Alison Berntson got for her birthday two of her favorite things: a microscope and a trail ride on her favorite horse.
“I’ve always wanted a horse. They are fun,” said the 11-year-old with long brown hair and an easy smile. “They are interesting.”
And a lot of work.
There she was on a gray Sunday afternoon with her mother Ewann and little sister Jessica brushing the horses’ coats and scraping mud off their shoes. The Berntsons do not own a horse. They come to The Whole Horse Place every weekend to absorb the “horse lifestyle”.
Tina Meekins started this little horse sanctuary three years ago. It sits on a hollow off Daisy Lane in rural Port Orchard, with easy access to miles of trails run by Alpine Evergreen Properties.
A three bedroom rambler, a barn and a riding pen could be seen from the top of a dusty driveway. On any given afternoon, a handful of minivans, trucks and cars are tightly parked at the front of the property.
Rufus, the house dog, greets every visitor with a sniff and an enthusiastic wag of his tail.
Horse novices walk in nervously. Those who have been here before, run straight for the barn calling out for Darlynn, Shasta, Buddy, Cheyenne and Cookie — the resident equine associates.
“We don’t have space or the money for horses,” Berntson said, so she and her family come here.
Like the Berntsons, Tracey Olsen drives her family from Gig Harbor to the Meekins’ place to enjoy the horses.
“This was a way for me to find out how to have horses,” Olsen said. “It’s rewarding. You get a connection with the horses.
“People think you just put (the horses) out on a pasture,” Olsen said. “There’s a lot of care involved. A lot of work.”
This place is for horse lovers.
Meekins offers basic horsemanship lessons, with an emphasis on safety. It is also a place for scouts — boys and girls — to earn merit badges. Home school classes meet here too, learning the science of horses. Of course, there are the trail rides that meander by beaver ponds, thickets of young Douglas fir and meadows of fox glove blooms.
Horses have always been a part of Meekins’ life, an affinity that has rubbed off on her two children — Lesli and Jackson.
When her two children wanted a horse, she and her husband John told them they had to pay for it. So with the help of their father, the children had a yard sale.
“They sold everything,” Meekins said. “They wanted that horse so bad. All they had left was their beds, dressers and blankets.”
It did not take long before they realized they needed another horse. The second horse was advertised as a 14-year-old dressage champion. When they finally met the horse, he was more like 30 and did not have teeth.
“But he turned out to be a wonderful horse… He was the best horse we had,” Meekins said with a chuckle. “That’s how I fell in love with old horses. I tend to collect them, and then keep them.”
But keeping horses cost money. By her estimate, she uses a ton of hay every three weeks. When the economy spiraled into a recession in 2008, she and her family had a decision to make. Selling the horses seemed like the prudent solution.
“I had already sold Buddy,” she said.
The people she had sold him to were on their way to collect the 1,500-pound Percheron Quarter horse with the pretty brown coat and black mane. Then her husband John balked.
“He didn’t realize how special a horse Buddy was,” she said.
John tells her: “We’ll figure something out.”
To continue feeding the horses, they bartered horse rides for hay money. It started with the children of friends and evolved to gaggles of giggly girls scouts, teens seeking an escape, and to home schools wanting to diversify their curriculum.
The common thread was a love for horses.
A PONY NAMED ‘POKEY’
Meekins got her first horse when her “grandpa got (her) a pony when (she) was two,” she said. “I named her Pokey.”
This love of horses stuck with her through her childhood. At seven, she asked her father for a horse. He told her she had to pay for it.
“I began saving every nickel I got,” she said. “By the time I turned 15, I had saved $500.
“That is a lot of sodas,” she said, clearly proud of the achievement.
But she also knew back then it would cost more than the money she had to keep a horse. So, she bought a curry comb instead.
“Some day I would have a horse,” she said thinking at the time.
She still has the metal horse comb she bought back then, using it to brush her horses’ manes today.
“It is funny how things happen,” she said.
A PENCHANT FOR SELF RELIANCE
The fiercely independent 50-year-old grew up in a log cabin that her father built in Trapper Creek, Alaska. It was a modest one-room structure with a loft that had enough room for the cots the family slept in. It sat in a clearing ringed by cottonwood and birch trees, roughly 14 miles south of Denali National Park. Mt. Mckinley — a towering 20,237-foot peak — was a memorable landmark of her childhood.
“McKinley makes Rainier seem like a foothill,” she said. “You had to look up when looking at McKinley.”
This was her backyard.
She chalks up her penchant for self reliance to her upbringing. Her father, also named John, worked in Anchorage repairing television sets — coming home only on weekends. Their mother was seldom in the picture, leaving Meekins to tend to her three younger siblings. By her thirteenth birthday, Meekins said, her mother was gone for good.
“I raised my brother and sisters,” she said. “I ran everything (in the house). It never occurred to me to do it differently. It was normal.”
Although her memory of her childhood is frayed, she remembers playing in the tundra. Her siblings and her would put on skis, hitch up to one of their dogsled dogs, and ride around the frozen ground.
“The skis would go ‘squeak, squeak’ it was so cold,” she recalls laughing.
She eventually made her way back to the lower 48, married a tall cowboy with a knack for working with wood, had two children and settled in Western Washington.
SHARING HER LOVE OF HORSES
She now shares her love of horses and the great outdoors to a whole new generation of children. Her eyes light up when she talks about the joy her horses bring to the children.
“I ended up appealing to a whole new group of people,” she said. “These are kids who just want to ride.”
The 50-to-60 children who come each week learn more than just riding horses. What makes their experience different is that they learn to care for the horses they ride. They brush them, clean their stalls and learn to put on their saddle.
“You are not coming here to be a passenger,” she said. “The ultimate goal here is for them to feel like these are their horses.”
She even has a program for foster children. They get their lessons for free.
“Believe me, I am no saint. It gives me more than I give it,” she said of the program. “That is really something. You don’t see it until you are around it.”
In explanation, she tells a story of how she took a foster child home one day after horse lessons. They arrived at the boy’s house, where he stood at the front door unsure of whether to knock.
“At his own house,” she said incredulously.
“These kids have gone through layers and layers of rejection…that nobody wants them,” she said.
But here “the horses accept the kids,” she said, a loving lesson in belonging. “You can’t help but go: ‘This is love’.”