Fort Wilderness trainer uses horses to teach lessons about life
There’s no doubt Jonathan Brood has a deep love and respect for horses. It shows when he walks among the herd that is stabled at Fort Wilderness, a Christian-based camp in McNaughton. As the director of horsemanship, Jonathan is responsible for more than 45 of these animals, and when he opens a gate and steps into their world, they come to him gently as he softly strokes their foreheads or scratches their necks.
Jonathan, along with his wife Dyane, knows all these horses well. Many they have raised over the years and some they have watched come into this world. And while tending and training this herd is hard work, it is more than a passion for this couple. “The horsemanship classes we have here have taught many people that come to Fort Wilderness countless skills and lessons,” he said. “I consider these horses gifts from God, but they are tools He uses to teach us. Whether that’s seeing the beauty in nature from the back of a horse on a trail ride or just petting one, they play a part in opening our eyes to the love God has for us.”
Jonathan was raised on a sheep and cattle farm in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. From early on, he knew the meaning of hard work and loved tending the animals, although there was only one horse on this farm when he was growing up. “I would ride it all over our farm,” he said. “But we really didn’t use it as a working horse.”
After graduating high school, Jonathan attended Trinity International University in Deerfield, Ill., receiving a degree in physical education. One day his counselor asked him what he wanted to do after graduating. “I told him I liked farming and camps,” he said. “I had gone to different camps growing up and thought it would be a great job to work at one.”
Shortly after graduating, he found just such a job in Ohio at a working ranch/camp that focused on back country horsemanship. That’s where he met Dyane. After marrying, they moved to Rhinelander 16 years ago, when Jonathan became the director of horsemanship at Fort Wilderness. “It has been a perfect fit for us here,” he said. “We really love this work.” And work they do, along with their three children, Silas, 14, Amos, 13, and Marcayle, age 8.
It’s not hard to see why this beautiful not-for-profit camp has appealed to so many people over the years. It was started by Truman and Jan Robertson in 1956, who wanted a place where children and families could come together “in the beauty of God’s creation.” They had no money but settled on 80 acres and 1,000 feet of frontage on Spider Lake. Through prayer, perseverance and some generous donations, they purchased the land and started Fort Wilderness with two primitive camp cabins, a bat, a ball, a canoe and a Bible. The first year they hosted 16 campers. “Today, there are more than 8,000 campers that come to Fort Wilderness every year,” said Craig Raths, who is the chief operating officer. “Summer is our busiest season, but we are open all year round. We have men and women retreats, a marriage retreat and even one focusing on scrapbooking. Guests come from all over the country, many from cities like Milwaukee, Chicago and Minneapolis.”
A tour of the place reveals a well-thought-out camp set among towering trees and situated on the banks of Spider Lake. Truman would be very impressed with the growth of his dream. Now there are 14 duplex-style cabins, built to look like western bunkhouses; there are more than 15 RV campsites and numerous tent campsites as well. There are even rooms that can be rented to camp guests at the Inn. There is a mess hall that serves nourishing food, the Gathering Place, with lofty ceilings made from giant beams where speakers come to talk on a variety of subjects that focus on living a life of faith. And all denominations are welcome.
There is never a dull moment here. Families can be seen swimming, doing crafts, canoeing, fishing, playing ball or just relaxing. Fort Wilderness offers sessions where parents can get away for a few hours and kids can meet others who will end up as lifelong friends. “This is a great place for families to come and just spend time with one another,” said Craig.
Perhaps the more popular areas of the camp are the stables where Jonathan and Dyane work every day. They have trail rides for the guests and classes geared toward those who may be interested in learning what it’s like to own a horse. “We teach them everything from picking hooves, to feeding to cleaning the stalls,” said Dyane.
One interesting class Jonathan holds every Monday night is called Cowboy Truth. He sets up a big round pen and uses a young horse to teach guests about faith through the animal’s training.
A palomino filly named Firefly is learning her lessons at the hand of Jonathan this year. He starts her off loping around the pen, and though it is evident she has respect for her trainer, she is also wary. “See how she runs away from me and seems unsure,” said Jonathan. “But isn’t that the way we can be toward God? I want her to realize that even though she is afraid, I will not hurt her. She can run as long as she wants but I am not going away.”
Eventually, the golden filly comes to a halt and then approaches Jonathan. One tool he uses is a plastic bag tied to the end of the stick. He waves this noisy contraption around the horse, who fidgets and again runs away. “I want her to realize there are scary things in life but she doesn’t have to be afraid,” he said. “I want her to have trust in me and know that I will not let anything bad happen to her.”
This particular training session drew close to 60 guests who watched wide-eyed and in awe as Jonathan put Firefly through her paces. “I can totally relate to what he is teaching,” said one guest who was visiting from Chicago with his wife and two adopted daughters. “It’s just amazing how this man can teach the word of God through a horse.”
But for Jonathan and his family, teaching the word of God through a stable full of horses is a natural extension of their faith. “I see God in many ways and in many things,” said Jonathan, “but I’m very glad that horses are one of the gifts I can use to teach others how to live a life with purpose and meaning.”