Adversity turns focus onto important things

On the Farm: A serious accident and loss of a job encouraged couple to pursue what they love — horses and music

LACOMBE, Alta. — People sometimes take circuitous routes to where they want to be in life. At times, they incur bumps along the road.

It’s been that type of journey for Jack and Mary Jean Mulder.

The couple own Hawks’ View Ranch on a quarter-section that Jack’s father and grandfather farmed. Jack and Mary Jean raise, train and sell Paint and Quarter horses. The horses pasture on 35 acres. Jack puts up 30 acres of hay from the land. There’s a 90 acre field that he seeds to wheat one year and canola the next.

Late-April to mid-June is foaling season. Throughout the year many hours are devoted to training.

“Mary Jean’s my partner and is heavily involved in the horse business. I wouldn’t be successful if it wasn’t for her,” said Jack.

Mary Jean is also passionate about music. She sings in a choir and teaches voice and piano four days a week. She has 42 students this year.

The Mulders raised five sons on this land. The boys, aged 28 to 35, and their wives and children all live in the area. There’s almost always some of the nine grandchildren at the farm or camping and trail riding with their parents and grandparents in the west country foothills.

Jack and Mary Jean intentionally plan excursions as a couple. Recently, they’ve taken trips to the Muttart Conservatory in Edmonton, to the historic central Alberta communities of Big Valley and Rowley, and to Lloydminster; it was Mary Jean’s first visit to the Alberta-Saskatchewan border city.

“Life is not about money and stuff. It’s about family and doing what you enjoy,” said Mary Jean.

Three significant events over about 18 months in 2010 and 2011 forced the Mulders to evaluate what was important.

In January 2010 they were forced to make the tough decision to sell their 100-head cow herd. Ongoing price and marketing challenges stemming from the 2003 BSE crisis were the deciding factors. They loved the cow-calf operation and how it taught their kids responsibility and a strong work ethic. What they didn’t love was how it sucked all their money away.

“We were both working full-time off the farm to support our cow habit,” said Mary Jean.

With the cows gone, they rented out most of the land. Although Jack worked full time for a livestock equipment, supplies and service company, he was able to devote more time and energy to raising and training horses, a passion he’d held since childhood. “Grandpa bought us kids a horse when I was about 12,” Jack said.

Mary Jean was pursuing her love of singing by taking private voice and piano lessons through the Royal Conservatory of Music while working full time as an educational assistant in Lacombe. The couple also started building a new house.

Then came Aug. 14, 2010, the day of Jack’s accident.

“Everything was going good and then it just changed; poof,” Jack said.

Jack had ridden Racer, a four-year-old Quarter horse gelding he was training, to a farm up the road. After chatting with the neighbour for a while, the duo headed home.

They never arrived. Mary Jean began to worry. The time was nearing that she and Jack had to leave for a family birthday. After numerous anxious glances out the window she saw Racer standing in the ditch. She rushed out to find Jack close by, unconscious on the gravel road, face bruised, blood gathering in his ears and nose.

He was rushed by ambulance to Red Deer Hospital and then to Edmonton’s University of Alberta Hospital. An MRI showed a double impact head injury, a brain bleed and swelling. The swelling began to subside, avoiding the need for pressure relieving surgery. The diagnosis: acquired traumatic brain injury.

Jack has no recollection of the accident that changed his life but he’ll live with its effects forever. He tires easily and regains energy slowly. Everyday stresses can be magnified. He was unable to return to his off-farm job.

“It forced me to be at home,” he said. “Now I think it’s the best thing. I wouldn’t trade the farm life to be at a job from 8 to 5.”

The third event occurred in spring 2011. Mary Jean’s educational assistant position was eliminated by the local school district. Her job ended that June.

The Mulders went from two full-time off-farm incomes to none. Their savings began to dwindle. The new house was put on hold.

The pieces of bad news were blunt encouragement to pursue the things they loved: horses and music.

They plunged further into the horse business, taking horse-training seminars and online courses. They networked with veterinarians and horse trainers.

“So we can get better at what we do,” said Mary Jean.

They’ve learned a lot.

“Everyone has an idea of what the perfect horse is and what it can do. That made us solidify our package, what we’re offering.”

Mary Jean’s music has also been a constant. She had started teaching piano to friends while still working. She now had the incentive to take it further. In the fall of 2011, she hoped to get maybe 10 students but 18 enrolled. Each year that number grew.

“We’ve had real life struggles but we learned how to adapt. At the end of it all, we still have this amazing life,” said Mary Jean.

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