As much as I hope my children will come into their own as individuals, there’s something just overwhelmingly adorable about watching my kids be “into” the typical milestones of childhood. So while I very much dream my daughter will one day be some sort of hip-yet-together hybrid of Kate Bush and that woman who flaks GoldiBlox, there is just something irrepressibly cute about her obsession with all things horses and ponies.
To be clear, her horse obsession is the thing of I-Can-Read novels and made-for-cable movies. Though we live in a somewhat rural area, my wife and I are about as far from horse people as you get—not even in that faux landed gentry sense that Ralph Lauren enables. Come to think of it, I don’t think my wife even owned fake jodhpurs back in the early aughts when they were sort of cool. All of which puts my daughter’s love of horses on the level of fantasy and whimsy, which is where we all hope our kids will be when they’re still rollin’ with the booster seat set; that sweet spot in time when they are becoming more independent but don’t actually hate you yet.
So as my daughter’s seventh birthday approached, it was clear we had to do a horse theme, which presented a conundrum: There are riding rings and stables around the area that will host birthday parties, and even a few pony purveyors who will bring one to your house for kids to ride. These options are, of course, rather expensive. I just have a really hard time dropping serious cash on little kid’s birthday parties, and by “have a really hard time” I actually mean “don’t have the funds to do so.”
We could, of course, have just done something around our house or at a pavilion at some town park involving horseshoe favors, homemade paper cowgirl hats and a paper mache horse piñata that my kid could beat the hell out of to get that unidentified rage caused by a subconscious birthday party letdown out of her system. But there had to be a middle way.
It took the smartest person in my house (my wife, for those who don’t know us well) to find the loophole: a birthday party at a horse rescue ranch. For the unfamiliar, a rescue ranch is where people and various government entities bring horses that have been abused or neglected. It’s kind of like a no-kill animal shelter, except the animals are big enough to crush your foot into bloody kindling sticks if they so cared to. (See what I mean about us not being horse people?)
The one my wife located was a mere 45 minutes from our house. We had visited during the winter break, and the director explained that when the recession hit, many middle class and not-quite-middle class horse owners in the area found they just couldn’t afford to keep their animals. I’ve heard estimates that it takes around $3,000 a year to keep a horse, and given the copious amount of hay, feed, tack supplies and other random kit they have at the rescue ranch, I’d believe it.
Many of the horses at the place were seized by law enforcement in animal neglect cases as their owners held on to them even when there was no money left for feed or hay. Some of the horses arrive at the ranch so emaciated they can’t stand on their own, which is, actual horse people tell me, fatal to a horse in short order. The volunteers at the ranch must put them in harnesses while they slowly fatten up, something which requires a human to stay with them 24/7 for days or even weeks. Horse people indeed. Once revived, the newly renourished horses join their roughly 60 or so other starvation trauma survivor comrades in the ranch’s paddocks. The ranch’s horses then have no horse duties expected of them save for munching grass and allowing packs of little girls to brush their pretty, pretty hair. It is, in other words, the perfect place of a seven-year-old girl’s birthday party.
When the big day came, we put a few of her friends in our minivan, while another family drove a few more kids in another vehicle. We had a cooler full of water in the back, along with milk boxes and a cupcake collage shaped like—wait for it—a horse. The first stop was Red Robbin, one of those places that hits the market niche sweet spot of “the kids love it” and “acceptable to drink four beers.” My wife had signed the two of us up for their loyalty program, which entitled us each to a free burger. She also purchased a gift card for the place from our grocery store, which earned us fuel points. We got out of there for $34.15, including tip.
After lunch, we drove out to the ranch. The volunteers had set up a table by the main stables with one of those
“H-A-P-P-Y B-I-R-T-H-D-A-Y” signs made of paper letters and laid out those paper horns every little kid birthday requires. After a brief discussion about horses and how the ranch cares for them, each girl got a sandwich bag full of treats. We fed the treats to the horses smart enough to come running when they saw a group of little girls, proving yet again that Darwin was on to something.
We then went into the stables and had a 30-minute brush fest. Seriously, who knew you could brush a horse that long? After that, one of the horses that could still take a saddle was paraded out, and each girl got to ride. After we sang the usual song and had our cupcakes and milk boxes, the volunteers gave each girl a wooden horseshoe with plastic jewels hot-glue-gunned onto them. It was a really touching gesture, and the generosity behind it made me realize that at a rescue ranch, the horses are probably not the only ones trying to heal past traumas and hurt from earlier in life.
After two hours, we thanked the volunteers, discreetly left a donation check, piled the kids in the vans and went home, singing along to pop songs while discussing which horses and ponies we each liked best, in rank order. A horse birthday party, completed.
What It All Cost:
• 10 milk boxes @ $1 a piece – $10
• 6 pop songs on iTunes – $7.74
• Lunch for two adults & 4 adults at Red Robin – $34.15 (includes loyalty points)
• 6 gallons of gas @ $3.14 a gallon (including fuel points discount from gift cards) – $18.84
• Random horse treats- approx. $15
• Donation to rescue ranch (tax deductible) – $100.00
Dana Cruikshank originally planned to become a diplomat, but now lives in Blacksburg, Va. with his wife and kids. He helps scientists and engineers talk to non-math people, with varying degrees of success. His hobbies include reading, worrying about how many more miles his family vehicles have left in them and writing about himself in the third person.
Photo: Dennis Carr