When Glory began her first training class at Agape Boarding School Ranch, the 3-year-old mare was wild, nervous and afraid. She didn’t trust anyone. She refused to obey.
Her 17-year-old trainer, Hunter Scarbury of Mesa, Ariz., could relate. After all, that same type of behavior is what led him to this rigid residential facility for troubled boys in Stockton, Mo.
“Back home, I was skipping school, getting in trouble, and eventually my parents kicked me out,” Scarbury said. “I lived on the streets for a while, and then they decided to send me here to straighten out my life. It was rough for the first few months because I was fighting it, but now I love this place. It’s like a second home.”
The teen attributes much of his turnaround to Agape’s agricultural program, which allows a select number of boarding school residents to work on the ranch as part of their rehabilitation process. Scarbury is living proof that horses can help heal.
“I’d never worked with horses before I came here, and it was a little scary at first,” he said. “But once you show them that you’re in control, they’ll lend you the reins. I can understand how they feel, because I’ve been out of control myself. This class has shown me how I need to act for other people and how my behavior affects everyone around me. I feel like I’ve matured quite a bit.”
Home to about 100 teenage boys, Agape Boarding School was founded in 1990 by James and Kathy Clemensen in California and relocated to Missouri in 1995. “Agape” is the Greek word for “unconditional love.” At the Christian-based school, students adhere to a military-style structure under 24-hour supervision. They continue their academic studies during their stay, which ranges from 12 months to several years.
As they advance through the program, the residents rise in rank and gain privileges to participate in extra-curricular activities such as working on the ranch. Ranch manager Riley Olson, a Wyoming native, established the equine program six years ago with 14 of his own mares, geldings and stallions. The school’s stable has grown to more than 100 registered quarter horses that were either born on the farm or donated. He and his students also manage around 150 head of beef cattle on a neighboring farm.
“It was my dream to be a cowboy and train horses for a living, but I felt like God wanted me to do something greater,” Olson said. “I decided to go to Bible college in Indiana and went back to Wyoming to work for a little church there. Then I got the call from Mr. Clemensen to start a horse program here. My wife, Kyla, and I came down to visit and felt like it was custom built for us.”
Only Agape students who show good behavior, progress in their rehabilitation and keep up with their studies are considered for the ranch’s colt class, which currently has 14 participants. Enthusiasm for working with horses is essential. Experience is not.
“You should never put a green rider with a green horse and expect anything to go right, but by the grace of God, this program works here,” Olson said. “Most of the boys here have never been around horses, but everybody in this class wants to be here. Like a lot of young men, they find a natural affinity for horses—even boys who grew up in the city. They may not know much about farm life or taking care of animals, but they make a connection with them.”
Ian McCaghren of Somerville, Ala., is among the ranch hands who had no prior equine experience. The 17-year-old said his parents sent him to Agape two and a half years ago after he started causing trouble and running with the wrong crowd. The teen began working on the ranch about four months into his boarding school stay and discovered a natural talent for training horses. He hopes to turn that talent into a career.
“If I hadn’t come here, there’s no telling where I’d be. Probably in jail or something,” McCaghren said. “Being on the ranch has allowed me to learn a trade that otherwise I wouldn’t have known. I’ve just kept growing and learning all kinds of different things I could do. I’m planning to go to horse-shoeing school when I graduate next March and then do that for a living.”
MFA Feed Specialist Chad James said he’s seen firsthand the benefit of putting these troubled youth together with horses. James has volunteered with Agape Ranch for the past several years, helping the boys learn proper training techniques and consulting with Olson and other ranch employees on nutrition and animal health. Agape relies on the local MFA affiliate, Farmers Exchange in Stockton and Bolivar, for many of its farm supplies.
“I come and help out wherever they need me, and I get a lot of enjoyment out of being able to see the boys progress,” James said. “It gives them an opportunity to see what agriculture is all about, and the guys who run the ranch still believe a handshake is meaningful and that you take your hat off to a lady. They’re teaching the boys those types of traditional values, which are being lost in the world today. What they do here really fits well with what we do at MFA. That’s the kind of company MFA is.”
The students are involved with all aspects of the farm, from feeding and veterinary work to assisting with foaling and calving. In the colt class, the boys start working with the young horses when they’re weaned at about 7 or 8 months old. They learn how to halter-break them and teach them to lead, walk over tarps and pick up their feet.
The training process begins in earnest when the horses are about 2 years old.
“We take a long time training and start really slow, teaching the boys how to be around the horses and watching their responses before we ever saddle and ride them,” Olson explained. “Then, the boys start working their horses in the round pen. Eventually, we’ll go trail riding and gather cows on horseback. Every once in a while a boy may get bucked off, but it gives him an opportunity to learn how to dust himself off and get back on.”
As the young horses learn and grow, so do the young men.
“You can’t control anything until you can control yourself,” Olson said. “That’s why most of these boys are here. They couldn’t control themselves. They got in trouble. And horses make great tools for rehabilitation. When they help a young colt get over issues like being saddled, crossing a creek and other things that spook it, the boys are learning how to conquer fear and overcome obstacles in their lives.”
The most recent group of horses the young men have trained will be sold June 15-16 at the ranch’s inaugural “Ride Prosperously Production Sale.” (See accompanying story on page 22 for details). Each boy will ride his horse into the sale ring and have a chance to share his story with the buyers and spectators.
“We’ve sold some horses off the farm in the past, but we decided to have our own production sale to give the boys a sense of accomplishment,” Olson said. “It will allow them to see their work from start to finish. I believe it will be something they’ll remember for a lifetime.”
After working so closely with his mare, Glory, for the past few months, Scarbury said he expects the sale day to be bittersweet.
“I think I’ll feel a little sad to see her go, but if I can train her to be a good horse, hopefully she’ll find a good owner,” he said. “That will make me happy.”
Not all the stories have a happy ending, Olson admitted. He’s seen too many boys whose potential goes unrealized because they refuse to change or accept help. That’s the tough part of his job.
But there’s a lot of good, too.
“The greatest thing about working here is to see a boy come in with a hardened heart who wants nothing to do with authority, and then see him change and open himself up to instruction and direction,” Olson said. “Oftentimes, the turning point is when he starts working with his horse. It’s like something switches on inside them. It’s just incredible how powerful horses can be to a young man.”
Ranch hosts sale and horsemanship clinic
Agape Boarding School Ranch’s first-ever “Ride Prosperously Production Sale” will be held Friday and Saturday, June 15-16.
The name comes from the Bible verse, Psalms 45:4: “And in thy majesty ride prosperously because of truth and meekness and righteousness.”
“That’s what we want to teach the boys,” Ranch Manager Riley Olson said. “Many of them lack a desire for truth and righteousness, and we are definitely raising generations of boys who are very prideful. To get through life, you’ve got to get rid of the arrogance, be meek and honest and get your life right. And we want the people who buy the horses to ride prosperously wherever they go.”
The auction-style event will feature 17 quarter horses that are 3 and 4 years old, and all horses will sell that day. Proceeds will go toward ranch operations. Each participating student will receive a portion of the sale to help pay school tuition. The buyer of the high-selling horse will be given a handmade leather saddle crafted by Olson.
In addition to the sale, a free horsemanship clinic by renowned trainer Curt Pate will be held on Friday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and on Saturday from 10 a.m. to noon. The public is invited to attend.
The sale starts at 2 p.m. on Saturday, with the final horse preview at 1 p.m.
Concessions will be sold all day on Friday. A free cowboy breakfast begins at 9 a.m. on Saturday, and free brisket and pulled pork sandwiches will be served at noon. Door prizes will be given away throughout the sale.