BEFORE Red Horse Mountain Ranch: “I’m not riding a horse” declared our daughter, Quinn, age 11. “How long do we have to stay here?” complained our son, Declan, age 13.
AFTER Red Horse Mountain Ranch: “How can I take Tonto back home with me?” cried Quinn, who rode him every day. “When can we come back here?” pleaded Declan.
In May 2017, my social worker encouraged us to contact the Jack & Jill Advanced Cancer Foundation, and instead of the typical 3-day trip, our contact, Kerry, encouraged us to consider a weeklong getaway to a dude ranch. Our family had never been to a ranch before, and we had no designs to do so, especially one all the way across the country. We were honestly a little skeptical about the delightful details Kerry described about this special vacation. We basically agreed to visit Red Horse Mountain Ranch because a) the dates worked for us; b) we knew at the very least it would create unique memories we could never experience on our own; and c)
we didn't want to look a gift (and literal) horse in the mouth.
Kerry cheerfully arranged all of our travel plans, lodging, and transportation, and she quickly, and patiently, responded to all of our questions and concerns leading up to the trip. Our entire trek went smoothly, thanks to her.
Declan and Quinn thrived in their independence all week. Our lodging was two adjoining rooms, and they were ecstatic to have an entire space just for them (we were, too!). Mere steps from the main lodge, they could come and go to meals, snacks, the shop, and the library, as well as determine their choice of activities for each day. Red Horse is distinct from other resorts in its class in that it offers many activities beyond the horses: crafts, hiking, shooting, yoga, meditation, ziplining, swimming, and more. We were surprised by how quickly and comfortably our children connected with the staff, as well as their willingness to try something new. Quinn especially enjoyed the horse-related workshops; and Declan got hooked on mountain biking, getting up at an unusually early hour to go on a ride with the instructor before breakfast. One highlight was riding the Jetovator, a thrilling aerial ride propelled by a JetSki at nearby Lake Coeur d’Alene. With evening entertainment such as campfire s’mores, storytelling, lasso lessons, cowboy poetry, and music, as well as a free lending library with books and videos, no one even missed the lack of Internet.
The staff’s exceptional attentiveness extended to the delicious meals. Our son’s vegetarian, and my gluten-free, diets were taken seriously, including daily consults with the chefs about the menu. The food was fresh, plentiful, and entirely made from scratch. I could taste their joy, love, and pride on every plate.
So, what was it about this trip that feels so profound for our family? Transformation.
Our family dwells in uncertainty.
After leading an active life without any health issues, I was diagnosed out of the blue with Stage IV metastatic breast cancer in July 2015 at age 45. Our family instantly found itself in a tailspin of constant appointments, limitless questions, ongoing treatments, and an awareness of my anticipated untimely demise. My energy unpredictably fluctuates daily between going out dancing to sleeping the day away on the couch. My brain tumors prevent me from driving, so we rely on friends, taxis, and Uber to get around when Mike’s at work. After years of homeschooling, the kids now attend an alternative private school for the first time in their lives. This ongoing unsettledness can foster fears, concerns, doubts, and anxiety. Spending a week together at a dude ranch in Idaho brought up similar feelings for our family. We were apprehensive about this unknown entity and had no idea what to expect. We were nervous about traveling so far, being stranded for days in unfamiliar territory without knowing another soul. For us, Red Horse Mountain Ranch was a tangible transformation for our family from trepidation to trust. How uncertainty does not have to define us or shut us down. That it’s not the end of our story. The unknown can be OK, safe, interesting, educational, and even fun! We can keep creating new connections and cultivating new relationships, like we did with fellow guests and the Red Horse staff. Navigating new surroundings meant digging deeply for new approaches to overcome challenges, like Quinn mounting and riding a horse, or Declan biking rigorous terrain. Stripped of the comforts of home, we relied on ourselves and each other, revealing how strong we can be as a family: Together, we can endure anything.
My own personal Red Horse Mountain Ranch story can be summed up in one word: Calvin.
Each guest is assigned a horse for the week, and Calvin was mine. I was determined to “get” horses by the end of our stay because they seem so mysterious to me. But despite my great efforts, I still find them impossible to read. Frustrated, I tearfully asked the staff about Calvin’s background, his personality, and lamented about trying to win him over. They were very encouraging as I groomed him and offered him daily snacks of apples and carrots. But I just couldn’t crack horse code: YOUR FACE ALWAYS LOOKS THE SAME. One afternoon at a riding lesson, I signaled for him to move forward. He didn’t budge. I tried again and squeezed my heels harder, but still no movement. An intense wave of hot rage seared through me. This extreme reaction was familiar, a fury I have known from only one other relationship in my life. Despite years of therapy, meditation, and anger management, that moment of fierceness I felt on Calvin offered a clarity I had never truly realized before: this is my anger. Mine. No one else causes it, and no one else controls it. My blame game was over. Talk about good horse sense! Calvin was the catalyst that changed my life. He transformed my most toxic trigger into truth. On our last day, one of the wranglers presented me with a braid made from a clipping of Calvin's tail. I was overcome with all the emotion of my journey with him. That braid hangs near my bed, and I'm reminded of the transformation every time I see it.
We are so grateful to Kerry, everyone at the Red Horse Mountain Ranch, and the entire Jack and Jill Advanced Cancer Foundation for this incredible experience for our family,
With great appreciation, Erica, Mike, Declan, and Quinn Chase-Salerno
New Paltz, New York