The Tallapoosa County Girls Ranch in Camp Hill recently launched a horseback riding program, which caught the eye of Tom Seay, host of Best of America by Horseback. Seay visited the ranch in June and was so impressed with the organization’s residential program for neglected and abused girls that he returned in November to film a Best of America Benefit Ride to lend additional exposure and support.

On the weekend of Nov. 8-10, more then 35 riders from around the country participated in this inaugural event. Many camped on the ranch grounds and participated in an obstacle course clinic by Ed Dabney; chatted with Dr. Rebecca Legere about horse care; learned about handmade horseshoe forging; took part in a beginner roping clinic and were treated to open trail rides. 

Registration was $125 per rider, which included the primitive camping, dinner on two nights, a barn dance and participation in the clinics and rides. One hundred percent of registration proceeds benefited the Girls Ranch.

“This event was a huge success because of the support we received from our volunteers and community businesses,” said Candice Gulley, Girls Ranch director.

Seay travels the country showcasing trail riding locations, and his wife, Pat Seay, produces the TV show, Best of America by Horseback. The show is aired on RFD-TV and also can be viewed at bestofamericabyhorseback.com.

Eddie Adams, who has been riding for more than 60 years and volunteering with the Girls Ranch for about 30, began cutting and clearing woods on the several thousands of available acres in September in preparation for the benefit ride. With the help of dozens of volunteers, the ranch now has about 15 miles of trails, including a few creek crossings.

“We wanted to create an opportunity for families to have good fun and raise money for a good cause. It’s a win-win,” said Adams.

Alexander City resident Tubby Hand participated in the benefit ride but previously was not aware of the Girls Ranch or its mission.

“I’ve been riding for about 25 years and heard about this ride and location in The Outlook,” said Hand. “I figured I’d come down and check it out. They have some great trails. I hope it turns into something they do annually.”

Four of the girls that live on the ranch have been practicing horseback riding basics since the program’s inception about 10 months ago. During the benefit ride, they were able to demonstrate their drill skills by horseback in an opening ceremony alongside Southern Cross Drill Team, the Auburn High School Band and guest speaker Todd Rauch.

“During the benefit ride, several participants made very generous donations of tack, saddles, clothing, food and monetary support for the Girls Ranch horse program,” said Gulley.

Sheriff Sid and Sharon Lockhart catered Saturday night dinner with entertainment from Tina Marie’s group singers. An agricultural science class from Reeltown High School built the obstacle course for Dabney’s clinic using lumber donated by Alabama Georgia Wood Preserving Company.

“We are also thankful for the support from the Tallapoosa Sheriff’s Department, EMA and the emergency response team. We had volunteer medics on site throughout the entire weekend, ensuring the safety of our participants,” said Gulley.

The horse program at the Girls Ranch was initiated when the girls living there visited Stratford Equestrian in Waverly.

“The hype all started when the girls came out to the farm for a clinic,” said Holly Brown, manager of Stratford Equestrian. “They’ve been doing the basics for almost a year and now can execute what they’ve learned. We’ll just keep trucking forward, and I’m happy to help out as I can.”

The benefits of implementing a program that teaches horse care, training and riding on the working farm are extraordinary.

 “Riding builds confidence and helps with anxiety and depression. It gives the girls something to work toward and see the results of that work,” said Brown. “The program is huge. Anytime you have animals involved, it’s great therapy just to be around them and feel pride and encouragement. It’s massive for these kids.”

The Girls Ranch horse program started out with girls taking their lessons at Stratford. Now, the Girls Ranch has four horses. Gulley said they are working on expanding and seeding the horse pasture to accommodate a few more. Double D Animal Rescue has donated feed for the horses over the last year.

Brown works with the girls weekly and exposes them to different techniques, including English, Western and drill.

“They’ve got great personalities, and they are excited and want to learn,” said Brown.

Walker Lands and Cattle recently donated a new stock trailer. Volunteers with Dixie Plumbing and Electric installed 1,200 feet of plumbing to get fresh water in each of the horse paddocks and the horse barn. Russell Building Supply donated the plumbing supplies and hydrants needed. The girls had previously been hauling gallons of water up to the barn each day.

Some of the younger girls are now interested in the horse program as well, Brown said, and they would start out at Stratford in a more controlled training environment. The ultimate goal would be to have the experienced girls train the next group of riders.

“We have girls who have worked diligently, learning the basics of horsemanship, participating in trail rides and learning flag drills. All of this excitement from the benefit ride weekend sparked an interest in some of our other children to become more involved with the horses,” said Gulley. 

The Tallapoosa County Sheriff’s Girls Ranch opened in 1973 and shelters abused, neglected or abandoned school-aged girls in houses with married couples. They learn responsibilities of life on the 200-acre working ranch in home atmospheres. The families go to church together, eat meals together and learn what it’s like to be loved in a healthy environment.

Former Girls Ranch Director Jimmy Harmon said, “We receive about $60 per month per child, so we have to farm, sell cattle and do these other things to put food on the table.”

Teya Wallace, a prior rancher, is now a spokesperson for the Tallapoosa County Girls Ranch and shares her story with others to spread awareness. Wallace was unwanted by her father and stepmother and found a loving home with her house parents at the ranch.

“It was an instant relief when I got there. The weight came off my shoulders, and I was happy to be there. I knew I was safe and people loved me,” said Wallace.

Wallace now is attending Auburn University and studying communications.

“I think this horse program is beneficial for the girls. It’s going to provide a more positive outlook for them. Horses create an opportunity to become better friends, closer as sisters and show that the bond they have will be something that sticks with them for the rest of their lives,” said Wallace.

Cindy Saylor started volunteering at the ranch a few months ago after a couple she knew became house parents. She’s taught the girls how to make wreaths, which they sell to raise money for the ranch, and assists with whatever is needed from office work to sorting donations and more.

“It’s a wonderful organization and does great things for people who need a home and a place to come and learn how to be loved,” said Saylor. “Whether it’s horseback riding or something else, these girls are restored with therapy, and they learn to attain life goals and life skills.” 

The Tallapoosa County Girls Ranch is currently looking for sponsorships for its four horses to help cover veterinary expenses. It also is looking for those interested in donating supplies, including hoof and wound care supplies, fly spray, anti-fungal spray, tack and leather cleaner, saddle pads/blankets, breast collars, back girths and straps. Donations can be mailed or delivered to 174 Samford Dr., Camphill AL 36850. 

For more information about the Tallapoosa County Girls Ranch, visit the Facebook page or at the website at sheriffsranch.org/Tallapoosa.