by Diane Larson

All photos courtesy of Jacquie Kittson

In the heart of Billings is an oasis where small wonders happen on a continual basis. It’s a place where love heals rescued animals, and those rescued animals in turn shower that love on their visitors, and what happens during a visit borders on miraculous.

At the absolute height of her rodeo, movie and television career, Lynn “Jonnie” Jonckwoski left it all behind to return home so that she could help her father care for her ailing mother. Jonnie’s mom had been struck with Alzheimer’s and her family lovingly and willingly took on the roles of primary care givers.

This wasn’t an easy time for either of them. “My dad disappeared into nearly nothing because it was so hard,” says Jonnie. She goes on to say, “The challenges were beyond comprehension.” As she took care of her mom along-side her dad, father and daughter struggled through the illness together. They experienced what Alzheimer’s looks like and feels like from their perspective, and eventually Alzheimer’s took her from them both. Jonnie said her thoughts turned to her mom’s experience. “The biggest thing on my mind was, what was she thinking when she left me? What was she feeling? It was those things I didn’t have an answer to.” That would stay with Jonnie, and that experience would make her the absolute best candidate for what was about to happen.

Once her mom had passed, Jonnie needed a job. She decided to go to school and become a physical therapist. She got employment at a nursing home in Billings. It was a great fit for her. She loved and cared for her patients deeply. Jonnie trained her golden retriever, Tally Ho, to be a therapy dog. The patients responded well to Tally Ho. But not so much her boss.

During personnel evaluations Jonnie was told she cared too much for her patients. Eventually the other therapist couldn’t care for anyone because they all wanted “the girl with the dog,” her boss told her. Jonnie was ahead of her time. Animal therapy hadn’t quite caught on as a mainstay yet. However, Jonnie’s resolve was steadfast; she said to her boss, “I’m not going to stop talking to and caring for my patients.”

A few days later one of Jonnie’s patients, Ruby, was turning 99 years old. Jonnie asked her what she wanted for her birthday. Ruby said she wanted a Paint pony because she was not allowed to have one when she was young. She told Jonnie that they had other horses, but not a Paint pony. Jonnie, of course, went to the store and bought Ruby a little Paint pony. When she gave the present to her, Ruby said, I will name my pony “Happy.” Jonnie asked her if he made her happy and she told Jonnie, “He does, but a real horse would make me really happy.” The wheels began to turn.  

Jonnie thought, I have a Paint; we could make this happen. Working with the staff and prepping her horse for a visit Jonnie brought Ruby a visitor. Adorned with hospital booties on his feet the sound of clippity-clop through the hallways could be heard.

The 80 pound little Ruby was nearly blind, afflicted with osteoarthritis, had knurled fingers and needed a lift to even get out of bed, but soon she would be “really happy.”

The horse was guided right up to Ruby’s bed and as Jonnie handed Ruby the grain bucket so that Ruby could feed the horse, Ruby excitedly exclaimed, “I can smell him Jonnie, I can smell him.” Ruby’s hands slid down the pony’s nose, and she could feel that horse nuzzling right up to her. Watching the interaction between Ruby and her four-legged visitor, Jonnie exclaimed, “Now that is happy; that is happy.”

After the visit with Ruby, Jonnie and her Paint spent the afternoon letting the rest of the residents enjoy the unusual visitor.

Jonnie’s boss was less than thrilled at the visitor, and the next day Jonnie was relieved of her position.

But instead of letting it get her down, Jonnie went home and kept thinking to herself, “how easy was that to make so many people so very happy.” I had my dog and my horse and people responded so positively around them.

When Jonnie left her position as physical therapist she went on to become a personal trainer. But without realizing it, the seeds of an organization named Angel Horses had just been planted and were already taking off.

A few days after Jonnie left her physical therapy position a woman drove up to her house and knocked on Jonnie’s door. She asked Jonnie if
 her daughter could pet one of the horses. They had seen the horses from the road. The girl was a special needs child, at 16-years-of-age she had the mentality of a 2 year old. She had spinal meningitis as a toddler and the terrible disease had left its mark on her for life. Jonnie said of course, and the three of them spent some time with the horses. The woman asked Jonnie if she would work with her daughter, and Jonnie agreed. That was a tipping point.

That woman went on to tell others about her and her daughter’s experience with Jonnie and her horses. Soon others were telling their friends, and their friends were telling…well you get the drift. If just kept growing. Jonnie would come home from work and there would be a line of people waiting to see the horses and experience what others had.

What was happening was a real life example of “if you build it they will come.” Angel Horses was born.

Angel Horses takes place on Jonnie’s property of about 2 ½ acres. They have nine equines, horses, donkeys and ponies, everyone a rescue.

Angel Horses, is a unique human service organization that provides positive physical and emotional stimulus to the community. Most of those who come to Angel Horses are senior citizens, especially those afflicted with Alzheimer’s. Others who use the facility are at-risk youth, special needs children, persons living with PTSD and families affected by cancer.

The animals at Angel Horses are all rescue animals. They have horses, dogs, cats and even donkeys. All of these animals are loved, cared for and used in a therapeutic environment.

A large percentage of the people that come to Angel Horses are Alzheimer’s patients. Jonnie said, “We just fell upon that.” An assisted living facility in Billings called and said that they would like to bring out a group. What they discovered was that Alzheimer’s patients, in particular, respond to the animals and environment in an incredible way.

These Alzheimer’s patients come to Angel Horses generally with their son or daughter. A light lunch is provided, usually hamburgers or hotdogs cooked outside. There will be a campfire, and often a donkey adorned with Mexican baskets that are filled with tortilla chips mingles with the visitors. The donkey, a miniature spotted ass by the name of Eeyore, was just created for this, Jonnie says. “He mingles with the seniors and they just love him, and he loves them,” she says. They will brush him, hang on to him and get their chips out of his baskets. It’s just a joy to watch, says Jonnie. 

“I don’t know what it is about the horses, the environment, or the campfire, but for 20 minutes or better they (Alzheimer’s patients) would lose that deer caught in the headlights look and have a conversation with their son or daughter,” said Jonnie. She goes on to say, “And let me tell ya, when their son or daughter hadn’t even heard their father or mother say their name in two years, you can’t imagine how powerful that is.” I mean we were all a wreck.” Jonnie went on to explain, “I don’t know if it’s the smell that triggers it, if it’s the sight that triggers it, but it happens every single time they come out here.”

They also provide entertainment. One local favorite that can be seen there often is the legendary Noreen Linderman, otherwise known as “Noreen, The Outlaw Queen.” Noreen performs old time country western music, and everyone just starts tapping their feet, and those that are able will get up and dance to the music.

The assisted living facilities will bus out 12 to 14 people at a time, and for that afternoon there is a return to the person that is hidden behind this terrible disease.

The men and women that are afflicted with PTSD will come here and they will bond with a horse. Jonnie explained that the horse can sense their insecurities, their inabilities, fears, and discomforts whatever they are, and the horse gets through all that just by spending time together. The PTSD patients don’t ride the horses they just spend time together and become so much more than friends.

Angel Horses began in 1998 as a small group of volunteers that worked in conjunction with their church. They incorporated in 2006 which meant they could then accept large donations, grants and it vgives them the ability to grow. They are a not-for-profit organization that truly relies on the kindness of not only strangers but anyone and everyone who can afford to donate. They are completely run by volunteers

Angel Horses is currently at a point where they really need to grow. They could be helping so many more people if they had a proper facility. Because of size and not having proper facilities for inclement weather they have to turn away 200 to 300 people every month. Their season runs from the May first to October first. Jonnie explained there is a real need in this community for a facility like this that can operate all year. She said that, according to the funeral homes in Billings, the highest mortality rate is during the long dark winter months, February to May. During this         time there are few less celebrated holidays, and weather hinders family visitations. The patients and residents get lonely, says Jonnie. These patients and residents begin to disappear into themselves. During these months especially, Angel Horses could be of immense value to these people and the community at large. During one winter season “we turn down up to 2,500 people,” said Jonnie.

The need to grow is immense. They have property picked out on the West End of Billings that would be ideal. They are currently in the process of obtaining the funds. “The vision we have is a one-stop resort,” says Jonnie.  The idea is to build a western town complete with a longbranch, Del Monaco’s, delivery stables, and general store, Jonnie explained. The town will be hooked onto the indoor facility so when they come inside visitors will have windows so they can see into the indoor wagon arena and they can watch the horses, or they can ride the horses. We will even have a chapel.

With a facility that can run all year round, the little wonders can happen all the time and so many more people can be helped by the great work of Angel Horses.  Weather is a major reason they cannot serve more people. They could go from serving 35 people a week to up to 140 people in that same amount of time.

Each year for the past nine years Angel Horses has hosted a fundraiser called Boot Scootin’ Barn Dance. This fundraiser has done extremely well every year and the hope was that this year they would raise enough money to place a down payment on the property. But, sadly, that didn’t happen. They fell short of their goal. However, they did make some great contacts, and those are being pursued.

James Herriot said that “If having a soul means being able to feel love and loyalty and gratitude, then animals are a lot better off than most humans.” It is with this love and loyalty and gratitude that these animals at Angel Horses serve selflessly because they love in a way that we, as humans, have yet begun to understand. That is why the miracles happen in that place, that is why Angel Horses is so important.


HELENA, Mont. – October 3, 2016 – NorthWestern Energy filed with the Montana Public Service Commission last Friday a request for an approximately $10.9 million rate increase for its natural gas customers. The filing is the company’s first natural gas rate case since 2012.

NorthWestern Energy estimates that the bill impact for the average natural gas customer using 100 therms per month would be an approximately $4.81 increase, or 6.77 percent.

“As an impartial body, the Commission will be thorough and judicious throughout the proceeding.” said PSC Chairman Brad Johnson, R-East Helena. “We will carefully weigh all aspects of the filing before rendering a decision, which we first and foremost hope will protect the long term interest of Montana ratepayers, while at the same time being equitable to the utility.”

"Commissioners must do their jobs, consistent with the requirements of law, so no one can predict the eventual outcome.  But I cannot say I am not disappointed.  This increase would be a bitter pill to swallow for many NorthWestern customers, especially those on low and fixed incomes," said Commissioner Roger Koopman, R-Bozeman.

The company’s primary requests within the filing include:

  • $10.89 million rate increase for its natural gas customers.
  • $5.59 million of the rate increase be approved on an interim basis to allow the company to begin recovering costs prior to the conclusion of the full rate case.
  • Inclusion of two gas production assets into the company’s rate-base.
  • An increase to the company’s return on equity (ROE) for its natural gas consolidated utility from the current 9.8 percent, to 10.35 percent.

The Commission will also evaluate NorthWestern’s request to recover a portion of costs related to the company’s new, $26 million headquarters building that opened earlier this year in Butte, to determine the investment’s benefit to ratepayers. 

The PSC has nine months to issue a final decision on NorthWestern Energy’s request.

A copy of the filing is available for inspection at the PSC’s business offices, 1701 Prospect Avenue, P.O. Box 202601, Helena, Montana 59620-2601; and the Montana Consumer Counsel (MCC), 111 North Last Chance Gulch Suite 1B, P.O. Box 201703, Helena, Montana 59620-1703, telephone (406) 444-2771.  The MCC is available to represent the interests of the consuming public in this matter.

Any interested person that does not wish to formally intervene in this Docket may submit written public comments on the matter to the Commission at the above address, or through its web-based comment form at (“Comment on Proceedings”).

To view the full rate filing, visit:

Big Sky Connection

Eric Tegethoff

October 4, 2016

HELENA, Mont. - Montanans only have one week left to register to vote through the mail. After that, they'll have to go into their local elections office if they want to vote this November. Late registration begins on Oct. 12 and runs through Election Day.

Montana is one of only 12 states that doesn't allow online voter registration. Secretary of State Linda McCulloch said it's been a barrier to making voter registration easier, but state legislators have turned down online voter registration because of safety concerns.

"They always claim there's fraud involved, but they pay their taxes online, they pay their bills online, they bank online, they do a number of things online, and online voter registration is really the safest," she explained.

She said the state also lacks automatic voter registration, the system that allows people with driver's licenses who are eligible to vote to be placed automatically on the voter rolls.

Still, Montana's election system performs well, according to the Pew Charitable Trusts Election Center, which ranked the state 12th in the nation during the 2014 election.

In past elections, Native American activists have criticized Montana for not providing more access to voting in their communities. McCulloch said the state is addressing these concerns, and now leads the nation in protecting ballot access for native communities.

"Last October, I directed all counties with Indian populations to set up early voting offices on reservations," she said. "So right now in Montana, we have 13 satellite offices across 10 counties to ensure that everyone gets the opportunity to vote."

Absentee ballots will be sent out on Oct. 14 and must be received by the local elections office or polling place by 8:00 p.m. on Election Day. McCulloch said 60 percent of Montanans voted with absentee ballots in the last election.

September 21, 2016
Butte - The following is a list of awards that were given to films from the first Covellite International Film Festival.

SECOND CHANCE, 87 min, directed by Carlos Cardona of New York. In this film Oscar attempts to fix what he broke. After a home invasion goes horribly wrong, Oscar tries to help the girl whose life he ruined in the invasion. SECOND CHANCE won the Judge's Award.

ADOPTING TROUBLE, 80 min, directed by Lee Shawn Gardener. Nick and Maryanne are unable to have children, but desperately want them. Interesting events take place as they kidnap a young pregnant woman on her way to get an abortion. ADOPTING TROUBLE won the Narrative Feature.

IN THE PARLOR: The Final Goodbye, 80 min, directed by Heidi Boucher & Ruby Sketchley. Rejecting the mainstream tradition of hiring funeral professionals to care for deceased, families in search of a ore personal and fulfilling way to say goodbye are taking an active role in caring for relatives who have died. IN THE PARLOR won for Documentary Feature.

CHAOS MANAGEMENT, 3 min, directed by Michelle Muldoon. An exhausted female professional uses a creative solution to deal with an early morning distraction. CHAOS MANAGEMENT won for Short Film Award

, 32 min, directed by Cheryl Robson. This film tells the story of a small island in the Thames River in London where the origins of R & B began in a crumbling old hotel with a sprung dance floor. ROCK N ROLL ISLAND won for Short Film Award

LESTER LEAPS IN,  30 min, directed by Mike Steinberg. At a lumber mill in 1970s Montana, a middle manager struggles to produce a safety film. LESTER LEAPS IN won for Short Film Award

LEFT OUT: Between the Two Party Horse Race, 57 min, directed by Jesse Bertel. A documentary that sheds light on the ways third-party candidates gain support while marginalized by the news media. LEFT OUT won the Frank Little Award for Self-Sacrifice & Social Change Award.