- Associated Press - Saturday, October 25, 2014

PORTAGE, Wis. (AP) - Guardian angels don’t always have wings or a halo.

Sometimes, they have long, curious snouts, and silky smooth hair.

Sometimes, they graze . and gallop.

Sometimes, they’re horses.

They certainly have been for Jessica Gorman and Jade Noble, two juniors at Portage High School who now and then over the last few years have found the going a fair bit tougher than normal but have had their four-legged friends to help guide the way.

And they got to show the whole state just how strong those relationships are - and how good they are with their horses - when they competed recently at the Wisconsin Interscholastic Horsemanship Association state show at the Jefferson County Fairgrounds in Jefferson.

It’s an opportunity they had because Portage’s team - which is comprised of just the two of them and is in a first-year trial after getting approval from the Portage School Board last summer to compete as a club program - took second in Division D, the smallest division, among the five teams in that division at the district show on Sept. 27 and 28 in Oshkosh.

For both girls, though, it’s about a whole lot more than competition, the Portage Daily Register (http://bit.ly/1utw4sh ) reported.

Their horses are their friends.

And their horses are a big reason - maybe the reason - why both have endured some bumpy moments along the trail to today.

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For Gorman, her horse - a tri-color buckskin named Oakley - has proven to be more than just a friend, she’s proven to be therapeutic, too.

Gorman was born with a disease called periventricular leukomalacia (or PVL for short) that is caused by the lack of oxygen or blood flow to the periventricular area of the brain - the area where new brain cells form before eventually migrating and making up the outer layers of the brain, which are the layers primarily responsible for mental development, behavior and personality, speech, vision, hearing, as well some muscle strength and coordination skills.

In Gorman’s case, PVL occurred because she came out of the birth canal too fast. And it’s been something she’s been battling - and learning to live with - ever since.

There is no cure for the disease.

But a few years ago when she started taking riding lessons and working with horses, she started making some major strides in a lot of the areas that had been troublesome.

She started showing more patience and more consistency in her behavior.

“And she talks a lot nicer with people now - she’s just more fluid and a lot smoother with her sentences and things like that,” said Jessica’s mother Stacey, who is the coach of Portage High School’s equestrian team and the one responsible for getting it up and running after taking her cue from other schools in the area that already had teams, such as Rio, Columbus, Lodi, Middleton and Waunakee.

“For what she has for a disability, I wouldn’t see it right now, except for once in a while,” said her dad Chris. “From three years ago to now, it’s changed 100 percent; she’s doing better following directions and listening, and her hearing and balance and verbal (skills have improved). It’s changed her a lot; it’s helped her out quite a bit.

“I don’t know if we didn’t have the horses, if it would be the same or not.”

Jessica’s mental development will never progress much beyond where it’s at now, essentially at about a sixth-grade level.

But her enthusiasm and her love of life are boundless, typified by the time she spends working on cars - her dad says she’s really good at that, too - and her time spent with her dogs Kenzzy and Sierra. (She grew up loving dogs first and has also won prizes at dog shows.)

Right now, though, Jessica’s smile radiates most when she’s with her family’s three horses - with Oakley in particular.

Jessica said Oakley can be a little shy at times. But just like her, she said Oakley has a sense of humor, too.

Like when “she lifts her leg up and kicks her food all over the ground,” Jessica said. “She wants to make fun.”

Sure, it’s a lot of work for Jessica to take care of her horse. But - like Oakley - she’s having all kinds of fun along the way

“Because you can meet lots of new friends and lots of new horses,” she said of why the stable in rural Poynette where her family keeps its horses is her favorite place in the world to be.

“I don’t think she’ll ever give it up,” Chris said. “Between her and mom (who grew up with horses), I think they’d give me up before they’d ever give up the horses.”

Jessica competes in the showmanship, English equitation and western horsemanship categories, among others.

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In Noble’s case, spending time with her horse Nakota - a light brown and frost colored male Appaloosa - hasn’t been so much therapeutic as it’s been motivational.

That’s because for Noble, she never would have gotten to spend time with Nakota at all had she not gotten her grades up three years ago when she was in eighth grade at Bartels Middle School.

“My parents always really hounded me - like parents do - to get them up,” Noble recalled. “So I said, fine, then I want something (as a reward).”

And that turned out to be Nakota, who, with the help of family friend Claudia Sampson, Noble found for sale at Central Wisconsin Save The Animal Group (or CWSTAG for short), a rescue farm in rural Portage north of town between the Fox River and the French Creek Wildlife Area.

When Jade got Nakota, her mother Jennifer and Sampson - who owns the farm where Jade keeps Nakota - said if Jade didn’t keep her grades up, Nakota would go back to CWSTAG.

“And so he kind of inspired me to get my grades up and do good in school,” Jade said.

In the process, though, Jade not only started doing better in school but also discovered a new talent: Working with behaviorally difficult horses.

The reason why Nakota was at CWSTAG was because in the wee hours of the morning one night a few years ago, he bucked a woman off his back and she fell to the ground and broke her pelvis.

Jade said that, even though the accident is believed to be the woman’s fault, Nakota got a reputation for being a “killer horse”.

But he’s been anything but since Jade has had him.

Now, he’s affectionate (he was brushing his snout up against Jade’s shoulders at times while she was being interviewed for this story and among the many tricks he can do is to give Jade a hug) and he’s very well behaved.

In fact, part of the reason he’s so emotional is because that’s a characteristic of the Appaloosa breed, which was developed by the Nez Pierce Indian tribe in the 19th century in the Pacific Northwest and is now one of the most popular breeds in the country.

Jade’s ability to connect so well with Nakota caught the attention of many, including CWSTAG owner Shirley Hoel.

“And she asked me, she said, ‘Hey, I know you’re younger, you’re braver - can you come out and work with some of these horses?’ Jade recalled. “And I said, ‘Yeah sure, why not!’”

So now, Jade works with the horses at CWSTAG, helping to make them better behaved in order to be adopted.

“Adopting a horse out, people are more interested in the horses that can be ridden than horses that are just what people call pasture horses, which are horses that just eat out of the pasture and that’s it,” Jade said. “So I work with them and get them to the point where they can be rideable - or I see if they can be ridden or not.”

“Some of them are actually super nice, and we have a couple of them up for adoption right now that I wish I could acquire more,” she added. “But I can’t.”

Which is a rarely used work for Jessica and Jade these days; can’t isn’t part of the vocabulary.

Instead, they’ve been nothing but successful in the first year of Portage’s equestrian program.

In, fact, Jessica took fourth Saturday and Sunday in western showmanship, sixth in western horsemanship, and in the top 10 in a couple other categories.

And Jade, whose horse is trained more for the speed categories, took third in both pole bending and barrels and in the top 10 in five other categories.

The two of them have both been fortunate that their horses came into their lives when they did.

And now, they very well might be blazing a trail for more equestrians at Portage High School.

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Information from: Portage Daily Register, http://www.portagedailyregister.com

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