Our road to Ripley officially took more than four years from when we first felt called to a mission like this to when we submitted ourselves to where God seemed to be calling us. From Florida — where we’d lived since 2010 (our second tour in the state), had our two children, and started our business — following the death of my wife’s mother, we felt God stirring our hearts, telling us it was time to move on.
I never thought about horses, having them or otherwise, even though I grew up around them and their handlers. Classmates were riders and rodeo champions. I didn’t understand them or their love for these large burden-bearers. The thought never occurred to me that I own any, nor have a desire to experience their grace and mercy (especially powerful elixir that humans often are incapable of offering others!).
Kristina, on the other hand, always loved horses because they are majestic and stately and evoke sentiments of princesses and castles and conquering the world. But, she loves every animal almost equally. Nearly any creature of the animal world has her heart; she struggles to kill flies (mosquitos are an exception).
Marrying her, I knew our future included fur. We’ve adopted and rescued most of the typical fare – cats and dogs, sometimes in multiples at once. We’ve had a dozen or more cats and nearly as many dogs in our first 20 years of marriage. It makes no matter the species – cat-battered birds have died in our hands, we’ve raised and enjoyed bearded dragons, fish, picked up stray dogs and cats on the side of the road, coaxed a sun conure from a tree in the park, and nearly every time we see a squirrel flat on the street, she says, “Think it’s dead?”
We once tried to rescue saltwater crabs from the Gulf of Mexico’s toxic red tide — with little success.
No matter, we try. Sometimes, the animals we take in stay with us for life — Gorgey, the golden retriever, is one example; UPS the cat, found at the local post office, we were able to locate its owner.
But rescuing horses and other large animals, like goats and donkeys, was never part of the plan. So, despite my wife being consistently drawn to them and my constant misunderstanding of them, horses and horsemanship seemed out of reach, never part of our lives or its path.
Then Heidi died.
My mother-in-law, for better or worse, was a force in our lives. We built, in many ways, all that we had as a planet in the orbit of her sun. Heidi was a blessing. During her first bout with breast cancer, perhaps we took her for granted. During her second round, we knew how much was at stake and realized before we were ready what we were losing. Especially Kristina.
In the swirl that followed her death, little stood still. Reeling, lost, emptiness, desire for outcomes different than reality; coping, pain, patio sitting. Waiting and wondering: What next?
God seemed to send us some answers within the pages of “The Horses of Proud Spirit,” a collection of horse redemption stories by Melanie Sue Bowles, followed by inspiration of Kim Meeder in “Hope Rising” and redemption in “Saving Baby,” by Jo Anne Normile, as well as many other horse and equine stories.
An overwhelming sense of possibility began to emerge from these stories of encouragement. Horses and their healing power in the pages of these books made each of us long for what the authors described as their possibility and protection.
Within days of reading, Kristina found a sanctuary, Sixteen Hands Horse Sanctuary in Ona, Florida. It saves abused and neglected horses and offers a forever home for each life rescued. We visited as a family, took a short tour, met some of the horses, and became hypnotized by them. Kristina asked Robin, the founder, if she could volunteer to take care of the animals. To help them heal, to find herself and who she was with her mother no longer alongside her.
Kristina rarely missed a week on the ranch for the next two years. She cared for and worked with the horses regularly; she included the kids and I in the journey and we joined her in her healing and self-discovery. Many times, only Kristina visited the ranch. It was her place of safety and self-discovery. During the journey, that collection of 30 or so awesome animals showed her and I what was possible, through and because of them. They helped Kristina find a deeper sense of true self, and showed me a better understanding of God’s work through His creation.
During her journey at the sanctuary, Kristina strongly felt God’s presence for wanting her to share what we’d learned from and through the horses with others. So, she prayed, and we prayed and began to act as if. We had all the pieces in place except one. We ran a remote-based PR company, homeschooled our children, and rented a house in suburban southwest Florida. No anchors, nothing tying us down. The only hurdle to moving forward was where we lived and where God wanted us to be.
Soon, we heard what felt like God telling us it was time to leave Florida. Kristina, who is excellent at research, became our personal real estate agent and focused our search across the U.S.
For the next four years, we started researching North Carolina (visited twice), then South Carolina, Virginia, Georgia, West Virginia (land is cheap and it’s quite beautiful, but the mines and runoff were not), Pennsylvania, even Maine (we sincerely contemplated it, but six feet or more of snow each year was discouraging!). We explored the idea of Wyoming and Montana, Wisconsin, Minnesota, even Missouri.
Finally, eventually, Tennessee. First, the east. Exclusively the east — until God sent us west, to our promised land here.
Now we journey forth, from a 60-acre ranch in west Tennessee.