The Goats, The Goats!

Banjo, Matilda and Winnie — on the porch!

The goats came first, the week after Thanksgiving 2020, from east Georgia.

Shipped with love and care across the state line into Tennessee by our friend and mentor, Melanie Sue Bowles, founder and chief everything of Proud Spirit Horse Sanctuary. Melanie was a friend to us before she even knew Kristina or I existed.

When we first entered into the service of horse rescue at Sixteen Hands Horse Sanctuary in Ona, Florida, little did we know that its founder, Robin Cain, actually began her horse rescue journey, at least in part, by working with Melanie Sue.

From 2010 through 2020, Kristina and I lived in Bradenton, Florida, just west of where Melanie Sue first started Proud Spirit and, later, where Robin opened Sixteen Hands. If you watch the PBS special that features Proud Spirit (check it out, it’s an Emmy winner, even though it was filmed in 2005), you can see an area of the world where we all converged, separately and in our own manner. Yet, we’ve all moved on and operate our own sanctuaries in different states (Melanie moved a few times since the show was filmed and ended up outside Boone, North Carolina).

While our individual missions are slightly different, we all strive for the same goal – the safety and well-being of abused, neglected, broken, and forgotten equines. We add a lot of Jesus to what we do here, and we’ve added other animals, like Peking ducks, and the aforementioned goats, of course!

Mel sent us three. Matilda, the mother of Banjo and Winnie. Winnie looks like Rudolph the deer. Banjo is stately and kind but fat as a keg. He likes grain, which he shouldn’t get, but how can we turn down his culinary passion? Matilda is the elder of the three, and her udders tell us she’s been down the mommy road before. But no more!

Our three fury friends came from some sort of farm in Georgia, where they were being fattened for the dinner plate. An acquaintance of Mel’s found them, acquired them, and convinced Mel to take them in. Long story short, Mel asked us, two months into our sanctuary journey, if the goats could find a soft landing here. Yep, a gift from God, we thought, we’d be glad to have them.


One thing, Mel said, is that they like to spend time on the porch, harmlessly lounging. That they do, indeed, lounging proudly. When the sun is warm and high, they’re there; when the rain falls, they don’t hit the barn; nope, on the porch they go. Here, they battle and bray and knock heads and chase the dogs and cats that flit by.

They are a wild bunch of troublemakers that once looked at us like they were food – scared and unsure. Now, after more than a year in our presence, they look at us, wondering where the food is.

Some misconceptions about goats: 1.) they eat anything, everything. In our case, not true. They actually are pretty selective in their grazing. They love grain, but too much can be dangerous. They eat leaves on occasion, and they love good quality hay, but their digesting anything, as if they are sharks, is myth, in our experience.

2.) All goats climb everything. Winnie loves being up high, but our two others, not so much. They are just fine on the ground, typically together.

3.) Goats are graceful. Winnie, again, is as graceful and a beautiful mover as a running deer — how she bounds — and Banjo has his moments of glory when he’s not trying to throw his horns, but Matilda is all knees and udders when she tries to run. Her rear flies to the right a bit as she stumbles forth, but she tries, which is admirable.

5.) Goats are just livestock. Ours love a good scratching and a nice long petting, like the family dog. When you reach just the right spot, sometimes they lean in and nuzzle, and lower their head and horns just so you can get a little closer to the heart of their matter. Then, like cats, they lay up against your leg, give you an eye (as a way of asking for attention), and seem as though they want to purr.

6.) Goats don’t listen. Ours do. “Hey, goats,” “Come on, goats,” “Here goats!” They come, sometimes they run, with curious looks and wide eyes they seek, it might seem, approval. When Kristina calls, they come; they know safety and a certain level of comfort are included in their stay here and good things, like grain, often await the call.

Banjo and Matilda lounging

Goats are intelligent, though maybe not as highly intellectual as they are advertised, at least not in the sense of a Lassie or Flipper. More than anything, however, they are curious, as much or more so than cats. They tend to be just as cautious, and when something scares them (like the shutting of a garage door), they run for the safety of the barn like life itself is on the line.

Count us among the many people who love these mischievous fellows. For me, the specific moment I knew these three curiosos had my heart came recently. As I made my way to the back of the property to meet the tractor mechanic, the goats followed me with much gusto and energy. Maybe a bit of fear in being left on their own. As he and I spoke, they circled us and the tractor, keen to discover the special nature of our conversation. Of course, they couldn’t determine the reason for our meeting, but they found comfort in our presence and seemed to enjoy their exploration. They found and enjoyed some hay on the back of the tractor’s fork.

As I left and walked off, the three amigos suddenly became concerned at my disappearance. Searching, braying, shuffling, I was gone, and they didn’t like it.

“Come on, goats!” I called, and come they did – one with bounding grace, another with bravado and bounce, the other just came as best she could. But they all came along, like found friends, and met me as I walked back to the house. They followed gleefully! At that specific moment, I knew I loved having them on the ranch.

Our Promised Land

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.

This Is Where We Are

When people ask us how we got to Ripley, or why, the answer usually strikes them as looney, quickly followed by something along the lines of, “Oh my, there’s nothing like that around here. That’s so cool. And needed!”

We answer their first question with something along the lines of: “We didn’t choose this place. God did. The Holy Spirit led the way.”

Befuddlement. Until we answer their why.

Our road here has been very long and circuitous, a wandering path that led through about as many valleys as it did thorns. The road was rarely straight. Never narrow. Certainly not where we might have planned, but when does God ever take His people through the most direct route? Ask the Israelites about their trip out of Egypt. We all know how that turned out.

Like His chosen people, we wandered about with seemingly little purpose until, finally, reaching the threshold of our promised land. But, like his chosen slaves so long ago who were reluctant to enter their kingdom, some let us know that “here” doesn’t seem so promising for those on the outside.

Ripley, Tennessee.

The west side of the state. In the heart of the midsouth. Not the side that’s filled with the awe and majesty of the Appalachian Mountains, where tourists seek pancake houses, go-kart races, and the gates of Dollywood. We’re not even near centrally placed Nashville. Music City. Where dreams live (and some die), hits are made, country reigns, and Hollywood increasingly comes calling.

We’ve been called a bit further west—a little deeper into the middle of this wonderful nation: Where the land is dirty, the allergies high, humidity more complete than our previous Florida, and the water flowing through the Mississippi muddy and sick.

Ripley is beautiful, though, with masses of corn and cotton in the spring and summer and crisp, colorful fall and just enough snow in winter to enjoy the season and the rest it brings the land. River to a ranch with promise and potential, but in and among the great need here.

The people here are strong. Proud. Kind (for the most part). Hard-working (for the most part). Many love and fear God, reaching and longing for the loving grace, guidance, and strength of our Savior.

Others here struggle mightily. Survival the order of each day, or so it would seem. But we can relate – intimately. For many here in one of Tennessee’s poorest counties, the work is hard and dirt-filled. For some, it’s honest; for others, not so much. For those who toil, here it sometimes seems like that’s even a little bit more toilsome than in other places—the ground a little harder, the dust a little lighter and easier to fly.

But Ripley is now our home, this amazing and proud and long-lived jewel of west Tennessee. We are where the Lord led us, where we asked Him to send us when we asked Him to send us where He needed us.

Here, in the west, it’s a bit flatter than its more heavily trafficked ease side, and some might not find it as majestic. But the greens and golds are brilliant and varied, and the overwhelming presence of the Lord obvious even as so many here seek after their daily provision. Some, like us, long for hope; for others, direction after becoming lost along the way. The Israelites might have fit in nicely here.

We pray that we do. In our promised land. Where we ask the King to let us serve His people, worship Him and build an organization that serves the least of these and places Him at the center of all it does, even if it is a little further west of where most here wish to look.

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