This article was originally published in our July/August 2021 issue.

Not long after the rooster starts crowing every morning, Rita Reasons is on her tractor and feeding hay to a herd of about fifty horses, mules, and donkeys of every color and size imaginable in her pastures. Her sixty-acre spread in Christian County is a mile north of Sparta on Route 125 and half a mile east on Buckeye Road. Slow driving over the rocky dead-end lane is recommended.

The horses are Rita’s passion, and most of them have been rescued. They are healed if they were hurt, then trained and used to give horseback riding lessons and trail rides. Although Rita and her late husband had been rescuing animals for a long time, Reasons Rescue Ranch did not become a nonprofit until 2018. It provides forever homes for any unwanted animals while also educating the public and visitors in equine rescue, as well as providing adolescent mentoring and coaching programs to help further the cause of future care and welfare of all animals.

Rita Reasons owns and operates Reasons Rescue Ranch.

Rita’s ranch is divided into an open hay field, a fenced pasture, and several acres of tree-covered rocky hillsides for trail riding. There are shaded hollows (or hollers, colloquially), rippling streams, and dirt beds where horses take a vigorous roll after saddles are removed.

On the spread’s southern edge, Rita’s modest two-story home sits in a grove of oak and walnut trees. Along with other buildings close to headquarters is a stable, a hay shed, and a bunk house. Several pens and corrals for training horses are scattered nearby.

Fair Grove cowboy Jeff Sharp shows Rachel Clemenson how to get her lariat loop ready.

“I grew up in Kansas City and learned to love horses by watching westerns on TV,” Rita says. “I took riding lessons at a stable, and that’s how I got to be with horses. My parents and grandparents didn’t have deep feelings for animals like me, so I must not have inherited them.”

The business is open year-round, so what gets done daily depends largely on weather conditions. No matter how hot or cold it is outside, all of the animals need to be fed daily.
Rita’s top hands (teenage girls who live within a few miles of the ranch) show up and pitch in around 9 am during the summer and when school is not in session. Otherwise, they come after school and on weekends. They feed grain to older horses. As icing on the cake, their on-the-job work location is horseback, as they round up and then saddle that day’s mounts for trail rides or lessons. They teach some lessons while mounted, too. Beyond feeding the animals, the girls have other chores like cleaning stables, unloading hay, and caring for tack (saddles, bridles, halters, and such). They recently helped build a donated pipe corral. There are always chores that need doing on the ranch.

“Those girls are hardly ever on their phones,” Rita says in a proud motherly way about her responsible young crew. “They’d rather work and ride.”

Offering praise for her present top hands, Rita says, “They’re the best ever. They’ve all learned about horses’ feet by watching the farrier trim hooves and put on shoes. They’re as dedicated to the animals as me. It’s my dream come true.”

One of the volunteer hands is Emma Hedrick, a fourteen-year-old who wants to become a veterinarian. “Emma’s time with Rita has been a huge blessing. She is who she is because of what she has learned and experienced at the ranch,” says Emma’s mother Jennifer Hedrick.

Emma Hedrick works with Waylon, a nine-year-old bay mustang, in the round pen at Reasons Ranch.

Ellen Dawaliby-Hedrick, Emma’s grandmother agrees. “The ranch seemed to fit her like a glove. She treasures her time there, loves the animals, and helps children feel comfortable around horses.” Emma teaches younger children and is in the final stages of training Nally, a local rancher’s young mare, to work calves.

“Rita teaches the girls what it takes to run a farm and take proper care of animals. They are not afraid of work.” Ellen says. “I love my granddaughter and have missed time with her, but her love for what she does at that ranch makes me happy.”

There is always room for another animal in trouble. Sadly, some of the rescued horses have been abandoned to starve. Often foundered (suffering from laminitis), their hoofs need to be trimmed of excess growth. Then a farrier puts on specially fabricated shoes to help eradicate pain. Horses receive necessary medical attention and start eating nutritious food. Within a few months, their health generally returns to normal, and they’re fit enough to earn their keep as trail ride mounts. Some of Rita’s equine retirees have been loaned out as replacement stablemates, so lonesome horses that have lost life partners can have a friend. Rita has many success stories about foundered horses that would have been killed had she not rescued them.

The ranch is staffed by dedicated volunteers, including an aspiring veterinarian.

When kittens and puppies are weaned, they are put up for adoption through social media and word-of-mouth. Rita is very particular about who will get them. She is thankful for Judy Oliver, a close friend who covers veterinary expenses for rescued dogs and cats. Other friends frequently show up to help in other ways.

A young raccoon was brought in not long ago. Since the animal was wild, Rita turned it over to animal control. Even though they’re very cute, they need to survive on their own. It is illegal to hold wild animals in captivity.

Rita bought six western-range mustangs (Cochise, Lakota Sioux, Shadow, Waylon, White Shadow, and Charlie) a few years ago at a Bureau of Land Management auction in Arkansas. Through much patience and many hours, Emma gentled and trained them for riding. Having natural-born equine communication skills, she considers herself self-taught. YouTube videos have helped her learn more training techniques, and she now gives riding lessons.

Ready for a day at Reasons Rescue Ranch are, from left, Adleigh Murfee on Gypsy, Caroline Soriano on Rusty, Rachel Clemenson on Max, Rita Reasons on Reese, Haylee Stiloings on Moses, and Emma Hedrick on Moon Pie. Dogs are, from left, Midnight, Marty, Hero, Hannah, and Sadie.

Rita likes riding mules because they are smart and don’t spook easily. “I was on Sadie a while back, when a big buck deer jumped up in front of us. That mule side-stepped just a little bit before realizing what was going on. She never got crazy.”

Rita loves all members of the herd, but she especially enjoys the comical antics of an aged donkey named Barney. He is the official greeter, as he lopes out front and sticks his head in visitors’ car windows. Nothing is safe—Barney will steal everything from hats to cell phones. The donkey is always in costume for holidays. Tia, another of her favorites, is a white pony that gets dressed up as a unicorn for parties and parades. As soon as a pint-sized miniature horse named Bojangles came to the ranch, he took up with Tia. It is rumored that their upcoming wedding will be the most well-attended social event of the season. The couple will be all spiffed up—top hat, flowers, and of course, cake.

Rita teaches the girls what it takes to run a farm and take proper care of animals. They are not afraid of work. I love my granddaughter and have missed time with her, but her love for what she does at that ranch makes me happy. —Ellen Dawaliby-Hedrick

As night closes in, everyone is tired. A field stone fire pit offers a pleasant place for end-of-day gatherings at the ranch. Chickens and guineas fly into tree limb roosts. Rita’s numerous dogs and cats enjoy the comforts of sleeping inside. She loves the security of having them as close as possible.

Because of her many responsibilities, Rita has no time for vacations. “I’m open Monday through Saturday, and occasionally on Sunday afternoons, but only when that’s necessary,” Rita says. She needs every penny to stay in business.

A regular at church, Rita hopes that her faith in God influences the girls. Rita gives credit to the gentleness of horses for helping the girls overcome problems. And she herself has been blessed. She emulates the positive example she saw in those TV westerns, where good never failed to overcome evil and heroes always rode horses.

In a one-word description of her mentor and friend, Emma says Rita is “caring.”

“When autistic kids come here, their mothers tell me about them talking about their experiences at the ranch all the next week,” Rita says. “They can’t wait to come again. That’s because I don’t give regimented lessons like most places. They’re not going to show a horse in competition, so why should I be strict with them? They get to have fun here with the girls and me, and they don’t have to prove anything to anyone. There’s real joy in that.”

Paying bills at the ranch is a continual hardship for Rita. Money is made from selling T-shirts, giving lessons, having trail rides, and offering an unusual setting for parties. There are also yearly fundraising music shows.

Emma Hedrick riding bare-back on Moon Pie helps round-up the herd at Reasons Rescue Ranch.

It costs twenty dollars an hour for someone to learn how to communicate with a horse under supervision. If customers are familiar with horses, they may go on supervised trail rides. Mounts are chosen according to previous experience in the saddle.

Rita lets kids hang around and play awhile afterward, which parents appreciate. They enjoy the ranch’s relaxed atmosphere as much as the youngsters.

In mid-summer of 2021, the ranch is planning a sort of rodeo recital. It will feature trick riding by Caroline and Adleigh and roping by Emma and Rachel. According to Rita, “They’re just amazing young horsewomen!”

Rita loves the ranch, the girls, and all of those animals. “I get to ride every day,” Rita says with a smile while looking around at a yard full of kids and critters. “I hope I get to do all of this forever.”

Reasons Rescue Ranch is a nonprofit organization with 501 (c) 3 status. For lessons, parties, or trail rides, contact Rita Reasons by phone at 417-838-3647 or e-mail [email protected].

Photos bt Ron Mcginnis