Vultures and hawks fly over head. Ground squirrels make suicide runs back and forth across the highway. Single story dwellings with aqua colored metal (fire retardant) roofs dot the landscape. Low, brown hills flank both sides of the narrow, two lane highway. Sometimes there are cows on the hills, sometimes grape vines, sometimes horses; mostly it’s just quiet. We are an hour out of the bay area, but you’d hardly know it. Over the hills and to the west is the heavily travelled north-south route of Hyw 101. On the other side of the hills, to the east, is the wide, fast, straight and infamous I-5. Between the bucolic coastal region and the fertile, flat farm land of the central valley lies this no man’s land. People live here. It’s just that nobody knows about it.
South of the Pinnacles, our route has us turn left onto San Benito Lateral, which extends up the even more remote, Shields Valley. Sometimes we get lucky and spot a condor.
This is where “the ranch” is; 660 acres, mostly flat, with a river running through it. The ranch is for sale. It’s been for sale since six months after Tim and Michelle moved in. When they first arrived, the pastures were choked with weeds, the barn stuffed full of garbage, the dwellings were filthy and there were ninety-one horses, stallions running with the herd, none of them having been handled in any way shape or form for almost eight years, all of them underweight, many of them starving.
Michelle’s first task, besides cleaning the place up, was to break and train fifty-five horses; all between the ages of two and six; in five months time. My heart went out to her. Was there anyway I could help? Her first request was for assistance grooming the horses to ready them for sale, but the timing didn’t work out. Then, the foals were born and Michelle needed help with the foals. By this time, school was out. Half a dozen horse girls were rounded up and pressed into service. They are young, but they love the horses and they were only asked to come if they had enough training and I was sure they would listen to me. After culling the herd, Michelle had been left with two stallions, nine brood mares, seven foals and one three year-old rescue mare making nineteen horses to care for and train, far more work than any one person should be expected to do.
June in Paicines is hot. The girls stroked and groomed and calmed foals and brood mares. We had no shade in which to work. Along with blazing sun, we were also surrounded by swarms of buzzing flies. Nobody got sun stroke, but we all felt a little ill by the time we left the ranch. We had all worked ourselves to exhaustion, but in terms of attending to the needs of the horses, we had barely touched the tip of the iceberg. Out of sympathy for Michelle and the horses, I knew I’d be coming back, but I figured the girls had had more than enough. On that count, I ended up being wrong, very, very wrong.
I started working with kids and horses because I had kids throwing themselves at me, grabbing a hold and saying, “Please, oh, please can I come live with you! I’ll do anything to be around horses!” I work in Los Altos hills (rather than Gilroy or Pleasanton or Half Moon Bay), because kids ought to be able to get out to horses without their parents having to drive an hour or more one way. But it comes at a cost. In Los Altos Hills, we have people who yell at us to put diapers on the horses and people who yell at us because riding a horse is “abuse!” We have to share an arena where we get pushed out because someone is “preparing for a show!” and they can’t have their concentration disturbed or they want the whole arena for jumping or they need to teach their wild yearling to use driving reins and although the arena is a good one, it’s next to 280 and we ride to the roar of traffic (and the occasional KABOOM from cars colliding, which usually results in a rider getting dumped) and that has little league practice and games next door; not all of the year, but resulting in the odd fly ball whizzing past the horses. When not in the arena, we have dogs who charge fences and rattling trash cans and spurting sprinklers and gardeners with leaf blowers and kids jumping on trampolines. Then there are the vehicles: FedEx trucks, construction trucks (usually big rigs), cement mixers, gardeners pulling trailers, motorcycles, bicycles, skateboards and the occasional back hoe. Worst of all are the tree shredders, with at least one at work at any given time in Los Altos hills. The cacophony is deafening. The harassment is maddening. The kids love the horses and want to learn how to ride more than anything else in the world. To their credit, they stick it out. But the hazards and stresses exact a high price; exactly how high I did not know until we started making trips to the ranch.
(Boarding stables are the equine equivalent of downtown Manhattan. Learning riding at a boarding stable is just as difficult, if not worse in many ways.)
The second trip to the ranch was scheduled to miss the heat of the day, an adjustment that was well received. I don’t remember what we did. More work with the foals, I think. It was probably three or four more trips down before the older girls started pulling out the brood mares to see just what it was they had in them, if anything. (Three or four of them are very rideable.) But the transformations that started to take place with the girls defies description. It was as if they had all been living in black and white and in coming to the ranch, the world was now colored.
Haley (now age 16), who is really to blame for starting kidslovehorses, had reduced her horse activities to coming out to pet her beloved Stoney for about ten minutes, once a week. I thought she’d lost all caring for a world that she had been so passionate about. Turns out, she just needed the ranch. She’s now memorized the sixty steps of horse training by Clinton Anderson, is charting all the genetics of all the mares and has again tackled riding Stoney with gusto. Maddie was always more dedicated to the horses than Haley if only because she’s less dedicated as a student, but she has, for all intents and purposes, moved in. She lives, eats and breathes ranch. Julia, a student who I’d coaxed and cajoled and hand held for nine months, who was so quiet and shy and, it turns out, sensitive, that her progress was measured in inches, with one visit at the ranch went from withdrawn and timid, to happy and lively and confident and her riding went from barely holding on to “I’m on the horse now and I’m doing it!” That was in just one visit. Taciturn Maya, whom I barely get half a dozen words out of on any given day, becomes down right “hyper” at the ranch. Claire lives for the foals. Katelyn describes the ranch as “heaven, heaven, heaven!”
What’s at the ranch? Space. No cars. Cats, kittens, chickens, chicks, dogs and a puppy. No one yells at them. They don’t have to “stay out of the street”; they don’t have to stay within a three foot wide band in order not to “trespass”. The work is hard. The work is real. Hard work and real work gives them self esteem and when they want a break, they go play on the trampoline. Those are my guesses, but it doesn’t do justice to the profundity of the transformation and growth I’ve witnessed in the kids.
For each kid I’ve brought down, there’s a story about how it’s changed their lives. I’d as soon see a kid go without shoes as I would see them denied time at the ranch. Not only are trips to the ranch now essential to the work I do with the kids, but I don’t feel I can properly teach them how to work with and care for horses without trips to the ranch. I really have no idea why horses and ranch time is so vital to the well being of many kids, only that we, as human beings, are far more complicated and extraordinary than is conventionally understood. Or it could be said this way, that man does not live by bread alone.
Trips to the ranch for the kids have been justified by the fact that they are, indeed, helping train the foals, something that would otherwise cost a lot of money and with the time and attention the kids can lavish on them, they are becoming far more human compatible and happy around humans than they would be with training that was paid for. They are also put to work cleaning tack, changing waters, mucking stalls and emptying the poop truck. (Before they come, it is made clear to them they are expected to carry their own weight.) But they are there only as invited guests, an invite that could be rescinded at any time. And the ranch could, and probably eventually will, sell.
I can’t afford a ranch and even if I could, I can’t work with the kids where they need to be the majority of their time (Silicon Valley) and also run a ranch. I’m sick at the thought of what will happen when and if this all goes away.