For the Love of Horses: Life Lessons from the Ranch by Donna Kelly

For the Love of Horses: Life Lessons from the Ranch
By Donna Kelly

At the junction of Highway 60 and Rifle Range Road, a long narrow dirt road slices through pastureland and leads to Rockin’ W Ranch, an oasis bordered by moss laden oak trees where owner Kathy Grinstead and her menagerie impart life lessons while teaching riding skills.

In addition to Grinstead, the 12-acre ranch is home to eight horses, three miniature horses, two donkeys, as well as a pair each of dogs, cats, and birds.

Miracles take place here as students of all ages learn the basics of caring for, riding, and showing horses. Stressed businessmen leave work at the office and relax while grooming horses or mucking out a stall. Autistic children find an outlet for frustration and new methods of communication. Teachers decompress after a week or year in the classroom. Children and teenagers learn to accept responsibility, to show respect, to develop confidence and self reliance. An 80-year-old man stays young by exercising his brain, limbs, and heart. Mothers and fathers spend family time with their children.

“We care about (students) as much as we care about our horses and because of that we try to keep them safe and educate them not only about riding but also about horse care and ownership,” says Grinstead.

A Life-long Love 

“I was crazy about horses from the time I knew what one was,” says Grinstead, 66, who grew up on a hill farm in West Virginia. “We moved to the farm when I was 9 and we got a pony shortly afterwards.”

The industrious youngster worked hard – selling eggs, cleaning chicken houses, cutting weeds, raising pigs – to earn money to buy her own horse. She purchased Lucki Ladi when she was 13.

“I still have one of her grandsons, a great-great granddaughter, and a great-great-great grandson,” she says. “I hope she’ll always be with me one way or another.”

As Grinstead grew up, she also developed a passion for music and a desire to pass it on to children. She graduated from Marshall University in Huntington, WV with a master’s degree in music education and later added a certification for gifted education from the University of South Florida.

“I was fortunate enough to get to share my passion for music with young people and to help them develop their musical talents and abilities,” she says. “Several exceptional students went on to major in music and are now teaching the next generation. What an honor to have passed on the baton!”

After a 30-year teaching career, Grinstead retired from Lake Region High School in 2012.

But she isn’t done teaching.

“When you teach for 30 years, it becomes part of who you are and what you do,” she says. “I’m still teaching – the subject just changed.”

A Teacher at Heart

Grinstead purchased the ranch in 1986 and began offering riding lessons in 1992. She taught both music in public school and horseback riding at the ranch from 1992 until 2012.

“It’s only been since I retired from public school teaching that I have only been teaching horseback riding,” she explains.

The Rockin’ W offers riding lessons, leases, boarding, pony parties, trail rides, activity days, gymkhanas – games on horseback – and a newly formed 4-H Club led by Winter Haven resident Beth Kingham.

Grinstead says working with horses teaches valuable lessons for all members of the family.

Children and teenagers will develop the following positive character traits like responsibility, patience, discipline, empathy, compassion, self control, and dedication Problem solving and quick decision making skills, as well as confidence, self-esteem, and socialization skills are develeped. And the tools for handling competition, a possible future career, and of course opportunities to have fun are gained in addition.

“For adults, horseback riding is considered a moderate intensity exercise; it develops core strength, balance, coordination, better posture, muscle tone, and flexibility. A great change from going to the gym,” says Grinstead. “Add to that relaxation, getting out in nature, stress relief, the companionship and partnership of working with a horse and other people who also enjoy the sport, and do I dare say it again, having fun.”

Kissimmee-based equine instructor Elly Sager met Grinstead 15 years ago through a mutual student. She’s been teaching part-time at the ranch ever since.

“She has the best program I’ve ever seen and I’m not easily impressed,” says Sager, who has taught riding at a private school in New Jersey and several other stables. “I love working with her kids because they have all of the basic knowledge.”

Sager describes Grinstead as consistent, honest, and knowledgeable. Grinstead offers, says Sager, a very organized, progressive program that easily moves students from Point A to Point B, including horsemanship, care of horses, barn management, different disciplines, grooming.

“I’ve worked with students who graduated from horse colleges who didn’t know as much as Kathy’s students,” says Sager, who teaches dressage and advanced jumping at the Rockin’ W Ranch.

Kingham’s family became a part of the Rockin’ W family when her daughter Ellie, now 13, began riding horses four years ago.

“It’s a place where people can light their spark in life,” says Kingham. “Ellie had tried dance, soccer and swimming, but this one (horseback riding) took.”

Now the entire family is riding at the ranch – Ellie, her two brothers, and their parents.

“It’s a place our family can do something across the age span,” says Beth Kingham. “We’re all learning something new and it’s hard. You’re not only managing yourself, but the 1,200 pound horse beneath you.”

Kingham says trips to the ranch have spurred other family activities. Riding and bathing the horses led to sitting down and watching the Olympic Games together.

“It’s building family relationships,” she says.

Mike and Beth Kingham homeschool their children and built their curriculum around barn activities.

“We start the day dirty and sweating at the barn with these beautiful animals. It’s a beautiful, natural learning experience,” Beth Kingham says. “Everything with Kathy is a learning experience.”

If it’s too rainy to ride, Grinstead improvises.

“Sometimes we show up and it rained over night and it’s not appropriate for riding, so she takes the kids into the living room and they cut out pictures of animals – talk about breeds, coats, and make a chart,” says Kingham.

Kingham says her family is learning about equine science, showmanship, and barn management.

“There’s so much more to it than showing up for lessons. It teaches them the whole gamut of what it means to be responsible for animals,” she says.

Part of Grinstead’s strength is her ability to work with people of different ages and skill sets.

“My 15-year old has Down syndrome. He goes horseback riding once a week. Kathy can shift gears from one type of rider to another,” Kingham says. “To go from my daughter and son who are better riders than I am to my second son, Jackson, she just knows the power of being around a horse. She’s so eager for everyone to try it.”

Kingham sees a correlation between her children’s experiences at the barn and their developing self-reliance and self-confidence. She attributes this growth in part to Grinstead’s high expectations and instructions to keep working at a task even when it becomes difficult.

“Kathy is the type of person you want to mentor your children,” she says.

Grinstead’s mentoring and the experiences provided at the ranch set Erica Curtis on her career path. The 19-year-old is majoring in equine business management at St. Andrew’s University in Laurinburg, N.C.

Curtis was a high school sophomore when she met Grinstead at a 4-H Show. After discussing a horse project with Grinstead, the teenager began taking lessons at the Rockin’ W Ranch.

The experience, says Curtis, not only taught her horsemanship, but life skills, too.

“Training horses requires a lot of patience. They’re sort of like toddlers – they’re all silly and they all have their little quirks – so it teaches you to be patient when training them. It can help when you have kids one day,” she says. “When training horses you have to teach them to trust you and to respect you and that you’re the one in charge, so it can also give you leadership skills.”

Curtis still relies on Grinstead for advice.

“She’s a very dedicated trainer. I can call her up at any time of the day or night if I’m wondering about anything or trying to figure it out,” says Curtis. “She will get back to me right away. She’s very good at what she does – helping you understand things.”

The 4-H Connection: A Family Tradition

“I am a 4-H All Star and my mother was a 4-H leader for most of her life, so I am a major advocate of 4-H and its many benefits for young people,” Grinstead says.

Although she has been involved with the 4-H horse program in Polk County for over two decades, this will be the first time a club has operated out of the Rockin’ W Barn.

According to Kingham, whose three teenage children began riding at the Rockin’ W about four years ago, the 4-H experience is designed to be a family endeavor.

“4-H likes to incorporate the entire family. It strengthens relationships,” she says.

Although Kingham expects the club will consist of a number of Grinstead’s students, any children between 8 and 18 are welcome. Activities will include one official club meeting per month as well as a second monthly club activity.

“Kathy prepares students for the local 4-H shows. I love the spirit around our trailer. There’s such a sense of camaraderie,” says Kingham.

The spirit begins at the barn.

“There’s no competitiveness between people at the barn. They’re all cheering us on. There’s no drama, no divas at the barn,” says Kingham.

Grinstead has two guiding philosophies in life.

“Share your passion by teaching others about it. That’s what our junior instructor and summer camp program is all about,” she says.

And then there’s her barn motto: Saddle your own horse.

“Take charge of your life. Make it happen yourself. Don’t wait for others to do it for you,” she says.

She lives it, too.

For more information about programs at the Rockin’ W Ranch, contact Grinstead at