This Motown Singer Turned His Wild Mustang Ranch Into a Summer Camp for Baltimore Kids

How a Motown veteran is using his passion for wild horses to help at-risk children.

Photo by Black Tiger.

Jean Albert Renaud sleeps in a barn. His bedroom shares a wall with the stall of a stallion named Incitatus. On winter nights, he can hear the wind whistling across the hills, but Renaud (or Jar, as he is known) is warm in the company of his eight horses. He sleeps there because he wants to.

“When I was three years old my great-grandfather lifted me up and put me on the back of his old mule. I realized then and there, that’s where I needed to be.”

From humble roots in the Baltimore projects and a musical career touring with Motown royalty, right up to his current abode, Jar’s life has never been conventional. But today it is focused on his noblest effort yet—preserving and nourishing what he calls America’s two most precious and least appreciated treasures: the wild Mustang and our marginalized children.

Mustangs and children share the same free, untamed spirit that has always invigorated the American imagination. Yet instead of celebrating this spirit, in an increasingly controlled and fenced-in world, both mustangs and inner-city children are often considered more of a nuisance than an asset.

“We treat children like we treat the wild horses," Jar says. "We rarely take the time to look at the world from their viewpoints. So many of them know and survive the streets without us. They are like wild horses. So, like the horses, how do you approach these ‘wild’ kids?"

The view from a mule

If you visit Jar's home in the summer months, you can watch what happens when children and horses are brought together. Sunshine Acres, a farm in Northern Maryland with the ambiance of the American West, is graced with buildings that feature exposed wood and Native American motifs: carved totem-pole door frames, ceiling murals of horses and riders, and Indian blanket pillows tossed on the furniture.

At 69, Jar exudes an intense and joyful energy, not unlike that of the wild horses he loves so dearly. High cheekbones and dark, deep-set eyes hint at a Native American lineage—Blackfoot on his father's side and Cherokee on his mother's. But for his mother's extraordinary strength and pioneering drive, he might have been one of the struggling children he now welcomes onto his farm.

Dorothy May White was Baltimore’s first female radio disc jockey. She was an inspiration to Jar and his sister, Evonne, and worked hard to get them out of Baltimore’s Somerset Court Housing projects. Her efforts paid off when Jar became Baltimore’s first black male national recording artist of the era.

Dorothy May also gave her children another gift: a means of escape from the city.  She regularly took Jar and Evonne to visit their great-grandfather’s farm in Virginia, where Jar experienced the most pivotal event of his life: “When I was three years old my great-grandfather lifted me up and put me on the back of his old mule. I realized then and there, that’s where I needed to be.”

But Jar's dream of owning horses would be delayed for several years. Like so many young men of the late 1950s, he joined the Army at age 18. Unlike most others, though, he won a contest for Best Male Vocalist and spent the final 18 months of his eight-year stint entertaining the troops. When he later started his own group, Renaud and the Junction, he was offered a contract by Motown talent scouts.

Even in the frenetic world of touring and performing with groups like the Jackson Five and Sly and the Family Stone, Jar couldn’t escape the pull of his true passion. “Everywhere I went," he remembers, "I ran into people with horses. I remember David Ruffin [of the Temptations] had a little paint he rode."

Ranchers complain that the wild horses compete with their herds for food and water.

It was in these same years that Jar began exploring the American West. He befriended members of the Apache, Navajo, and Sioux tribes, and rode horseback with them through New Mexico and Colorado. Here, he first laid eyes on the wild mustangs. He was immediately smitten by their majestic beauty and a desire to learn more about them.

To understand the wild horses, Jar realized he needed to observe how they interacted without human interference.

“We never take time to learn who horses are without that dominant control factor that mankind provides," he points out. "They survived for thousands of years without us. I wanted to know how to approach a horse in the wild, a horse that had never been ridden or fed by a man. I wanted to learn how they took care of themselves. So I went on a crusade to study wild horses.”

The tonic of wilderness

Horses originated in North America some 55 million years ago. The earliest were the size of small dogs, and over millions of years they evolved to look much like the horses that roam the plains today. They crossed over the Bering Strait to populate the rest of the world before becoming extinct in North America some 12,000 to 14,000 years ago.

The species was reintroduced in the 16th century, when the conquistadors transported them on ships to help subjugate the New World. The mustangs that roam the West today are descendants of these hardy steeds.

In 1971, when Richard Nixon signed the Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act to ensure protection for these animals, he began with a quote by Henry David Thoreau: “We need the tonic of wilderness. Wild horses merit protection as a matter of ecological right, as anyone knows who has stood awed at the indomitable spirit and sheer energy of a mustang living free.”

Wild mustang photo by Jeffrey K. Edwards

Wild horses are pediodically rounded up by the Bureau of Land Management and confined in corrals where they are adopted or sold. BLM officials claim it is a "humane" way to control animals that might otherwise overpopulate the range, but animal advocates argue that the policy serves the interests of ranchers, not nature.

At the turn of the 20th Century, some 2 million mustangs were living free. That number is now estimated to be 34,000. These horses roam on range lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), and thousands of are rounded up annually. Ranchers, who lease federal lands for their livestock (approximately 4 million total cattle), complain that the horses compete with their herds for food and water. They lobby hard to limit the mustang population. Each year, more are captured than are adopted, and some of those considered "unadoptable" are auctioned off.

While the BLM claims that it does not sell horses to slaughterhouses (a claim challenged by a number of animal advocacy groups), at the very least the horses are confined to pens. Jar believes these animals deserve better:

“The foundation of our nation is built on the free spirit that the mustang represents. And it is on the back of the horse that this nation grew. While the eagle flies overhead, it is the horse that has carried us. The lack of respect for these horses is heartbreaking.”

A new beat

Jar strolls through the barn at Sunshine Acres and talks softly to his horses. He recalls watching his great-grandfather: "[He] communicated with his mules through body language and sounds. I wanted to learn how to do this."

One of the first things he learned in his study of horse behavior is that they nibble to communicate affection. “And what do people do?” he asks. “They smack them when they nibble. They smack them, just when they are trying to communicate, ‘I like you.’” As Jar walks by, even the stallions nuzzle his head and nibble at his fingers.

"It’s like a metaphor for their lives. ‘Who can I trust? Where do I start?'"

Jar has developed a unique, gentle style of training. His horses sport neither shoes nor a bit, and his personal preference is to ride bareback. He has become recognized internationally as an expert horseman, a reputation that has taken him as far as Qatar, where he trained the royal Qatari equine team.

His vision today is to place the wild horses in programs across the country to work with disabled, troubled, and at-risk children.

In 2005, Jar founded Project Arrowhead, a program that translates his vision into action. Project Arrowhead recruits youth from Baltimore and Washington, DC, asking participants to leave their comfort zone—the city— and travel to Sunshine Acres, where they learn about nature, gardening, and Native American traditions. Most importantly, they have their first experiences with horses. Jar marvels at the transformation he sees when a child first climbs onto the back of a horse:

“It’s about trust, trusting me and trusting the horse. Here they are, faced with this eleven-hundred-pound animal. It’s like a metaphor for their lives, taking on the enormity of their lives. ‘Who can I trust? Where do I start?’”

In the summer of 2010, 46 youth participated in Project Arrowhead. Over the past five years, Jar has worked with some 500 children in the program.

Two months ago Jar adopted his first Mustang, Lucie, from the BLM. A beautiful strawberry roan, Mustang Lucie seems right at home on Sunshine Acres. Jar hopes to adopt more mustangs in the coming years, expanding Project Arrowhead into a long-term program.

Meanwhile, he continues to tap out beats and compose music, much like he did in his youth—except now, he does it from a tucked away recording studio in the barn's annex. As he approaches his seventh decade, his music is now about “becoming one with the horses." It mixes with the rhythm of mustang hooves and the wonder-filled voices of children on horseback.

Not surprisingly, he even has a theme song:

I ride horses, that’s what I do …
I love horses and they love me too …
and true.

audio iconListen to Jar's theme song and the full interview with Marc Steiner here, including his Motown adventures and a race through the Arabian Desert with the Duchess of York.

Jar’s great-grandfather and the mule that started it all.

Jar wins Best Male Vocalist in an Army competition.

Photo courtesy of Jean Albert Renaud.

Renaud and the Junction concert poster.

Photo by Reginald Daniels.

Singing with Renaud and the Junction.

Jar crossing the finish line in a race across the Arabian Desert, riding a Qatari-born Arabian.

The Barn and Annex, Sunshine Acres.

Photo by Valerie Williams.

Jar today, in the doorway of his room in the barn at Sunshine Acres.

Photo by Valerie Williams.

Not your average bedroom door.

Photo by Valerie Williams.

Image on the ceiling of the Barn Annex at Sunshine Acres, painted by Jar’s sister, Evonne.

Photo by Monique Ege.

Mustang Lucie and her friend Tango the Morwalkarab, a breed Jar created when he paired his half-Arabian, half-Tennessee Walker with a Morgan. Morwalkarabs travel at a gait, boast a sturdy frame, and, according to Jar, they have the right temperament to work with kids.

Photo by Valerie Williams.

Scazar nibbling at Jar’s fingers. Horses nibble to express affection.

Photo by Monique Ege.

Jar and participants in the Project Arrowhead program, Summer 2010.

Photo by Monique Ege.

Jar takes a Project Arrowhead participant for her first horseback experience, Summer 2010.

Photo by Monique Ege.

Jar and Mustang Lucie, on the day of her arrival.