Freeland ranch rounds up fun for needy kids

Jessie Tappan, a youth from a Seattle Parks and Recreation program called Outdoors for All, gazes at Patty, the ranch’s draft horse, while going for a ride dressed as a cowgirl princess. - Rebecca Olson / Whidbey News-Times
Jessie Tappan, a youth from a Seattle Parks and Recreation program called Outdoors for All, gazes at Patty, the ranch’s draft horse, while going for a ride dressed as a cowgirl princess.
— image credit: Rebecca Olson / Whidbey News-Times

It was a scene out of the Wild West: pistols flashing and cowboy boots stomping, country music and horses to ride. With all the smiles lighting up the M-Bar-C Ranch, it was hard to see that the children didn’t often get the opportunity to just be kids.

That’s the gift that the M-Bar-C Ranch in Freeland strives to offer.

“We give children a day of western fun. It’s not therapeutic riding,” said Dale Kerslake, M-Bar-C Ranch volunteer and program coordinator. “We’re really about a place for kids facing serious challenges to come be a kid for a day and just be kids.”

The ranch is operated by the Forgotten Children’s Fund, a Seattle based children’s charity. It sits on 52 green acres, offering plenty of room for the 20 horses --- which include a couple of miniature horses --- and a replica of a Wild West town the perfect size for young imaginations.

Out of 68 days of operation during the summer, Kerslake said the ranch will be hosting groups for at least 50 of those days. Along with special needs kids, the ranch also holds horse camps for youth and adults.

The nonprofit is entirely volunteer run, with a number of adult volunteers and the help of 18 youth interns from all three school districts who learn how to handle horses while donating their time. The horses are donated, too, and are specially trained professionals.

“They know what they need to do,” Kerslake said, adding that they’re “bomb proof.” The most frequent visitors to the ranch are special needs kids, many of which are very animated.

Kerslake came to the ranch in 2008 to participate in a horse camp and get back into riding. Despite living on the island for 12 years before that, she’d never heard of the ranch. When she realized the ranch’s goal of helping special needs children, she got involved at the ranch because she wanted to see these children be happy.

“You see these smiles,” she said, mentioning burn victims and children who suffered from domestic violence as other kids the ranch has positively affected. The ranch also hosts parent-to-parent support groups, which are important because the whole family comes “to just enjoy the ranch, ride the horses and have a picnic lunch,” Kerslake said. Often, the focus is on the special needs child in a family, but these groups bring the entire family together.

“Our goal is to give them the best day ever. To see them laughing and running around and forget the serious problems they’re facing,” Kerslake said.

Wednesday, a group of about 15 special needs children and teens and their chaperones from a Seattle Parks and Recreation camp showed up at the ranch to the welcoming smiles of youth interns and ranch volunteers. From their hugs for volunteers they recognized and excitement at meeting the dog, it looked like it could become their best day ever.

Kerslake greeted the guests with a “Howdy!” and led them to the flag pole to be sworn in as honorary cowboys and girls.

Today is “a chance to roam free and follow the cowboy way. Welcome to the M-Bar-C Ranch. Yeehaw!” Kerslake finished.

The excitement was tangible as the children raced to change into cowboy garb. They entered the barn as ordinary children and emerged as cowboys and cowgirls, plastic guns strapped to their hips and cowboy boots stomping the ground. The group also included some cowgirl princesses wearing colorful dresses. Even the chaperones donned handkerchiefs.

Then it was horse riding time. Many of the kids had never ridden horses before, while some had experience. A trio of ranch volunteers and interns surrounded each horse as a guest climbed on from a raised platform. Training the horses to allow riders to climb on at that height is difficult because horses believe anything above them is a predator, but those horses were the very picture of patience.

With encouragement from the volunteers, the kids adjusted to their horses and began to smile as each horse was led around the yard. Most even stopped to pet Patty, a huge draft horse used to pull wagons.

After a few rides each, the children converged on the Wild West town, bounding through Doc’s Barbershop, a bank and even a jail with a cell. Amid shouts and laughter, the town transformed into a western battle of epic proportions. Plastic pistols were drawn in standoffs --- and a few swords, too. The cowboys cleaned up the town, tossing the bad guys in jail just in time for the lunch bell and a meal of hotdogs, an old West classic.

“The kids are having so much fun,” Kerslake said as she prepared for lunch. After lunch, the kids planned to make necklaces, keychains and do other crafts, “and just let them run around and expend all that energy,” Kerslake added.

Memories from the day on the ranch were the kind of memories that could raise a child’s spirits and keep a smile on his or her face for a long time to come.

Kerslake pointed out the ranch’s motto, adding how important its meaning is for the ranch: “The best thing for the inside of a kid is the outside of a horse.”


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