Aimee Palmer is a whirlwind of energy and enthusiasm. As the administrator of a nonprofit organization called A Ranch of Light, she spends her days ministering and rehabilitating people and horses.
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The ranch, which is currently located in Shingle Springs, got its start in 2005 as an outgrowth of a lifelong passion Palmer has always had for horses combined with her spiritual beliefs.
The ranch offers horsemanship training to special needs, low-income, and at risk children. Palmer, a CHA Certified Horsemanship Instructor, provides training to adults as well but her real focus is children.
The ranch is also a refuge of sorts for horses. According to Palmer, “Every horse that has graced our ranch and lives has come saddled with a ‘tale’. Some of the ‘tales’ are sweet and warm….but most of their stories are sad…abuse, neglect, mishandled and just plain broken.”
Putting the two together is what Aimee does best as horse and rider travel down the road of rehabilitation.
She just lit up
Abby Gish, 7, and her brother Bryson, 22, are examples of what time at the ranch can do for children.
Bryson, 22, has cerebral palsy and was the first special needs person to ride the horses at the ranch. “For me it allowed me more freedom to move on my own.” he said. “I gained more flexibility and balance.”
Gish rode for three years before having his hip fused. Though he can’t ride anymore, he’s happy to come out to the ranch and cheer his little sister on as she learns to ride.
Abby, who also has cerebral palsy, is originally from China. She lived with a missionary family until adopted by the Gish family who live in Shingle Springs. When first born she was left to lie on the floor of the orphanage so she never learned to walk. She also has vision problems and is still learning to chew and talk. But once she was brought out to the ranch and put on a horse, she lit up said her mother Pam Gish. Now if they want to get her to do something like cooperate with her physical therapist, all they have to do is promise to take her for a horseback ride.
Gish’s other two children — Tyler and Hayden — are also learning to ride so they can help out at the ranch as volunteers. Local neighbors come over and volunteer as well, including Penny Cochran. “Working with horses is not for everybody,” she said, “and if you can, it’s good to share that gift.”
A horse’s tale
The other side of the Ranch of Light is ministering to horses that otherwise would be abandoned.
“Fast Eddie” is a classic example of a horse that the ranch takes in. He is a 31-year-old Arabian who was at the dead-end of his career but valuable to Palmer as a riding horse because he is so gentle. Another is a 29-year-old Arabian named Tassy. They call her “grandma” and use her for the youngest riders and those who are handicapped. Fancy, another rehab project, was severely under-weight when she arrived at the ranch because her owners couldn’t afford to feed her. Once she is fully recovered Palmer will find her a permanent home.
However a horse named Bellagio seems to be the favorite possibly because he was the first real training and physical rehabilitation project that Palmer took on.
“I was a rather fearful person at first,” admitted Palmer. “To teach Bellagio I had to overcome some personal shortcomings. We are often attracted to horses who are similar to our own character. He is our little star. He went from being the most fearful horse to accomplishing so much.”
At present there are seven horses at the ranch but the number constantly changes as new horses come in and others are placed in permanent homes. “But we’re not a horse rescue facility,” Palmer said.
The motivation behind the ranch dates back to Palmer’s lifelong love of horses and her spiritual beliefs.
Born and raised in Bishop, she said that everyone in town had a horse but her because her family couldn’t afford one. But that didn’t matter. According to Palmer, her family had given birth to a child with a “horse gene.” “I ate, slept, breathed, and dreamed of being near horses. And that dream never went away.”
Finally at age 25 she decided to take up horsemanship and found herself taking lessons along with a group of little girls. Her husband insisted that she be made to clean out the stalls so she understood what owning a horse was really all about.
But once she started working with horses she found she was terrible at it.
“I would get wrapped up in the lead and I was fearful around the horses because of their size,” she said. “I couldn’t understand how I could be so bad at something I wanted so badly.”
But she kept persevering. She bought a retired thoroughbred, but that turned out to be a mistake because the horse just dragged and pushed her around. Out of frustration she researched how to establish a dominant relationship over a horse. She then put the horse in the training pen and tried all the signals she had learned. But instead of complying the horse charged her, forcing Palmer to jump out of the pen. This was followed by the horse doing “a victory dance.”
In desperation Palmer turned to prayer and learned through praying that God was trying to teach her something through her obsession with horses. She then made a deal with God. She would be open to learning about herself — good and bad — in return for learning about how to understand and work with horses.
She believes that as part of this compact God has brought her a variety of horses for training. Each horse taught her something about herself.
“You can’t do the journey with a horse unless you are willing to see your need for change,” she said. “Training and working with horses reveals flaws in your character and is part of the learning process — the journey.”
Horses reflect people, she said. “They are excellent teachers.” In any herd there is one leader that protects the herd. That horse leads through body language and the other horses mirror him. If he runs, they run. When he feels safe, they feel safe.
“Horses are extremely sensitive and reactive to people,” said Palmer. “They can read people’s emotions and mimic the emotion immediately as if holding up a mirror to one’s soul. In life we find few people who are willing to address our shortcomings with complete honesty….you can’t hide yourself from a horse. They see the real you…and they won’t lie to you about yourself.”
Palmer considers this understanding of horses an important part of her ministry because as riders learn horsemanship, they also learn about themselves.
In the spring Palmer is holding a horsemanship clinic for adults and children on learning how to think like a horse. “Understanding them is half the battle of horsemanship,” said Palmer.
Another upcoming event is a mare-foal birth program. The ranch will host a pregnant mare with the foal born on site. The class will cover horse gestation, foal care, foal birthing, and foal imprinting. She did the class in 2009 and it was very successful. She will be taking signups for the class this month.
In the summer they plan to rent a camp called Stone Cellar, which is outside Ice House. The four-day camp will be for children who have parents in jail. The camp is volunteer run and will be paid for with fund-raisers.
Then at the end of summer, a mother-daughter weekend ranch retreat is planned. Included will be riding activities and instruction, Bible study, swimming, and a demonstration of “round pen redemption.”
People can get more information about A Ranch of Light and its activities at its Website aranchoflight.com. Everything they do is paid for by donations and fundraisers. They are always in need of donations and would welcome anyone who could help them apply for grants.
Currently they also are in need of a new location because the property they are renting may be sold soon. They need a place that is large enough that they can have overnight camping for children.
“We want children to experience what ranching and horsemanship is about,” Palmer said. “Now I can do for kids as an adult what I couldn’t do for myself as a child.”