home with Colbert.
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Colbert explains, "When I got Blackie, he came with a large vet file which indicated he had severe laminitis, a coffin bone rotation of 11 degrees, ring bone, a sprained neck, spinal damage, and one lung that only has 20 percent capacity. His feet were also in poor condition and he couldn't lift his right hind for the farrier because of a problem with his hip. But, there was just something about him, a presence, something in his eye that set him apart."
Strangely, the black gelding's papers finally made their way to Colbert, though they had never been transferred from the woman in Billings. From those papers, Colbert began her research to find out more about this horse with something special about him, that finally led to her acquaintance with John Moore.
Moore began to tell her about the bloodlines and the background of the horses, with emphasis on the fact that Junior Midnight went back to a horse named Oswald four times.
Oswald was a 1945 brown stallion that won the Oklahoma Futurity as a two year old, then ended up in Kansas where he was match raced, rodeoed on and probably abused a bit. Bob Shelhammer of Montana had heard about this Oswald horse but couldn't find him. It turned out that Walter Clark had the horse on Rosebud Creek and Shelhammer was able to trade Clark a horse he had and some to boot for Oswald.
When he got him home to his ranch, he found that Oswald was a timid breeder. Moore explains, "Bob was a cowboy's cowboy and he didn't normally hand breed mares, but he did with Oswald. He also roped on him, bull dogged on him, the ladies ran barrels on him and then his offspring started doing the same things."
Shelhammer also line bred the horse and it worked. The Oswalds were prepotent and were a very specific type. They were almost always bays or browns and often had white hind socks. Much like the old Remount type of horses, they are great for cowboy polo, rope horses and ranch horses. Plus they are tough and have lots of bottom, able to be ridden day after day and still be fresh.
Moore didn't always have the Oswald horses in his blood, though, and had always been a big fan of the Three Bars bred horses. He asked his banker at that time about the Oswald horses, as his banker neighbored the Shelhammers. "He said they were just God-awful tough, but really unique and distinctive. I also heard that some of them would really buck, so I was a little reluctant to get one."
He was friends with Lynne Taylor and was with Lynne one day when Lynne roped a big soggy heifer calf on a three year old colt. Watching that horse, John was hooked. The horse was Awesome Pete, Lynne's new stud. Awesome Pete was an intensely Oswald bred horse.
"The Oswald horses just had a look about them and you could pick them out of a bunch of horses. It was the trimness, cleanness of neck and head and legs," says Moore. "They're about the most intensely Peter McCue blood in the world and most look just like old John Wilkens' photographs."
Moore says, "These are special horses that are really light-mouthed and have a temper. Not everyone gets along with them and I warn people about that. Plus they are usually really big, in that 16-plus hand, 1,300 pound range. Their intelligence and personality keeps me sold on them. They have a big soft eye with just a little of the rogue in it."
He told all of this to Kelly Colbert in their ensuing conversations. She told him that she had produced two documentaries and was thinking of doing one about this horse and his story. John helped her run down his history, and through Gary Crowder, Billings, was able to help Kelly connect with the woman who bought him from Shelhammers and later sold him at Billings. Crowder remembered Junior Midnight well, as he had been the woman's farrier at the time.
In July 2014, Kelly Colbert and her crew arrived at John Moore's ranch near Miles City and started filming the documentary. Moore was impressed with Colbert in that she didn't have an agenda and wanted to just tell the truth in the story. He watched as her presumptions were changed about Montana and western riding while she was doing the documentary. She came from an English riding background and if she held a prejudice against something, it was due to lack of knowledge. "I pointed out that any discipline has its problems. The better trainers and riders take really good care of their horses. I also pointed out that out in the west we don't try to change a horse's natural gait, for the most part," says Moore.
"What really changed her ideas, though, was the day we filmed. We'd had a rather intense day. My wife Debra had brought the crew out to the pasture to watch me working cattle on my Oswald gelding Simon. We filmed for about four hours and we were about done and I was ready to head back to the trailer. I offered to let her ride Simon back," says Moore. "She said it was the best day of her life riding over that prairie country where she couldn't see any buildings or the trailer. That ride had a real impact on her."
Colbert returned to the ranch later and interviewed Moore for another four hours. Moore says, "This is the fourth documentary I've been a part of and this is the most professional crew I've worked with."
"I think it will be a good documentary as far as the story line and the themes. The time she spent with me and with Gary and Linda Crowder was really good," says Moore.
Colbert, who works in advertising for a large corporation in New York City, had to take three months off to do the documentary and has since returned to her "day job." She will be editing and carrying out post production work on the film troughout the winter. She expects the film to be complete by the spring of 2015. She will submit it to the Sundance Film and Big Sky film festivals first, then perhaps the TriBeCa film festivals. Until word comes back from any of those entities, a date for premier is unknown.
The story of Junior Midnight might never have been told if he hadn't been an Oswald horse with that "something special" about him and that bred-in sheer toughness and iron will to survive that caused people to take a second look at him. The documentary isn't just about Junior Midnight though, it's about the tough, versatile ranch horses that have been enabling ranchers to get the job done for many years. Horses with heart. Horses like the Oswald horses.