Written by Barbara Newtown
Original Publish Date October 2015
Brushy Creek Ranch is a 54-acre jewel in the wilds of the 200,000 acre Homochitto National Forest, near Gloster, Mississippi. The Homochitto is thick with pines, oaks, streams, ravines, and wildlife. The ranch has green, mown pastures, three log cabins strung out along the banks of Brushy Creek, a stocked pond, a swimming pool, a bath house, a bunk house, over 70 covered and uncovered stalls, an outdoor arena, 28 RV sites with full hookups, horses for guests to ride, and a log house with a wraparound porch where the owners of Brushy Creek make their home. Chris and Ashli Kimball and their two children love Brushy Creek Ranch, and they want to share the experience with others.
“We are trying to create a wilderness experience. We want to help people get out of their boxes, and open their eyes to what is out there,” says Chris. Guests can explore the Homochitto on foot, and even hunt for turkey and deer. But the main focus of the Brushy Creek experience is riding the 40 miles of trails. The trails, at first glance, seem easy, because they are wide, free of stones, and cushioned by soft dirt, pine needles, and oak leaves. But steep banks, downed trees, and deep creek crossings seem to be everywhere.
Chris explains that the ranch operates under a policy called Challenge by Choice. “Our job is to present an element to you and challenge you, but at the end of the day, it’s your choice. You have to be willing to push yourself.” Beginners can choose an easy way around a log or across a stream, but riders who choose to be challenged get a workout. Chris says, “This place is like Six Flags for horses!”
Before Chris and Ashli found Brushy Creek, they owned an adventure company that led wilderness treks and trail rides. “My buddies and I started building up our herd, while we were doing guided rides in Colorado and Arkansas,” says Chris. That herd of reliable trail horses became part of the Brushy Creek roster of horses for guests. Chris and Ashli have added some gaited horses and have started breeding mules that, they hope, will turn out to be gaited, too.
They feel that the “rent horse” experience can be life-changing, in a good way. “It’s very delicate putting a human on a horse,” says Ashli. “You will never escape risk, but there are so many rewards. We are very careful about who rides which horse, because horses have personalities, just like humans. We want the people to understand the relationship that is being formed.”
All trail rides start off in the sand arena. Chris and Ashli instruct and guide the riders and help them relax and overcome initial fears. “The time we spend in the arena lets the horse understand who’s on its back,” Chris says. Ashli says that sometimes new riders think they are telling their horses what to do, but the horses are hearing something totally different. The riders think they are on “bad” horses—but they just don’t know how to communicate with their mounts.
The horses know the trails. “Your horse will take care of you,” says Ashli. But creating a horse that will “take care of” a beginner takes some work. Ashli says that they spend a lot of time touching the horses, bonding with them, and exposing them to noise: empty water bottles, plastic bags, and buckets. She and Chris take the horses out on the trail a lot to get them used to the terrain. “In certain spots in the creeks,” says Chris, “there’s quicksand. If you recognize what that sand looks like, then you can avoid it. But there are places in the creek where your horse can go up to its knees and shoulders in the sand and that can present a problem. We actually put them in the quicksand and let them work themselves out. If it ever happens to a rider, it’s not the first time these horses have ever been in that situation.”
Chris says, “We have babysitters—horses that are very protective. We try to put people that have never ridden on those horses. We recognize people’s natural athletic abilities, their ages, injuries, and previous health conditions. You don’t want to put someone who’s had a double knee replacement on a hard trotter. And we plan routes appropriate for the clientele.”
Besides newbies who might be touching a horse for the first time, Chris and Ashli welcome guests who bring their own horses. In the future, Brushy Creek Ranch hopes to host endurance rides, competitive trail rides, and even extreme cowboy events. Ashli says that she and Chris also want to reach out to church groups, Boy and Girl Scouts, and other organizations that might need a retreat, a wilderness challenge, or a team-building opportunity.
There is no cell phone signal at Brushy Creek. Chris and Ashli want the ranch to be a place where guests come to get unplugged. “One group showed up with iPads and cellphones and there was no service. A little boy said he wanted to get in the truck and go home!” Ashli describes the flip side: a family stayed in the lakeside cabin for a weekend, and she asked their kids what their favorite part of the vacation was. The little girl said her favorite part was that her parents weren’t on their cell phones. “That really hit home,” says Ashli. “And a few days ago a boy said that Brushy Creek was better than Disney World! He got to play, swim, and fish.”
Chris believes that inside every man and woman’s heart is a desire for adventure. When people come to Brushy Creek, he hopes that each guest finds a “little nugget of adventure” that will help a little bit in everyday life. “It may not be going out in the woods and spending three days with a knife and a compass. It may be riding two miles down a flat trail. For some people that’s the biggest adventure of their lives. Or a six-year-old kid catches a fish. That kid will never forget that fish as long as he lives.” Chris says that 80% of Americans have never been around a campfire. In fact, just sitting around a table and having dinner together is an adventure for some families. He points out that riders may not need to go out and jump logs or get stuck in quicksand to find a challenge: just going in circles in the round pen can be awesome. “Adventure is relative, you know,” he says.
Chris sums up Brushy Creek: “This is the most therapeutic place I’ve seen. Listen, a lot of people don’t realize it’s therapeutic! The best approach for making a difference in people’s lives is ‘backdoor.’ One of the biggest enjoyments for me out here is seeing people enhancing their lives and their relationships through horses and trails and campfires and good food and … just escaping their boxes.”