Writer Amanda Christmann Larson
There are some things I knew. I can Google with the best of them, and there were lots of statistics floating in my head as Siri on my iPhone led me down the winding dirt roads of Rio Verde.
I knew, for example, that over 14,000 children in Arizona were in foster care, group homes and crisis centers in March 2013, and that the majority of those children – over 88 percent – are victims of neglect. Just a handful of those children are fostered for less than a month; over 2,300 Arizona children are in foster care for more than two years.*
I also knew that foster care is tough. There are some amazing foster care parents out there, and to them I tip my imaginary hat, but there are also homes that are unprepared (or worse) for traumatized kids to land in. It also doesn’t take a lot of asking around to learn how burdened current care providers and social workers are. There are just over 3,500 licensed foster homes in the entire state of Arizona, and nearly a third of the state’s social workers left their jobs for different pastures last year. **
It’s grim. It’s ugly. And it’s not the stuff that most people want to talk about over drinks with co-workers or lounging by the pool. That’s what makes Chris and Amanda Moore so special, and it’s the reason I was testing the off-road capabilities of my Prius.
After a few turns north of 164th Street and Dynamite in the wilds east of Scottsdale, the sweet smell of horses and hay go from a hint to a statement. The beauty and relative isolation of the homes here may have once been an organic development, but now the people who live on this quiet piece of desert paradise maintain it quite purposefully. Sweat still has more value than frippery in these parts, and it’s only fitting that Reigning Grace Ranch be located in such a spot.
The ranch itself is a bit sprawling, but not pretentiously so. A total of 33 horses, as well as a few other friendly faces, congregate in several paddocks. Unlike other facilities, the horses divide themselves into pairs and herds and are not boarded in individual stables. This, too, is by design.
Nearly all of these horses are rescued, some from situations of neglect or trauma, some as retired race horses, and some from homes that can no longer support them or others from wild herds whose territory has been encroached on by human development. They each have a story, and Amanda shares each one as she walks easily through a sea of curious muzzles and swishing tails.
“We keep them in their natural environment,” Amanda says. “They’re all barefoot, and they can roam around almost anywhere they want to go here. By keeping them this way, it helps keep them really chill. They like to be moving around and social.”
These horses deserve to be social; they’ve got plenty of work to do.
Each week, these horses are restorative for the souls of about 50 children who are considered “at risk.” Many are in foster care or in state custody. Some have been adopted. Some are dealing with personal tragedies like death or divorce in their families. Some struggle with self-esteem issues or other difficult demons. In any case, they find horse-powered peace and healing in the strength and vulnerability of these four-legged companions.
“It’s almost magical what happens when you pair broken horses with broken children,” Amanda tells me. I feel it as I watch a small group of young people paired with a group of eager adult mentors happily busy themselves with their first chores of the day.
One of the many unique aspects about Reigning Grace Ranch is that the horses are in charge of “picking” the children they work with. They are remarkably intuitive. Whether it’s from centuries of honing their predator-sensing skills, or simply because they are more empathetic than most people give them credit for, horses seem to sense breathing patterns, heart rates, and the energy people have when they step into the paddock. They sense when they should stay away – and they sense when they are needed.
“It’s remarkable,” Amanda tells me pointedly. “Almost every time, when a horse chooses a child, they do it for a reason. Something happens that day. Nine out of 10 times, they see something in that horse that reminds them of themselves, and they bond in a way that they were just supposed to bond.”
Inside the tack house, among the halters and bridles hangs a single picture made from blotches of brightly colored finger paints in the would-be unmistakable artwork of a child. Amanda takes it down from the wall and laughs. “This is our elephant,” she says. I don’t hide my confusion, so she explains that the picture is artwork created by a child and a horse together, using non-toxic paints and the horse’s lips as a brush of sorts. The child decided the painting looked like an elephant, and so it was.
Sometimes children use horse art to depict more than pachyderms. Some days, they use the paints to create stories on the horses themselves, sharing pieces of their own pain through the emotional safety and trust of their living canvas.
It’s not just artwork that heals these children. They journal, they groom the horses, they do chores, and they get down and dirty in the most productive of ways; and of course, they ride. Through it all, they escape the world and its pain for a few hours each week and heal wounds that, in some cases, cut deep and wide and would not mend without the love and compassion of Reigning Grace.
Amanda and Chris know this all-too-well, because the horses healed them, too.
A few years ago, with the economy in the dumps and the stress of their business tearing their marriage apart, they made the decision to invest in two horses. “We had been to Arabian horse shows, and we thought horses were something we could do together outside of work,” says Amanda. They purchased land in Rio Verde, and began to enjoy ranch life.
“The horses were a wake-up call that we had to get real,” Amanda explains as Chris lets out a holler of happiness around the corner. He is mentoring a little boy, who is clearly enjoying his time on the ranch. “The horses know when you’re in a bad mood, or when you’re not being authentic. If you say you’re OK but you’re really angry or upset, the horses can tell.”
She continues: “I would get mad at Chris sometimes when he didn’t want to be around me because I was in a bad mood or not being nice. When I’d come out to the horses, though, they wouldn’t want to be around me either. I had to stop and realize, ‘Maybe I’m not being very nice.’ They started to make me see my own issues, and they made me start to change.”
During that time, on one clear evening, two more muzzles appeared outside of their fence. These were wild horses whose herd was struggling to survive in the hot Arizona sun.
Decades ago, the herd originated on a local ranch and grazed at-will. Cattle guards and fences kept them contained, but as land was purchased and subdivided, cattle guards were filled in and fences torn down. The scrappy horses wandered off of their land and into the surrounding McDowell Mountains, where they lived and died for years.
Amanda first noticed the two hungry stragglers when she was feeding her own horses. “I couldn’t feed mine and not feed them,” she says. And so she did. The next night, though, there were four sets of eyes begging for hay. Then eight.
Not too long afterward, Amanda went out of town for a night. She reminded Chris to feed the wild horses while he was doing evening chores.
“I got a phone call from Chris,” Amanda laughs. “He said, ‘Which horses do you want me to feed? Because for as far as I can see, there is a horse behind every single tree out here.’”
There were 40-50 wild horses that had come to the couple for food. In a short period of time, though, they proved to be less than “neigh”borly, trampling neighbors’ land and raiding their hay piles. The Moores teamed up with friends and rounded them up, managing to get most adopted by other horse lovers.
Through the process, they noticed they were attracting another group seeking refuge. Neighborhood kids, some going through their own struggles, began appearing regularly, bonding with the horses and finding unconditional acceptance. Chris and Amanda recognized the opportunity, and made the decision to walk forward in the purpose they’d been handed.
Today, Reigning Grace Ranch is the kind of amazing place where dreams come true – even those dreams that have been tucked away into dark corners and covered in a layer of fear and sadness. It’s a place where no person or animal is a misfit, including the ranch’s single Jersey cow, Norman, who seems to think he is a horse. No one minds, though, because at Reigning Grace, it’s possible to be whoever you want to be without judgment.
The ranch is 100 percent donation-funded, although there is little wiggle room in its budget. It also runs on the kindness of volunteers, from retired teachers to college students, who mentor children, exercise horses, and keep up with the tremendous amount of work it takes to keep miracles happening.
The Moores are always looking for volunteers to lend expertise in construction, plumbing, and physical labor, as well as volunteer mentors, who are carefully screened for the safety of the vulnerable children who trust them. And, of course, they need monetary donations.
As I drove away down the now-familiar route, I couldn’t help but think I had witnessed something wonderful. Sure, the horses were more than special, and the affection I witnessed between children, caring adults, and animals was exceptional. But what really struck me was the extraordinarily beauty of the love that brought so many together.
When we open our hearts to other creatures, no matter how many legs they have, we experience something unique. Where we have been and what has marked us in life are no longer important. It’s something like grace, and let grace reign.
*Statistics provided by CASA of Arizona.
**Arizona Department of Economic Security bi-annual report.