A long ride beyond grief
Revelation, Boy, Daisy Mae, Jacob, Freedom, Lily, Eddie, Rufus, Little Dude, Gideon, Ladybug, Willow, Sage, Delilah, Moses, Luca. “And last but not least, the dwarf miniature horse, Paul.”
Rebecca Christians can rattle off the names of the 17 horses, miniature horses and donkeys that have found homes at
Autumn’s ReRide Youth Ranch — where she has been the proprietor since she founded it in 2009 — faster than you can say “Cracker Jack.” On a recent tour of the approximately seven-acre property near Bentonville, she’s equally adept at giving a visitor a peek into each animal’s personality and the long twisty road each took to end up under Christians’ care.
For example: Daisy Mae and Jacob, paired up together in a pasture, are two of the ranch’s lame horses, slow to escape even though the wire enclosing the pasture they’re in has recently been trampled by a herd of deer that runs through Christians’ acreage periodically.
“He’s had an injury to his shoulder, he’s an old roping horse,” says Christians. “And Daisy Mae, at one of her previous homes, she got her back leg caught up in some wire, and it severed some tendons.”
Boy is her escape artist, always quick to take advantage of a downed fence. Revelation, with a hide like velvet and long, graceful legs, is a rescued racehorse from Kentucky.
“He’s actually too much horse for this ranch,” says Christians. “He’s super, super hot. Real go, go, go. Racehorses are high-strung, they’re bred for that. He came to us because they were going to put him down; he had fractured a knee. He can run like the wind, too. That’s a thoroughbred for you. He’s a mess, but he’s got a heart. He’s so sweet, so sweet.”
Lily has no physical imperfections: She’s snowy white and more glamorous than a pony has a right
“Where, for many, the grieving process is very individually oriented, Rebecca took the ugliest feelings and turned them into something beautiful. As we all do, she, too has rough days — and no, her life isn’t perfect. But she has chosen joy. She is making the conscious choice to take tragedy and fight to make sure that healing and love are available to everyone she comes in contact with.” — Emily Corey
to be. But she has an outsized attitude, says Christians. “She’s a pony through and through. When you’re late to feed her, she corkscrews her head and flips her mane like she’s Fabio.
“But I love riding her because she’s so fun.”
It’s evident that Christians loves every animal that is lucky enough to have found a home under her roof, from the horses to the flock of some 30 chickens, to the two sheep that keep Paul company in his stall. Most of the animals have a physical defect that would have made them undesirable at other farms or ranches, but Christians loves them all the more because of their flaws. Physical disabilities are an important teaching tool for the kids who come to Christians’ ranch, and, besides, Christians believes in second chances.
“The ranch provides a safe and peaceful environment where broken children, horses and families can find hope and peace within the healing glow of unconditional love freeing them from their troubles and sadness. As the children work diligently, caring for these struggling horses to help them get better, the children get better,” reads the mission statement on the ranch’s website.
“We teach the kiddos a work ethic, servanthood, and we make sure they know they are a huge help in caring for the horses and the ranch,” Christians explains. “Sometimes, they even help with a wound treatment with a horse — medication, things like that.”
All services offered at the ranch are free, making it accessible for all families seeking its services.
“My son, Alex, has autism and, therefore, has multiple challenges,” says Lori DeLuca, whose three children attend sessions at the ranch and who has helped Christians with her fundraising efforts. “The ranch has brought him so much joy. He cares about the animals as if they were members of his own family. Eddie, one of the donkeys, will not allow anyone to ride him or even to get too close. Yet, he trusts Alex so much. The bond is not only beautiful to witness but also has given Alex so much confidence and purpose. For my son, that is priceless.”
THE ‘WRECKAGE’ OF SUICIDE
Today, Christians is sunny and sure-footed, full of energy but still somehow radiating a peaceful calm. It’s only when she recounts the story of the ranch’s origins that it becomes evident that it and its beautiful, damaged animals have rescued Christians as much as it has any of the children she has served over the years.
“The wreckage that’s left behind from someone’s suicide is insurmountable,” she says quietly. Christians’ daughter, Autumn, took her own life in 2002. “The wreckage that causes someone to make that choice is even worse.”
At the time of Autumn’s death, Christians was a mother of three — Autumn,
her older sister, Ashley, and younger brother, Scott. She had spent long years as a single parent, struggling to support her family, in between two marriages. The product of what she calls a “dysfunctional” family, she thinks the turmoil in her early years probably had a lot to do with her choices later on.
“I think my [initial] choices in a spouse were not that great, and I think that was reflected in what I thought of myself. All of those hardships, they shape you. I remember, as an adult, getting evicted. I wouldn’t be able to pay my rent, I made too much money for food stamps, but I couldn’t afford child care … all the stuff that single moms struggle with.
“As much as I would try not to, I spent more time working than I did with my kids. If I were to regret anything in my life, it would be that, but I really didn’t have a choice. I couldn’t find a choice. I was capable of working, so I wanted to do that. I wanted my kids to know that you can get somewhere when you work hard. I think I showed them that.”
When Autumn started struggling emotionally, Christians says she wasn’t equipped to realize that it was something more than the usual growing pains with which teenagers usually struggle. Clues to how serious the situation was were evident only in retrospect.
“I was an ignorant parent,” she says. “I wasn’t a stupid parent, I was ignorant. When our kids spend most of their daylight time at school, a parent just doesn’t see stuff. I didn’t know how to find information to help. I tried to get Autumn into Vista [Health Services], but they were full. There was nowhere else to go that I knew about, and I thought I had things in place. I thought that she was seeing the counselor at school. I thought we were being really proactive, and I wasn’t, apparently.
“I can’t own all of that, but I can own some of it, because, in retrospect, there were things that I didn’t see that I didn’t clock — things that only made sense afterwards.”
One of those things came to light in an argument she and Autumn had
shortly before she died.
“I’ll never forget it,” Christians says. “She was sitting on the floor of the bathroom, and I was standing up with my arms crossed, and we’re going back and forth about — I don’t even know — and she looked at me and said, ‘Do you know that I’m bi[sexual], Mom?’ and I looked at her and said, ‘Are you stupid?’ Because in the heat of the moment, what’s the best way to really get your Christian mom’s goat? I had no idea that she was trying to tell me something or get my attention.
“I went and apologized to her later, but that never came up again, and I had no idea. I truly had no idea.”
Unsurprisingly, Christians descended into a deep depression in the aftermath of Autumn’s death.
“I just stopped being a parent,” confesses Christians. “I wasn’t able to. I ended up with anxiety and PTSD, and your brain just goes into block mode.”
Christians’ depression eventually got so severe that, around six months after Autumn’s death, family members urged her to admit herself to a facility to get help.
“I was in a bad place,” she remembers. “I wouldn’t leave the house. My son stole my truck one time just to go get some food from the grocery store because I couldn’t leave the house. I was not OK.”
Once out of the treatment facility and on medication, Christians struggled to deal with the challenges of everyday life. Her second marriage had ended when her husband moved out of their house the day she entered treatment, but she was determined to pull her life together for her children’s sake.
The turning point was when she connected with her future husband Steve Christians, the parent of one of Ashley’s good friends.
“I was not doing well, but I had managed to go to Harps in Bella Vista one day,” she remembers. “And, oh my gosh, the medication I was taking … I was overweight, seriously overweight, I hadn’t showered in I can’t remember how many days, I was in dirty sweats, I looked terrible. I saw him and I was like,
‘Ugh, I don’t want to talk to this man, I don’t want to talk to anyone I know,’ and I went to any other register than the one he was at. He saw me and went to the register I was at and stood at the end of it and waited for me. He started talking to me then went to give me a hug, and I just fell into him.”
A HUSBAND AND A HORSE
The pair had been seeing each other for seven months when Steve proposed at Whitaker Point; the couple married a week later. Christians cites this as one of the first steps she took toward stronger mental health, and she would spend the next few years navigating the difficult path back to emotional well-being.
“I was struggling to keep a job,” she recalls. “I had a terrible time keeping a job because of my anxiety. There are still days when I can’t leave my house. I have a service dog, now, but there are still days that I just can’t face it. And back then, they were getting more and more frequent, and I was in tears all the time, trying to go to my job. I was trying to be productive. I wanted to give back.”
By this time, Steve had bought Christians her first horse — an Arabian mare named Sissy. She had long been a horse enthusiast, but she had never owned one of her own. She was smitten. At the time, she was working as a special education paraprofessional in an autism classroom and frequently took the students to the local, nonprofit, therapeutic riding center, Horses for Healing. She could see that the kids were as enthusiastic about — and as emotionally invested in — the horses as she was. A kernel of an idea was beginning to form inside her brain, but it wasn’t until a friend loaned her an informational CD that Autumn’s ReRide Youth Ranch was born.
“A lady from my church had given me an interview with Kim Meeder from Crystal Peaks Youth Ranch in Bend, Ore.,” she remembers. “I sat down one day to listen to it before I had to return the CD that coming Sunday. Remember, I had been praying so hard for God to give me a direction [for] what I was supposed to be doing to turn Autumn’s passing into a positive to help others that were struggling.
“Well, within five minutes of listening to this interview with Kim, I knew beyond a doubt what I was being called to do.”
Christians created Autumn’s ReRide Youth Ranch on the property where she and Steve lived, which butted up against seven acres available for lease. She started with Sissy and then slowly began acquiring more horses: some rescued, some donated and some purchased.
Christians has had a lot of community support — Bentonville Church of the Nazarene, for example, has donated much time and labor to her organization — but she lists her husband Steve as her biggest supporter.
“He is the best partner I could ask for to do this with,” Christians says. “This was not his idea, and, in fact, he will tell you this was not what he had planned when he bought this place. But if it wasn’t for Steve, the buildings wouldn’t be like they are, the maintenance wouldn’t be done. He does all the stuff that you don’t see, that’s in the background.”
Christians is the primary leader of sessions with the kids that come to the ranch, though she takes on ranch hands and apprentices to help out. She says that all children are welcome: She believes that the healing powers of the animals on the ranch can benefit just about anyone.
“It’s literally all inclusive, because, I tell you what, if you’re a kid in 2017, you’re not going to get out of [this life] unscathed,” she says.
“I have six children who all participate in ranch sessions,” says Jeanette Wright. “Our teen son also spent the summer volunteering at the ranch. On the ride to our first session, he decided he would not like the ranch and would likely not return — but during the session, he made an instant connection with one of the horses and begged to be a volunteer and spent most of his summer serving alongside Rebecca. She really allowed him to take some ownership and leadership and gave him a huge confidence boost. We saw him grow so much in his maturity in just the few months he served with Rebecca.”
Emily Corey, now a college student at Saint Louis University, met Rebecca when she did a day of service at the ranch when she was as sophomore. She had no idea that Christians would turn out to be a primary support system for her during the next two years. Corey’s family was in the process of taking in foster children, and it was a difficult transition for the high school student.
“ARRYR became a place of refuge for me, like it had been for so many others,” Corey says. “[As] someone who met her when I was struggling to handle each morning I woke up, I can genuinely say that Rebecca has impacted my value in life and has been there to listen to me cry both through texts and in person. Before I left for college, she wrote a little note, and on the front of the envelope it said, ‘You are loved.’ I have kept that envelope (and note) since, and on days when the last thing I feel is loved, I look at it and remember all the ways the ranch and ranch community have blessed me.”
Funding for the ranch is difficult to come by. Appropriate grants for what Christians is doing are few and far between, and, as she notes, there is stiff competition for dollars. There have been times, she says, when the ranch’s bank account has been nearly empty, but something always seems to come through at the last minute. Through it all, Christians is determined to persevere. She believes she needs to fulfill her purpose, which is sharing what she’s learned from Autumn’s death. In addition to running the ranch, she makes herself available to any schools or youth programs that want her to come and talk to parents or students about suicide.
“My intention was to help others and to be a blessing to others, and it’s so much the other way around,” Christians says, her voice breaking. “I am so well-loved by all of these folks that I can’t even describe it. I don’t take that for granted, ever. They help me more than I can ever do for them.”
When asked if she could express the most meaningful lesson she learned from her daughter’s death, she pauses for a long moment.
“Press in to every minute that you can with your kids,” she says quietly. “Pay attention to the little things that they say. You never know when you need to be really paying attention to that. Love them where they’re at, no matter what.
“And choose joy. Always.”
“Rebecca is patient and understanding. She’s worked with autistic kids in the past. … She understands them and knows how they ‘tick’. Not much interests my daughter. However, she absolutely loves the horses. It excites her to go to the ranch. It’s calming to her to ride. It’s helped her physically and mentally. Plus she loves being around the other kids.” — Jennifer Lundeen