Although the Imus Ranch serves as a crash course in the cowboy way of life, often the horse riding, gardening and roping lessons serve as a backdrop to perhaps more important themes that are instilled in the 10 children attending each of the week-long summer sessions.
The children arrive with a combination of excitement and nervousness and usually leave with greater self-confidence and pride. In between the first and last days, they will experience, perhaps on a daily basis, a roller coaster of emotions—from elation at being away from their parents to a lonely longing for the comforts of home, from frustration and disappointment when things go awry, to pride from successfully tackling a new task. And whether they realize it or not, along with a new Western wardrobe, they’ll take home the importance of teamwork, dedication, responsibility and self-reliance.
In an environment of 10-second sound bites and 24-hour news cycles, Don and Deirdre Imus have created a program that will have a lasting effect on the children who enter the ranch gates. By immersing the city slickers in the Western lifestyle, which is often a foreign concept to children raised in different regions of the country—not to mention world—the children find newfound strength from within themselves.
As Don notes, numerous books have been written about the relationship between man and horse, so it’s not surprising that horses play a large role in developing confidence and self-esteem.
The second day at the ranch, each child is assigned a horse for the week and becomes responsible for feeding it twice a day. “You put a kid and a horse together and it’s magic,” says Deirdre. “When you are on a horse, horses don’t lie; they make you see your true self. How they act when you are on their back shows how you really are. Kids see it as an amazing obstacle just because of the fear factor.”
Each day, the children must muck the stalls and groom the horses before placing the saddle and bridle on the animals. They must quickly learn to do all of the riding preparation themselves without instruction from the ranch cowboys. They are required to lead their horses into a ring and warm up the horses, using a whip and a loud yell to change the horses’ directions, before embarking on a long ride. At week’s end, they are quizzed on the major parts of a horse.
“I was scared, especially when I got bucked off,” says Kelly, 15, from Destin, Fla., who had never ridden a horse before. “They just talked me into getting back on it. It made me feel stronger when I knew that I got back on it.”
Says Amanda, 15, from Ft. Walton Beach, Fla., “Being here taught me that I could do a lot more than I thought I could do. I never thought I could get on a horse. I have a lot more confidence than I thought I had.
“It will probably change my confidence and I’ll have more of an open mind about stuff that I think I was close-minded before,” Amanda says. “Like I was iffy about coming here, but my parents said, ‘Just be open minded. It’s a different experience and try new things.’ I might not be so closed-minded about stuff like that again.”
The importance of teamwork was underscored during a feeding session in which two of the teens accidentally left the gate open to a fence holding in three miniature horses. Sensing imminent freedom, the horses bolted, leaving the two with stricken looks on their faces. Deirdre quickly put the truck in reverse and tried to chase them, but she had no successful, so she returned and enlisted the help of her son and a ranch hand, who were able to grasp the horses’ manes and hang on.
The group’s first reaction was to blame the boys: “Why did you do that? You know you aren’t supposed to open the gate.” But then they quickly realized that their negative comments weren’t helping the situation; they were only making their already devastated friends feel worse. And indeed, the entire group was affected by the actions of two of its members. The stopped complaining and began cheering on the efforts of the horse capturers. Once the horses were once again inside the fence, everyone returned to the kitchen, where one of the boys apologized. “That’s all right,” Deirdre consoles him. “They’ve gotten out before. The sheep have also gotten out because kids left the gate open.”
The Imuses often see signs of improvement in the children’s attitudes after only a few days. Early in the week, the Imuses were forced to deal with one teenage boy who refused to complete his assigned chores. They went as far as to threaten to send him home if his attitude didn’t improve. Apparently the “tough love” worked. “He came up to me and said, ‘I think I made up for my bad attitude when I was first here. I weeded and planted more than any kid in my group. I really feel proud of myself,’” Deirdre says.
When they disciplined another teen for mouthing off, what he told them brought tears to their eyes. “He said, “I’m so stupid that I’ll never be able to do anything but say, ‘Do you want fries with that?’” says Deirdre, noting that he probably wouldn’t have known that phrase unless an adult had told him that in a conversation. Don and Deirdre talked to the boy separately, encouraging him to believe that he could do whatever he wanted in life. “The next morning, it was like he was a different person,” she says. “His attitude had totally changed.”
Ranch landscaper Tracy Hamilton says the work ethic becomes contagious among the children as they plant thyme plants to eventually create a lavender lawn in Daevin’s Park, which is dedicated to the memory of ranch participant Daevin Kirschner, who died at age 16 in 2002. “We have 4,000 four-inch thyme plants,” she says. “The kids are helping me make it a reality. We have some real go-getters who will do 150 or 200 a day. It gets competitive. It’s like, ‘How many can I do today? I don’t want to stop for a break because I might lose my momentum.’”
For instance, Louis, 17, from Gulf Breeze, Fla., placed 93 plants in the ground in about three hours. “Everybody else didn’t plant that great, so they are pulling weeds right now,” he says. “Since they didn’t want to try hard here, they had to go try harder work. I don’t mind it; it’s not that bad. Like Miss Tracy said, it teaches us responsibility.”
Louis was inspired to be part of a permanent tribute to a fellow teen who lost his fight to cancer. “I want to plant them all before I leave,” he says. “Miss Tracy says she can send us pictures when it’s done in a year or two. It will look really neat and it will be an accomplishment.”
After the children return home, many of their parents report that the ranch’s influences are lasting and welcome. “The cards and letters we receive from the parents are unbelievable,” says Samantha Imus, a child life specialist. “Some of them continue to be vegetarians. They will call up and say, ‘My kid is different and thank you.’ What do they mean by that? They mean some of the kids won’t be lazy anymore. They’ll go home and show their parents, ‘I can do whatever I did before and I can do whatever anybody else in the world can do.’ Parents say their kids are a lot more independent now; a kid who was shy is now a lot more outgoing at home. They come out of their shells big time. The transformation is unbelievable.”