The following first appeared in The Brownsville Press (August 2023)
Most days, the horses of the ranch amble about their west Haywood County hills in search of sun, fresh grass, and the companionship of their herd mates. These nine horses, their donkey companion, and four wiry goats make up the contingent of creatures on the ranch.
Each animal here is a redemption story. Restored. Rehabilitated. Returned to life. Overcomers. In the Christian faith, overcomers are promised great rewards. This cast of creatures have paid enormously before their arrival here in Haywood.
Molly, for example, a small quarter horse mare, spent the first 10 years of her life in a dog pen before gaining her freedom. Despite her previous imprisonment, she’s exceedingly gentle, responds patiently to requests made of her, and is exceptionally kind to others in the herd.
Twix, another quarter horse mare and the herd’s leader, came from an area meat auction. Had she not found a home on the ranch, she’d likely been butchered. The same goes for Grace and Faith, two others that came from the same auction a year after we picked up Twix. When purchased, none of three seemed to have much to offer. Starved, ugly, and filthy, they quickly blossomed into full-bodied, clean, beautiful, and confident animals that contribute to the community.
Then there’s Boaz, a young wethered goat, that was rescued from a dog chain that kept him fastened to a tree for several months before his freedom was purchased.
Billy Bob, the donkey, was beat regularly with a 2×4 board before being rescued. He was feral upon his arrival. In time since, my 12-year-old daughter has gentled him, is able to touch and love on him with the children that visit the ranch.
During a recent visit to the ranch, a mother and father came for an advance look-see, to see how the gears turn here, get a lay of the land, and determine, I suppose, whether their kids would be safe here.
In other words, if little Home Safe Horses, cuddled in the back roads of Haywood County west Tennessee, is the real deal.
Whatever their impressions, their excitement and perhaps relief were palatable, after they disembarked from their Jeep after their accent up the driveway. That’s one of the surprising things about it here – the driveway relays visitors in a meandering manner up a hill and out of sight. From the entrance, no house nor barn are within sight. There’s a little mystery here when the horses are not present at the front of the property. Visitors often wonder if they are at the correct location, despite the welcome sign.
As we made our way from the house to the barn, this couple took in the sights – a meager orchard planted years ago, well past its prime; the duck coop that we built; the fenced yard in front of the barn that was completed recently; into the south side of the barn where the stalls are being built.
To the middle of the barn, where the building is divided and the horses stand as they attempt to avoid the heat and flies. It’s here we stand to take them in.
They are still and lounging in their silence except for their tails, which swat and swish the air to clear the flies. The smell of horses clung to the heavy, unmoving air.
The horses are calm, for the most part, unconcerned by our presence, so we watched, the couple taking them in. Until one moved. Snickers came to the gate, she wanted to say hello, so she did.
In the way that only Snickers can, her cautious meandering was led by curiosity. “How was this, who were these new humans,” she seemed to think aloud. While we watched, she made the rounds, which was actually here investigating the line of us as we watched and talked about them, the animals on the other side.
As Kristina and I discussed the children’s programs offered at the ranch with the woman who was curious for her kid’s sake, her husband remained silent, yet apart from the rest of us, close to Snickers. During the course of our conversation, lasting several minutes, Snickers and this man stood holding their own conversation. A silent one, where the only “words” exchanged were the soft touches by the man on the animal’s nose and her, in return, smelling the man’s hand and occasionally licking his fingers.
When the introduction came to a close, both man and animal stood opposite each other, silently assessing one another and seeming to understand their new friendship. Like souls connect without word or based on any previous history, the two seemed to find a peace within each other’s presence. A curiosity became a contentment of sorts, a peace in each other’s presence.
Finally, our worded conversation having reached its goal, we turned to the man and his new friend and watched.
After a few moments of silence, I or Kristina or our daughter said, “She chose you. Snickers chose you.”
There was glee and perhaps a bit of embarrassment at the noticed connection, but the man’s wife immediately began to tell the story of his late mother’s horse, which looked very much like Snickers. The resemblance between the two horses is uncanny, the couple confessed. “Doesn’t she look so much like Angel?” the wife said?
He seemed to settle into the same assessment, and for a moment seemed to recall his mother and the fondness only mother and child can know in each other. He seemed restored, maybe. A little less on edge than when he first arrived.
We prayed together and said our goodbyes, taking leave of each other with the promise of their brining their children to the ranch to experience the horses.
Life went on. A couple days later, the woman called to verify a time for her kids to come to the ranch, oh, how excited they were, but wait, there’s more to tell!
Since leaving the ranch and the presence of the horses, specifically Snickers, her husband has changed. Something is different about him, she claimed. He seems more at peace, but that’s not all. Never one to communicate through communication, since meeting Snickers, the man has been talkative and open with his wife about how he feels different and how he wants to come back to the ranch to visit Snickers.
How Snickers chose him. How Snickers might have seen something in him that only a horse can see. How a horse that most closely resembles his mother’s horse attached herself to him, as if to say hello for more than just herself.
How, perhaps, God wanted this man to know that he is loved and He chose to tell the man in the only way that he might have been able to hear and understand the power of those “words.”
About the only thing we had going for us was that it wasn’t snowing, but that actually might have been better than what we faced. In fact, it was quite warm, for December, with steady wind. A lashing rain had just subsided ad now it just a few sprinkles. But the ground and about everything under this side of weather was soaked.
That’s one of the things that’s hard to really determine before you come to a place: the weather. You can research all you like about how much rain falls per year (Ripley receives about 53 inches of precipitation per year), but how it falls – when and how — is entirely different than the sum total. We lived in Oregon for a bit, taking note of the annual rainfall there compared to where we lived previously in Florida.
Here, during the wet winter months, the ground turns to grease. The top two or three inches of soil is slick and tar-like atop a thick, dense clay that can’t absorb the water. The result is that as waters accumulate – rain, melted snow – it soaks the top soil, but with nowhere to go, it pools and runs off to the lowest spot around. Brooks, springs and small streams flow everywhere. Flash floods are common because of it.
Stepping into the muck is obviously slippery. Depending on the boots you’re wearing, you may slide several inches or end up on your back side. The slush lasts from around the middle of November through March. I often joke that we need snowshoes to get through the muck. Nonetheless, getting around in swamp-like conditions for several months a year can be a challenging task.
Now, try pushing a 500-pound round bail about two hundred yards through the muck, in the rain. But we had hay to deliver and the tractor was down again. This time, the start was out. Before that, the radiator blew a hole; a flat tire; and the clutch. We thought about pushing the bail with the truck, but feared it would become bound up in the mud. So, we used our God-given leg, back and arm muscles.
Normally, moving a round bail is fairly simple. When it’s soaked through, add a couple extra hundred pounds of dead weight and you’re in for a workout. From the go, the work was arduous. About 50 yards in, my arms were weak and my legs on fire. A few quick breathers and we kept moving, cold, wet and burning.
As Kristina knows well, I struggle when things don’t go as planned. When overwhelmed, I can get whiny and short-tempered. I’m working on it through prayer, conversations with God and cool-down exercises. It was about this point that the switch in my head flipped to hot red and I began to sincerely question why we were doing this and if our exhausting work mattered.
In this case, our effort was vital. Two newly acquired starving horses (Faith and Grace) needed the meal and the calvary wasn’t coming to save the day. The required effort was on us.
Before I could begin to grumble, but after my mood soured, a still, small voice seemed to rattle my thoughts. A light hum escalated into thoughts that sounded like mine but not in my own voice:
“Scott, this has to be done. Yes, it’s uncomfortable, wet, the ground is sloppy and the load heavy, but it’s on you and Kristina to get this done. You know that. You’re here doing it and you know it’s important. The choice is yours how the work gets done, and how you will remember the way you responded to this adversity. Are you going to complain, whine, yell or scream, say something you’ll regret, or are you going to serve God (Me) through this work with a grateful and full heart, knowing you are changing lives? This is all temporary. The pain, the wet clothes, the grease-like ground. Days, months and years from now, you will remember this moment – Kristina will remember your leadership in this moment – will you be ashamed of yourself or proud? It’s your choice. You get to decide right now.”
I decided. I closed my mind to the anger and frustration that brewed. Looking at my beautiful, serving wife, I wanted nothing more than to impress her and the Lord with my work, no matter how tired I became or how many times I slipped and how much hay I wore.
What mattered is that the work got done, the starving ended and humility bubbling through me suppressed frustration that I have too often let take root.
What matters is how I serve, how I respond and how my actions are a reflection of Jesus in me.
This video highlights some of the most joyful, loving moments captured on the ranch during its first 18 months. Lots of smiles, countless blessings, many prayers, and mountains of hope were shared! God is so good! If you know of anyone who might benefit from this video, please consider sharing!.
A special thank you to Imaginary Future for permission to use this song, “We Are the Love We Give,” in this video!
Once you’ve bought a horse, you’re marked. Branded. Like Chuck Connors in his short-lived follow-up series to “The Rifleman.” Bait on a hook lowered to a pit of starving alligators.Such was the case when Kristina informed me that she had her heart set on the horse soon-to-be-known as Angel. A red-coated mare with flaxen mane and tail, she’s a beauty unlike most, Kristina said. She and her herd mate lived in deplorable living conditions in an unkempt, unmanned field where the only housing included a falling-down barn. A stagnant pond was their only water source—all of this alongside a heavily traveled state highway on the way to Brownsville, opposite of Ripley.
After weeks of watching and yearning and quite a bit of research, Kristina found the horse’s owner and made the call: “were they for sale,” she asked?
“Of course, everything’s for sale at the right price!” came the response.
“The horse you like,” the owner said, “is a registered Tennessee walker!”
Like that mattered (it didn’t). Kristina wanted these two creatures for the sake of bringing them from their horrid conditions. In the rescue/sanctuary world, papers and prestige don’t matter.
The price remained high — too high for my liking. But Kristina persisted, “Let’s go look at them.”
The place they called home was worse than it appeared from the road. Broken, jagged fencing kept them contained. Weeds were their lunch and dinner; the water from the stagnant pond hidden behind what might have once been an impressive barn. The barely upright pile of wood almost too thin and fragile for any weather protection except clear, star-filled nights.
Both of the animals were scared of people. Neither had much human contact. Angel’s herd mate, another mare affectionately named “And,” attempted to kick me during our first meeting — she missed only by inches. “She has a history of doing that,” her owner said with a shrug of his shoulder. (The thought of it still frightens me as it was powerful and undeserved.)
“She’s a show horse,” Angel’s owner beamed proudly while the other tried to kick me.
“We can see why,” we said, unimpressed. “But the price.”
So, we left. The price for the two was too high, and we couldn’t separate them. Kristina, undeterred, kept visiting the horses, praying that they’d make it home.
Every time we passed them on the road, she’d check their condition and make sure they were okay. She yearned for them — she admitted that she wanted them badly. So, we continued to negotiate. The horse’s owners balked and didn’t budge until one day, they finally did.
That settled, they needed to come to the ranch ASAP. Like tomorrow! But blood work is required to transport horses, so we had to wait some more. A horse infected with Coggins can destroy a herd. While it’s not immediately fatal, Coggins is a chronic blood disease, and once it’s on the property, your ranch can become a pariah.
So, we waited impatiently for the horses to be cleared and to arrive. They were only about five miles from their new home, but the time it took to clear them made it seem as if they were on the other side of the globe.
But their coming here wasn’t meant to be. Another call from the owners with devastating news. And, the horse that tried to kick me got herself killed. Caught up in the barn, she attempted to kick through the wood wall. Tangled up, she compound-fractured her leg, so the owner shot her.
Silence followed by devastation. Kristina was beside herself with grief. Then tears and weeping, and grief. We should have, could have, done more, she said! We shouldn’t have waited so long. Now the horse is dead.
Kristina said she had so much potential and promise; she could have helped so many children. She could have, I agreed. Would have. But that wasn’t God’s plan for her.
Despite our delays and negotiations, there was little we could have done for her. Perhaps it was something more. Perhaps God kept her from something that could have happened down the road. Maybe she, with her history of kicking, might have hurt someone.
Even though she was dead, Lady, the red mare with flaxen hair, still needed rescuing. Despite the loss of her pasture mate and our shock, she was still on the way. Soon, she would be ours.
When Angel, formerly known as Lady, arrived, the fear she wore was palatable. Her eyes were large and full orbs, wondering if this road led to an end or a beginning. While she had no way of knowing that the path that she fearfully walked brought her to safe and love-filled place.
From the start, Kristina made sure that her life in no way resembled her past. Angel quickly became part of a family with people and horse mates. The exchange of her lead rope from her previous owner to Kristina’s hand more significant in ways we might still not be able to comprehend.
Since she arrived, she’s proven to be one of the most beautiful horses we’ve ever seen, in nature and nurture. She’s also one of the most sensitive and sweet animals we’ve ever been in the presence of. She aims to please in all she does. When she moves her feet, she does so willingly even if she doesn’t know where you want them moved – she’ll just move them to make sure she’s doing what you ask.
When she’s excited and happy or curious about some sort of movement or action from one of her new herd or her people, she flares her nostrils and exhales loudly, in the sweetest way. In the beginning, we thought she might have been wind broke, but that’s just one of her more endearing qualities.
When she moves, she prances with grace and pride in one of the most elegant and magnificent movements on the south side of heaven. In full cantor, her tail lifts like a flag, and her legs prance in coordinated synchronization. She’s a true gift from the Lord above, and as her name suggests, she’s an angel here on earth.
But as for being branded, it’s a mark that doesn’t seem to fade. Texts, instant messages, and phone calls regularly pop up asking if we’re available to take on someone’s broken down, elderly or unrideable horse. For the most part, our answer is the same: “Your” horse has you; we rescue and save those that don’t have anyone else.
In the case of Angel (we tried with And), though she was “owned,” she wasn’t receiving regular care; her living conditions were not much better than blight.
Regardless of how often we tell people we simply can’t let them dump their horses on us because they don’t “want them anymore,” the calls still come. We’re branded, after all.
So, it shouldn’t have surprised me when the phone rang one recent afternoon. Not recognizing the number but seeing that it was local, I answered. Instantly I recognized the voice: “You need any horses?”
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.
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.
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.
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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