OWATONNA — Ride for the Brand has hit a growth spurt in its third year.
The program, which lets children with disabilities spend time riding and petting horses, is the brainchild of Monte and Nancy Mowry and takes place on their tiny ranch off of Highway 14. They started the idea in 2015, and this year, they say, it’s truly taken off.
“It’s really growing,” Nancy Mowry said. “Overall, we hand out certificates tonight. We’ve had 42 kids that have come over the four weeks.”
Over the four Thursdays that Ride for the Brand met in July, she said, between 29 and 32 riders attended each, compared to 20 or so last year. In fact, interest is so strong that on Thursday, which was supposed to be the last session for 2016, the Mowrys announced they are scheduling two more dates, on Sept. 14 and 21.
The attendees are mainly coming from Steele County, Nancy said, but a growing number are from further afield.
“There’s a few more from the other counties, Rice, Freeborn, the nearby counties,” she said. “They call and ask if it’s OK, and we say, we welcome everyone, so long as we have room.”
One of those parents is Carrie Melby of Northfield, who was there with her daughter Kerste, 21, born with Down syndrome, autism and celiac disease. She said she’d seen a poster about the program at a coffee shop in Owatonna.
“There isn’t any place closer to home that does riding, and I know how much she loves being on the back of a horse, so we gave it a shot,” she said.
In addition to several horses and a pony, the event included yard games, horse- and tractor-drawn wagon rides, supper, and one particularly fat and placid donkey. Melby said her daughter enjoyed all of it.
“She saw the donkey and just ran up to it, and saw the big horses and just has no fear of them,” she said. “Gentle giants, they are.”
One factor that has boosted this year’s program over last year’s is the weather. In 2016, one date was canceled due to heat and another was damp and drizzly.
“It was a little wet last year, but super weather this year,” volunteer Kay Burr said.
Nancy Mowry said the program will return with minimal changes next year, and Monte Mowry said he’s reached out to veterans’ groups and other organizations about connecting injured service members and first responders with horses. Because after starting a program based on the idea that everyone can enjoy time with horses, three years of evidence say they were correct. Nancy showed one handmade card recently received from a rider.