As the sun ducks below the treelined horizon, I dig my hands deeper into my coat pockets to ward off the evening chill. The trees dropped their foliage weeks ago and now all that remain are the barren branches protruding into the sky in all sorts of shapes and sizes, many appearing like the time-ravaged fingers of a delicate old lady, frail and imposing at the same time.
I have always loved the cold weather and welcome the onset of winter with a sense of joy and anticipation. With it come the festivities of the holidays and the many activities that keep things humming around the Ranch, and though I’m no kid, my heart feels especially warm with thoughts of celebrating the Christmas Season with our family and friends.
But this year is different. A lone white Honda SUV sits in the parking area usually occupied with a dozen or more vehicles. The sheep and donkeys meander their way around the quiet confines of their corral, an area typically buzzing with kids doting on Ms. Penelope the one-eared sheep, asking how she ended up missing an ear. And our equine staff lazily munch on the final sprouts and clumps of grass before the snow covers the somber pastures, where in former years visitors to the Ranch would busily travel back and forth, haltering Henry for some groundwork in the arena or ushering Roxie back to the pasture after a ride. It’s very quiet, and as my eyes scan the landscape, it feels lonely here.
I’ve heard it said by friends and colleagues, in quiet conversation and in bewilderment, that there has never been a time like this before. Yes, it’s true that in my lifetime we’ve never encountered anything quite as insidious as COVID-19. People have tried frantically to hold on to as much of what is ‘normal’ as possible. We are creatures of routine, and routine is what helps us feel balanced and productive. But we don’t have that option right now, and we need to be aware of how it’s impacting us. We need to be aware of how the children are being impacted.
Pulling up to the Buffalo Field gate (named after our dear friends who serve the Ranch all the way from Buffalo, NY) I place the Ranger in park and shut it off. It’s totally dark now and the only light is emanating from the giant white orb in the Eastern sky of this late-October evening. I yank a bale of hay from the back of the UTV and cut the twine holding the grassy mix together, causing it to explode across the ground in front of the eager horses.
I realize that the horses don’t care about the Presidential race, or what’s happening in Portland, or the impact of recent tariffs imposed on imported steel. They’re hungry and they’re quick to let me know that I can keep the hay coming, thank you very much.
Looking at the geldings chomping away, I think about the fact that here at Stable Days our visitor’s often express their appreciation for horses being able to listen and not judge.
During our regular summer seasons, it’s common for us to catch a glimpse of a mentor and kiddo sitting in the middle of a pasture just conversing with the herd. Then...
A sudden burst of laughter breaks the silence as Chief rips a ‘big one’, sending the duo into hysterical giggles.
One on one. It’s a formula we implemented back in 2011 and it works. The time that our mentors get to spend with children building true friendships based on trust, understanding, and Love is the building block that God seems to use most effectively to help us minister to our guests.
The second bale is served up, the orange twine is gathered, I secure the gate latch and give it an extra tug for good measure as I toss the twine in the bed of the Ranger to head back to barn.
It’s getting colder. I lift my collar around my neck to keep the chilled air from piercing through me as I guide the UTV into it’s parking spot in the hay barn.
I begin to think of Andrew, a 12 -year-old boy who has been coming to the Ranch since he was 7. I wonder how he’s handling the changes happening around him. I grow concerned that he may not be processing this real well, and I realize that my brow is furled and I’m crying. I’m stopped in my tracks as a deep ache emerges from my core.
I realize, for the first time in months, that I am mourning the loss of fellowship, of laughter, of answering questions like, “Why does horse poop look like brown snowballs?”
The pandemic altered our programing from 5 to 3 days a week and from 85 kiddos to only 15 that we are able to serve. Our volunteer groups and field trips have all been canceled. The kids and families that come to the Ranch are a gift. I am hopeful that soon, very soon, we can welcome them again, many for the first time, others for the ump-teenth’ time. Then and only then will this Ranch be able to shed the loneliness and become what it is made for – a place of ‘grins, grit, and grace’ for them to enjoy.