When we lived in Alaska, a small horse stable was located on the outskirts of the Air Force base. We’d have to pass it everyday, as we drove in toward the neighborhoods. Alyssa was mesmerized. She and Ron would identify which horses were out in the pasture. As winter approached, the horses spent a little more time in the barns. So when Ron dropped Michael off at Tiger Cubs, he and Alyssa would go to the stables and talk to the horses for that hour. Sometimes they’d talk to the owners, sometimes they’d bring carrots or apples or sugar cubes.
Alyssa was shy around people, but not around horses. She’d walk her tiny self – she was all of about 4 years old – up to the stalls, and pet those enormous horses. Ron would hold her up and she’d rub their faces, speaking softly to them. They’d talk about different horse breeds and how they looked and acted. Soon the owners came to know them, and they’d share stories about their horses. We thought about how nice it would be someday, to own our own horse farm.
So when the Air Force took us to California after Alaska, we knew we needed to find a horse farm. We couldn’t buy one, but we sure could hang out at someone else’s! We wanted to find riding lessons for all of the kids; Ron decided he wanted to learn too. He found ManMar Ranch near our home. ManMar was interesting because it was a breeding ranch for the UC Veterinary school. We found a riding instructor named Miss Shirley. She was from England and wanted everyone to learn English instead of Western. Being a HUGE John Wayne fan family, that did not sit well. Miss Shirley explained that it was a better way to learn. Less leather between you and your horse, means you will be able to read each other better. So that’s what we did. And we decide to learn something, we immerse ourselves. Ron and the kids would offer to help the ranch owner, Liz, with whatever she needed. She had stable hands, but they had a lot to do. Soon, my kids were moving horses from one field to another, bringing them into their stalls for the night, helping with feeding, chatting with owners. When one of the mares was about to have a foal, Liz called us to come up and watch. A miracle in the barn – without a doubt!
The UC Vets let the kids look through microscopes, talked with them about injuries, and explained artificial insemination. They all learned about the dangers of getting too close to the hormone-raging stallions, as well as the mares who were used solely for breeding. They were referred to as the Crazy Mares. I guess you would be too if you were pregnant most of your life! This happens in the horse racing world. Expensive race horses cannot run the risk of a problem pregnacy. So the Crazy Mares do all the work, so to speak.
Liz had shared her horses with us. First it was Pepper (For Dr. Pepper), then it was Louie. Finally she wanted us to try to ride Gilley. He was a Standard bred bay colored horse who had not done well on the track. He was fast, but he was easily spooked at the gate. While that’s no good for a race horse, it’s not that bad for a family horse. Ron and Michael spent many days there helping them build a covered riding arena, learning how to break in horses – all to barter with Liz, work for boarding costs for Gilley. Liz loved her horses. So when Alyssa clearly loved them too, they were connected. She even hosted a birthday party for Alyssa out at the ranch, letting all of her friends climb onto different horses and go for a ride.
Katie’s interest in horses faded. But Michael, Alyssa and Ron continued their horse love affair. So when the Air Force was ready to move us back to Texas, we decided we had to have a ranch! Boarding costs alone made it sound like a good idea. But really, it was clear that we were bringing more animal interests into our lives. We already had a parakeet, a turtle, a dog, a cat, a guinea pig and some tadpoles that would never morph into frogs (I’ll save that story for another post!) So we bought 16 acres on a hill northwest of Wichita Falls, in a community that was just a dot on map: Thornberry. Before long, we acquired 2 more horses, Dolly and Cimarron.
But we also acquired chickens, ducks, guineas, guinea pigs, goats, cows, a donkey, a bull, cockatiels, parakeets, feral cats and guard dogs. We built a chicken coop and raised chicks. We learned how the light affects the egg production and how to keep chickens safe from coyotes and bull snakes. We wrote stories about the animals and the various adventures and mysteries that happened on the ranch. The kids bought a breeding pair of cockatiels and started a cockatiel business. They trained the birds so theycould be handled and hand-fed and sold the babies to other families. They helped with the birthing of calves, trimmed hooves on goats, and even buried a much loved cat that we had brought with us from Alaska. They bottle-fed kittens that had been abandoned in a neighbor’s barn. They learned how soft a donkey’s nose is and how stubborn a bull can be. They entered their dogs in 4H competitions, even winning some of them! They learned about horse tack and temperaments. We bought materials to build stalls and run fencing. The kids shared their information with other “city kids” who had no idea we had only just left the ‘burbs ourselves. We met other horse owners in the ranches nearby. Alyssa even delivered Girl Scout cookies by horseback! Our kids knew what was safe and what was important on the ranch.
We stayed on our ranch in Thornberry for 5 years. We learned so much there! Alyssa was a late reader and didn’t retain many math concepts. But she could spot a Thoroughbred and tell you all the difference between a Buckskin and a Palomino. She knew her tack and her horses. It really made me smile to look out the kitchen window and see her pull her horse, Dolly, over toward the hot tub or the fence gate. She’d climb up so she’d be tall enough to hop onto the bare back of the horse. Then she’d ride laps around the house, down the driveway, and around the fence lines. It gave her a confidence that would see her through many of the obstacles she’d face later in life. Our “pets” taught all of them that animals need their human to do a lot of hard work – every day. If it was cold and windy, they still had to be fed. If it was raining, someone still needed to close up the chicken coop door.
I’m sharing these stories for a couple of reasons. For one, this is what following our passions looked like. Ron noticed Alyssa was interested in horses in Alaska and found a way for her to see one up close. Connecting all the dots is something you can see clearly when it’s retrospective; but while you’re living it, you simply have to step toward the interest and see where you go. These steps led to a 10 year adventure with animals – for the whole family!
But also I’d like to give you a glimpse to what “learning naturally” looks like. The lessons are bigger. They’re richer than worksheets. They are real life. My kids learned that if you love something, it’s within your grasp… even if you have to shift some priorities to get it. People might look at you funny saying, “You’re going to do what? A real ranch?” But anything is attainable if you walk through the steps to get there. That is so much more important to learn than long division or reading by 8.
In spite of – or more likely *because of* – this nontraditional approach toward learning, my kids did learn to read and to write.
Michael (almost 23) got a degree in Journalism and is a Peace Corps Volunteer.
Katie (21) is studying at a film acting conservatory in New York city.
Alyssa is completing her cosmetology program, ready to start her career at 18.