- Associated Press - Sunday, July 3, 2016

WINONA, Minn. (AP) - Jenny Peterson leaned over the wire fence and called her horse.

“Cruzy!”

Soon a chestnut horse, his white companion close behind, came trotting over a small hill. The pasture was bright green in mid-May, dotted with yellow and white wildflowers. Around it, the bluffs of East Burns Valley in Winona almost glowed with new growth.

“Come here,” Peterson beckoned. Leaving her toolbox, with the words “JEN DEERE” on the side, she bent between the wires and stood inside the horses’ pasture.

She spoke softly to Cruz as she slipped a harness onto his head.

“Good boy.”

Peterson’s horses, Cruz and Cherokee, aren’t broke yet, meaning they don’t know how to deal with a rider.

But Peterson is training them, bit by bit, and hopes they’ll be ready one day.

“I lunge them in a circle,” she explained. “Sometimes I’ll put the saddle on them, and sometimes we’ll just play.”

They like her until she gets their worm medicine out, she joked, as she stroked Cruz’s nose with the white wormer stick. He stepped nervously away.

“Come on Cruzy, come here,” she said, clicking her tongue. She petted his nose with the stick, then took it away.

“It’s called approach and retreating,” she said, a technique that shows the horse the nasty-tasting medicine will go away once he takes it.

Using a short blue rope, Peterson led Cruz in circles, guiding him right, then left, then backwards with a wiggle of the rope.

“He’s kind of bossy sometimes. He likes to kind of step in my space,” she said of the 7-year-old horse. So she’s firm with him, showing him she’s the boss.

She’s had Cruz for six years and got him as a yearling. Cherokee, the younger of the two, was only 6 months old when Peterson got him four years ago from a neighboring farm.

But Peterson has worked with horses for many years, starting before high school. She had a horse instructor who taught her the basics and more, and now she’s stopped having lessons but keeps learning new things for herself.

Peterson works with her horses every day, fitting in time for them around her full-time job as a cashier at Walmart in Winona. She’s been working there for a year now, and things are going well.

But there was a point when working anywhere seemed just about impossible for her.

Peterson, 28, has a developmental disability. It’s hard for her to remember information, and it takes her a bit longer to learn new things.

After being home-schooled through middle school, Peterson graduated from Winona Senior High School at age 19. A longtime animal lover, she applied for and got a job at a local vet as a pet groomer.

A week later, she was fired. She worked too slow, she was told.

“They weren’t willing to teach me to be faster, so they just kind of shoved me out the door,” she said.

It wasn’t the greatest start to her career, and Peterson’s confidence level went into a tailspin. She was reluctant to talk with anyone new and struggled to get back out there and try working again.

“I felt pretty bad, and I still kind of have nightmares about it,” Peterson said. “Like, is somebody else going to do that to me, and not give me a chance to get better, or give me a chance to learn?”

The Winona Daily News (http://bit.ly/28S6oH1 ) reports that Peterson and her parents turned to the Winona ORC for help. Peterson worked there for five years. She started doing light assembly work at the ORC, then worked on cleaning crews in the community with a job coach.

As she gained back her confidence, she got an individual placement job housekeeping at Sugar Loaf Senior Living. Individual placement means ORC staff helped her get settled in the job, but she worked just like any other employee.

But with her newfound confidence, Peterson set her sights higher.

She wanted to be able to support herself, and she wanted to be able to have animals. Supplemental Security Income, a benefit that helps people with disabilities with living expenses, didn’t cover her horses’ hay and other bills, plus care for her dog, cat, and more than a dozen fish. And she wasn’t allowed to save much money in that program.

So while she was at Sugar Loaf part time for three years, she applied for her job at Walmart, all on her own, to see if it would work.

“I decided that, well, Mom and Dad aren’t going to be around forever to help me. Because before they kind of helped me with some of the animal expenses and house and stuff,” she said. “I thought I’d better get out there and start doing something, even though it may not be my dream job, to get more independent.”

She credited the ORC with overcoming her shyness and giving her more confidence.

“They kind of helped bring me out of my shell a little bit, and I was able to talk to people that I don’t know very well,” she said. “So by the time I got to Walmart, and out back in the community, I was able to talk to people that I normally wouldn’t want to talk to, or be afraid to talk to.”

Peterson has made lots of strides toward independence. She studied for and got her driver’s license. Four years ago, she moved out of her parents’ house and now lives in their old house on the family property. She supports herself and her pets with her income from Walmart, and her only outside support is for medical care.

Peterson said she’s proud of becoming more financially independent and having a place of her own. She said she’s learned, once again, how to take a chance even at the risk of striking out.

“I’ve learned not to wait on people to help you all the time,” she said. “Sometimes you just have to do things yourself if you want things done.”

Peterson still hasn’t given up on her dream job, teaching horsemanship. But classes to be certified as an instructor are expensive, she said, plus the cost of travel and transporting horses, so it’s a long shot.

But for now, Cruz and Cherokee are there waiting for her to get home.

“I feel like I’m in a different - I feel like that I can forget about everything else,” she said of her time with the horses.

“It’s just my time to get away from whatever bugs me. Then I come back happier, because they’re always glad to see me.”

___

Information from: Winona Daily News, http://www.winonadailynews.com

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