“Mama! Mama!” Jack runs back to where I squat in the registration tent, a baby on each of my knees. “Alex is here!”
I grin at him before he runs back to his friend. Jane has already disappeared into the tack room with Alex’s little sister, Sam.
By the time Doug finishes filling out the release form, I’m sitting on the gravel floor of the tent, both twins trying to knock me over. Doug scoops up Ben, I grab Luke as I stand up, and we head together over to the horse-trotting ring, where our friends Becky and Jared are standing with Alex’s parents.
Cindy says, “I was wondering if we’d see you here! Did you see the girls?” She points to a roofed area in front of the tack room. Jane and Sam are sitting on a hay bale, each of them holding a baby chicken. Jane’s is creamy white; Sam’s, dusty black.
Jack is in line for a horseback ride. It’s his first time on a horse. While he straps on his helmet, Jared shows me how to find Madison Grove Farm on Facebook, so I can “like” it.
We’re here at his and Becky’s invitation. Becky’s on the board of this nonprofit horse farm that rescues neglected and abused horses and pairs them with troubled and traumatized children and teenagers, so that both can find healing.
I watch Jack ride around the ring on Traveler, a black and white saddle horse. He looks so adorable in his riding helmet. When Jane finishes holding the chick, she dons a helmet, too, and half-climbs, half-scrambles into Lily’s saddle. Lily, I learn later from Marla, who started the farm, is “an angel.” Put out to pasture and neglected for years, she was about to be sold for meat when Marla and her husband bought her.
Jane gives me a big, happy grin when she walks past me on Lily.
While the older kids run around, either watching the chickens or the other horses, Luke and Ben get to ride on a miniature horse. Luke makes it all the way around the ring. Ben holds onto my neck the entire time and wants off the horse less than halfway around the ring. He likes the helmet and pitches a fit when I try to take it off, but he doesn’t want anything to do with the horse.
Jane and Sam are coloring bookmarks in the art tent. Jack and Alex wander around watching the chickens, rabbits, and other horses.
Over a lunch of hotdogs, Marla tells us a few of the horses’ histories. Star, a thoroughbred racehorse, had been sold to a caballero ranch after her racing days were over. She was kept chained in an 8 X 8 foot stall—”she’s more than eight feet long”—standing up to her knees in her own feces. For hours each day, her trainers flicked her legs with a whip to teach her how to dance the high-step.
By the time she came to Madison Grove Farm, she was 450 pounds underweight, had lost all the skin on her back from an infection, and had a growth the size of a golf ball on her right forefoot where her trainers had used duct tape to bandage a cut. “She needed a vet,” Marla says, “not duct tape. We’ve taken that growth off three times in the six months that she’s been here.”
Star’s gained 300 pounds since she arrived, but she’s not yet ready to be ridden, nor is her stable-mate Willow, a beautiful palomino who was also rescued from abuse.
But the other ten horses at the farm get out regularly with kids and teens, who come either with a social worker or with their families to muck stalls, feed, groom, saddle, and ride the horses.
Becky tells me about Tony, a boy who had been in juvie and was on the equivalent of parole. He came to the farm with his teacher, Amy, one of the Madison Grove volunteers, and started working with Buck, a big bay, who had been abused. But Buck wasn’t making progress; he nipped and reared and refused to be saddled.
“You’re not going to sell him, are you?” Tony asked Marla. “You’re going to keep him, right? You got to. You got to give him a chance!”
Becky has tears in her eyes as she tells me this. “Here he is, this punk kid, with a jail record already, and he’s learning empathy and compassion, without our having to teach him. It was there all the time, just buried.”
She points to the ring where more kids are riding the horses, and she smiles. “That’s Buck, there.” He walks slowly, gently bearing a little girl of about six on his saddled back.
Later, just before we leave, I take a cart ride behind one of the miniature horses. Marla holds the reins, while I hold Luke in my lap. I ask her when she started the nonprofit.
“About seven years ago,” she says, “but I’ve been riding horses since I was a teenager. I grew up on Mercer Island and until I was 15, the most stressful thing in my life was getting from gymnastics to my riding lesson on time.”
Then her sister was killed.
If it hadn’t been for her horse, she tells me, “I don’t know what I would have done. Jake saved my life. He kept me from alcohol and drugs and sex and God knows what else.” She is quiet for a moment. “I know first-hand the healing that can come when kids and horses bond.”
And so she created Madison Grove Farm, where kids who’ve been traumatized by life can come and care for a horse who’s also been traumatized, and together the two can help each other heal.
Marla doesn’t charge the kids or their families for their visits. If they come to the farm, she’ll put them to work with one of the horses and give them riding lessons if they want them.
As I step out of the cart, I thank Marla for letting us come out and enjoy her farm on this gorgeous day. She tells me we’re welcome to come back any time.
“Mama,” Jack says as we walk down the gravel driveway to our van, “I want to come back here. Can we?”
I smile down at him. “Yes,” I say. “Definitely.”