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Son Valley Ranch
Article & photos by Allison A. Rehnborg
The recipe for a successful summer horse camp is simple: start with knowledgeable equestrians and willing, sweet-tempered horses, add a healthy dollop of common horse sense, safety, and proper riding equipment, and combine with horse-crazy children of any age. The best result is a safe, educational experience that introduces children to the wonderful world of horses and horseback riding. But for Matt and Laurel Perrigo, the proprietors of Son Valley Ranch in Mount Juliet, Tennessee, the recipe is a bit more complicated – and the results are even more rewarding.
For the past three years, the Perrigos have worked with other like-minded couples to develop their own equestrian ministry for the disadvantaged youth of Rutherford County. Devoted to sharing “God’s love, hope, and healing with underprivileged youth,” Son Valley Ranch is a Christian youth ranch that provides opportunities for foster children and their families to experience horses and the outdoors in a safe, nurturing environment.
According to Matt Perrigo, the inspiration for the ranch blossomed out of a couples’ devotional group from World Outreach Church in Murfreesboro, Tennessee.
“About five years ago, we were all part of World Outreach Church and we were in small group together with two other couples,” Matt says. “The third couple in our group had been fostering kids all their lives, and they really had a heart for that. We met together, spent a lot of time together, and thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool to have a place for kids to come out and have a day of adventure, freedom, and hope? No bars? Everything built for them?’ So that’s how we got started and the idea was birthed.”
Mere months after the group came up with the idea, they had formed a nonprofit 501-c-3 organization, written articles of incorporation, and instituted a board of founding members, including the Perrigos and Jon and Kelsey Bufkin, a local couple from Murfreesboro, Tennessee, who serve as an integral part of the ranch.
“We did the first camp at a ranch in Bradyville,” Matt remembers. “Then that couple [who owned the Bradyville ranch] had to bow out, so we got together with Jon and Kelsey Bufkin. We thought, ‘Well, we’ve got horses and a decent place at our ranch, so why not?’ This is our third official year of hosting camps now. Our first year, we had four camp days. Last year, we had five. And this year, we’ll have six.”
Specifically intended to serve the foster children and underprivileged youth of Rutherford County, Son Valley Ranch offers adventure activities like horseback riding, group games, nature hikes, crafts, and more. The camp days, including meals, are free of charge, and for many of its campers and their families, Son Valley Ranch serves as a refuge from the stresses and hardships of their everyday lives.
That concept of providing a safe haven, no matter how temporary, for foster children is what motivates Laurel Perrigo to make each ranch day as meaningful as possible for the campers.
“We’re trying to get to those kids that haven’t had a lot of opportunities in their lives,” Laurel says. “I’m not a riding instructor and I’m not teaching riding lessons. I’m just sharing the horse with a child – and doing it in as safe a way as possible. These kids may go another ten years without riding a horse, but I’m letting them be around the horse and letting the horse do the work of healing and helping.”
The camps are hosted on the Perrigos’ 13-acre-ranch in Mt. Juliet, and feature the Perrigos’ eight horses, which include an elderly Tennessee Walking Horse, a mixed Arabian eventer, a Shetland pony, and Charlie, an 8-year-old Paint gelding with a very special past.
“Charlie was a rescue horse, from one of the 84 horses rescued in Cannon County in 2009,” Matt explains. “He was a five-year-old green horse, completely unbroken. The horses were boarded at the Fair Grounds after the rescue, and you could pick a horse to keep if you stayed and worked. Charlie came up behind Laurel and she said, ‘He’s the one.’ She has done so much work with him, and today, he is a phenomenal broke horse. His manner is just amazing.”
Charlie, a dun overo with a bald face and blue eyes, serves as a special focal point on camp days. Every camp day, Laurel and Charlie perform a demonstration ride, usually set to music. Then Laurel takes a moment to tell Charlie’s story of starvation and rescue to the campers.
“If it wasn’t for Charlie’s almost starving to death, he wouldn’t have been taken by the police and I never would have met him,” Laurel explains. “And we wouldn’t be best friends today. I talk to the kids about how God can take difficult things and use them for good in your life. I think that’s a big part of what I want these kids to learn. I talk about how Charlie didn’t have any family or anyone to care for him, and now he has a wonderful future and a family that loves him. God is using what Charlie went through to help other people. I want to give these kids hope that, with God, there’s never any hopeless situations.”
On April 19, the ranch hosted its first camp day of the season with 11 campers, ranging in age from 7- to 13-years-old, and several counselors, including the Perrigos, the Bufkins, and a group of dedicated, experienced volunteers. The children learned about grooming, saddling, and riding horses, as well as participated in horse-related crafts, played yard games, and went on nature hikes and scavenger hunts. At the end of the day, they gathered around a bonfire and shared a meal with each other.
“[We want to give these kids] a day to not have any worries,” Laurel says. “Just to have fun, in a safe place that could bring a little bit of healing, and getting out of an environment that is stressful or sad. It’s a lot of work to prepare for a ranch day, but when I start to hear about the hurt that some of these children have gone through – and you’d never know it, from their faces, what they’re going through – it’s unbelievable. It motivates you to do the work again and to keep going.”
Though the children gave every sign of enjoying the whole day, the horses were undoubtedly the high point for many of them, including a 13-year-old foster child from Nashville.
“It was really fun,” the boy said after dismounting from Cookie, a Tennessee Walking Horse. “Being together with the horses and the people was my favorite part.”
Camp counselor and volunteer Jane Griffin, a neighbor of the Perrigos, has volunteered at the ranch for two years, and loves the opportunity to work with the children and the horses.
“I’ve always had a vision of doing this kind of camp out at my place, but never had the chance,” Jane says. “When I heard what Laurel was doing, I said, ‘I’m in.’ I love seeing the kids and horses connect here.”
At the heart of things, that’s what Son Valley Ranch is all about: bringing horses, people, and children together to achieve healing and hope. For more information about Son Valley Ranch, including signing up for a camp day, volunteering, or donating, check out www.sonvalleyranch.comor e-mail the Perrigos at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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