Some volunteer assignments are such a good fit that you feel like you should be paying for the privilege of being involved. That’s how I’ve felt since I started spending Friday mornings helping with the “Seniors at the Ranch” program sponsored by the Flying Horse Foundation at Flying Horse Ranch north of Colorado Springs.
I first heard about the program from my granddaughter Ellie who works with kids in the Equine Assisted Learning program at the foundation. She knew I had a passion for both horses and seniors so thought the senior program would be a good fit for me, and sure-as-shootin’ she was right!
As a van load of seniors from a senior living facility first arrives at the ranch with their staff assistants, they are quick to exclaim about the beauty of the surroundings. Whether exiting the van under their own power or with the help of a walker or a wheelchair lift, the amazement is the same. Just the drive through the beautiful countryside to arrive at the ranch is a joyful break from their normal routines, but then the real fun begins.
First they make their way to a beautiful, comfortably furnished patio outside the 10,500 square-foot, stunning barn featuring a stagecoach, carriage, and covered wagon. Then the visitors are introduced to two of the permanent residents of Flying Horse Ranch, miniature donkeys Bridgette, 29, and Carlie, 28. These precious creatures are just the right height for sidling up to a seated senior for a scratch on the head or a nuzzle. As the seniors sip on lemonade or coffee, staff member Heather Howell answers all the questions they have about the donkeys and the 1400-acre cattle and horse ranch. It’s especially entertaining when we serve Bridgette and Carlie their mushy snack, as they no longer have teeth to chew anything harder. Many of the senior guests identify with that problem and laugh!
Before meeting our dynamic duo I had no idea that donkeys bear the distinct shape of a cross on their backs. Called the mark of Christ, legend has it that God gave them this marking because it was a donkey that carried Mary into Bethlehem and another that Jesus rode into Jerusalem. So the donkeys provide inspiration for a faith message, too.
What I’ve loved most, however, is hearing the stories brought to seniors’ minds just by being at the ranch, looking out at horses grazing in rolling meadows, and scratching curly-headed donkeys between the ears.
“My sister and I grew up on a ranch in eastern Colorado,” Charlotte shared. “We delivered newspapers on horseback before school every morning, but sometimes when we put our horse back in the corral we set the latch so he could eventually get out. He would show up at our school a while later. The teacher would point out that our horse had gotten out again, and we’d explain that it took both of us to get him home. We never did go back to school the rest of the day!”
One sunny Friday morning a wheelchair-bound senior named Maria chuckled to herself before sharing her story with me. “I lived in northern New Mexico growing up. My cousin and I once climbed on a cow that was sitting on the ground thinking we could ride it into the barn. She was five and I was three. Of course the cow stood up and dumped us onto the ground, but we didn’t have far to fall.”
Would those memories have surfaced without an outing to the ranch? Maybe, maybe not. I just know I was privileged to be there when they did, and I’m every bit as blessed by those donkey days as the seniors who visit.
To schedule a senior group for a visit, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.