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Editorial Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, January 17, 2008


Let the Eagle Ridge Youth Ranch Soar

"There is something about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of a man."

— Winston Churchill

Right about now, Wendy and Thomas Detwiler may be wishing they had never come to New Scotland. We would like to welcome them and their plans.

Thomas Detwiler, who hails from Illinois, has 18 years of farming experience, including a decade of working with horses. He and his wife have 30 acres of land on Straight Lane in New Scotland.

They plan to open the Eagle Ridge Youth Ranch there, a not-for-profit operation to let poor kids ride horses.

"It’s very expensive to take horseback riding lessons," Wendy Detwiler told our reporter, Jo E. Prout.

She’s right. Many kids dream of riding but their families simply can’t afford it.

Thomas Detwiler told the New Scotland Planning Board last Tuesday of his plans for the ranch, "It’s pretty much just an outlet for single parents and kids to get more out of life than things that are being thrown at them right now."

Jo E. Prout knows a thing or two about the wonders horses can work. She’s volunteered for decades in programs that let kids with handicaps ride and has watched some miraculous transformations as these kids have a privilege many of their peers envy and as they enjoy the magnificence of riding atop such a grand animal.

John Steinbeck put it well: "A man on a horse is spiritually as well as physically bigger than a man on foot."

Our reporter has also had years of experience covering local planning boards and had never before witnessed the sort of inappropriate grilling the Detwilers underwent.

They came before the board for a site-plan review for a permitted use. Their land is in a residential forestry district and they planned to use three acres to grow hay, and to build a riding arena and wind shelters for horses. They planned to compost horse waste in the garden and fields, with the excess trucked away.

If their ranch were to fail — and we sincerely hope it doesn’t — or the Detwilers were to move on, they wouldn’t leave behind a huge, empty building, like the vacant car dealership, for instance, on the town’s major thoroughfare. The country vista would be preserved.

The Detwilers plan to have the youth work with the horses in a safe, structured environment. Each of 10 students per lesson would be teamed with a horse and an adult volunteer trainer. Children associated with the Capital City Rescue Mission and the JC Club in Albany would be eligible to attend the ranch program, Thomas Detwiler told the board.

The planning board chairman, Robert Stapf, said he spoke with a director of one of the organizations and was told a ratio of two adults to six children was the standard for field trips. Stapf said of the Detwilers’ plans, "They’re well-intended, but are they well-thought out""

The escorts would not be the horse-trainer volunteers, responded Detwiler; they would "have nothing to do with it."

The board members also asked about background checks on the volunteers, if the clientele would have drug and alcohol problems, and if the Detwilers have liability insurance. They asked the Detwilers to submit a copy of their insurance report on safety issues, and a copy of the business plan from the Oregon ranch on which they based their organization.

Stapf asked the Detwilers what they would do with the horses over the winter and said the board’s questions were designed to see "if you know how to take care of horses."

We’re not aware of the board members having particular expertise with running a ranch and we haven’t heard them question other applicants in this way. Again, we stress, what the Detwilers intend is a permitted use. It’s not the board’s business to tell the Detwilers that they should use troughs with warming appliances or that their land won’t grow a lot of hay. "It grows mud," said one planning board member.

Stapf said the board would move slowly with the applicants and that, when the Detwilers’ program is up and running, they would be able to ask for an increase in the size of their operation after another public hearing.

Wendy Detwiler was in tears when our reporter talked to her after the meeting. She said she was shocked by a lot of the questions the board members asked, stating, quite correctly, "This was just a planning site meeting."

Neighbors also turned out at last Tuesday’s meeting to protest the Detwilers’ plans. One said the increased traffic would affect her "piece of heaven" and another said he does not want the character of the neighborhood changed.

The Detwilers own the land and have the right to use it as the law permits. As much of New Scotland is being gobbled up by developers, who aren’t subjected to such intrusive questioning, we find a ranch with horses an ideal use. It keeps space open, doesn’t add to the tax burden, and preserves rural character.

Horses were once prevalent in New Scotland. Why not embrace their return" Why not encourage an idealistic and hard-working couple that wants to offer something wonderful to disadvantaged children"

"Our main purpose," Wendy Detwiler told our reporter, "is to foster hope in children through emotional, physical, and spiritual healing." She apologized for breaking into tears and went on, "We have four children of our own. The last thing we would do is put them in danger."

Mrs. Detwiler said that she and her husband met while doing missionary work in Fiji. Her husband has been a youth pastor and she used to be director of a preschool and day-care center, she said. "We’ve always had a heart for kids," she said, stating it formed the basis for their marriage.

Of the ranch project, which the Detwilers are financing personally, she said, "We have nothing to gain and everything to lose...We sincerely just care about the kids. If we can make a difference in just one life, it will be worth it."

We hope that the Detwilers pursue their dream; that volunteers flock to take part in the program; and that kids, who otherwise wouldn’t have the chance, learn the thrill of caring for horses and riding them.

We remember a story Jo E. Prout told us a decade ago about a little boy who rode in a program she ran for children with disabilities. "This boy couldn’t walk to the barn, but had to be carried," she said. "He was not a verbal person, but he would talk to his horse, Pepsi. He got to be good at riding. He got confidence in himself.

"In kindergarten, he was an outsider until one day at show-and-tell he brought in his riding ribbons. The other ‘normal’ kids had never done what he had...Two years later, he was running on his own."

Being poor and from a broken home can be tough on a child, too. Having something special to look forward to and strive for — like riding a horse in the country — can make a big difference in a child’s life. We hope the youth ranch on Straight Lane soars like an eagle. That would be our idea of a piece of heaven.

— Melissa Hale-Spencer, editor


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