Note: Special Thanks to Dale Norris, M-Bar-C Volunteer/Program Coordinator, for her excellent editor’s eye and writerly help that polished this story from its original rough draft.
Childhood friends – now older – are day-to-day cornerstones of the M-Bar-C Ranch. Here, mares and their foals graze and frolic. Yearlings run rough and tumble in the nearby pasture. Donated horses used for the Ranch’s “Day of Western Fun” program retire here to be well-cared for and children with special needs come to visit, ride horses and just get to be regular kids for a day.
Kim Mcmaster is the residential Horse Manager for the ranch. Willis, the boxer, is her alert and friendly assistant. Randy Thompson, whose horses graze the rich pasture grass, owns and operates Thompson Quarter Horses and Big R Polo on Bayview Road in Langley, raising quarter horses for polo and barrel racing. It is Kim and Randy that grew up together here, and have come full circle once again, involved in managing and maintaining the M-Bar-C. Add to the trio, Dale Norris, the Volunteer/Program Coordinator for the ranch. The three friends trade jokes and talk horses as easily as breathing.
“Randy and I have had a 50+ year courtship,” Kim joked, recalling her lifetime with horses, including a time when she was a jockey and worked with racehorses.
Randy added, “she bosses me around. I’m the only eligible bachelor here.”
Kim said that Randy is also a ranch volunteer and pasture manager. Nowadays, many of Randy’s horses are rotated in the ranch’s twenty-two pastures to crop the grass.
Dale said, “Randy is handy to have around.”
Kim added, “If you can’t be handsome, you might as well be handy. His horses come in and do the mowing. He drags the pastures to break up the manure and helps with other ranch maintenance. Rotating the pastures cuts down on the mud.”
The 50-acre rolling ranch, outside of Freeland is framed by conifers and adjacent to the Trillium Community Forest. M-Bar-C was purchased in the 1970’s to provide a place for several families to keep horses for their kids, and later as an equine therapy ranch for children with physical and developmental challenges. Nowadays, the M-Bar-C hosts a Day of Western Fun program, by reservation only, for groups of special needs children, including visitors from Seattle Children’s Hospital, Down Syndrome Community of Puget Sound, and many parent-to-parent support groups for families with a special needs child. The parents get to talk and learn from other parents with similar challenges. Life Skills classes from island schools and island kids in summer camps also come to visit. The ranch was closed in 2020 during COVID, but will open this summer. There are eight groups scheduled to visit beginning on July 26th. Three of the groups are composed of island youngsters.
Kim’s mare Suzy delivered a baby — a colt named ‘Blitz’ — here last year and is due to have another one this month. Several of Randy’s mares have delivered colts and fillies here, who graze the ranch’s grass-rich pastures. “I help deliver most of the babies and call the vet if it gets difficult,” Randy said. “Dale’s an expert on what to do if the afterbirth doesn’t come out naturally,” which we learned later, is often disposed of by circling eagles. “I get up every morning and come here to check on the pregnant mares. The vet tells me to let it happen naturally. Sometimes I get here, and the healthy newborn foal is already standing and nursing. I like those days. We’re going to have 10 babies here this year.”
He explained that 30 days after delivery the mares are bred again. “Brood mares have one every year…my oldest mare had seven babies,” Randy added. “The last at the age of 23.” The mares are in heat every 21 days and when pregnant carry their foals for 11-12 months. “It’s amazing how the mom can deliver a hundred-pound baby,” Randy added. Babies comprise about 10 percent of the mother’s weight.
Dale mentioned, “When the babies are born, it’s their head between their front legs and they dive out.”
Randy explained, “It is a business. I own the sire, Dash on Command. His barn name is Famous.”
Kim tells us there are barn names and registered names.
“The horse’s name defines its lineage,” Randy added. “We start riding them when they are two and see their evolution. We look for talent at age three, and that’s when people buy them.
“I play polo, which requires six horses and a professional polo player on my team who must also have six horses. I sell eight to 10 horses a year. I do barrel racing, too. All the horses have a job. Mares have babies. Yearlings and two-year-olds get trained. Four or five years ago, I thought, since my mares are having babies and I’m on the road so much, I contacted Kim about bringing my mares and babies over to M-Bar-C for people to see and enjoy. They spend a few months here now. Everyone loves seeing them.”
“We grew up here,” Randy said nodding to Kim and the ranch. “I was the 4-H youth leader for the Shore Meadow Seahorses. Kim was a member, and her parents were the 4-H club leaders. The guy who owned this ranch, Ed Milam, raised Polled Herefords, some of the finest. When I was 19, I worked for him—training and showing Quarter Horses. I worked here through college. Ed sold the ranch to city and local friends who kept their horses here. Kim helped give lessons. The riding program was great.”
The city friends included Dick Francisco, a former Marine and Seattle restaurant owner. He and eleven other families had a stake in the ranch. They named the ranch the “M-Bar-C” the ‘M’ and ‘C’ standing for “Metropolitan Cowboys.” Dick founded the Forgotten Children’s Fund in Seattle which delivered clothing, and toys to under-privileged children at Christmas. The ranch was initially used by the families of the owners, then evolved to become a place where children with medical and developmental conditions could ride horses and be immersed in the curative environment of a rural ranch. Dick handed the ranch off to the 501 (c) Forgotten Children’s Fund in 2001.
Dale mentioned that Dick or “Buck” (his cowboy name) came out to celebrate his 90th birthday at the ranch. “We met him with 10 youth volunteers on horseback and escorted his car up the driveway to the ranch.” He asked, ‘Who are these kids?’ “I said, ‘They’re the future of the M-Bar-C.’”
Dale added, “The ranch is run by volunteers. We have 12 equines and Randy keeps another 25 of his horses here. All the ranch horses are donated, but we do not take horses over 20, because they start to develop health issues and require more expensive vet care. Young girls get horse-crazy in 4-H and go off to college, leaving horses behind. Some of our horses came to us because the owners passed away. The donated horses have an easy life and live out their lives here. We encourage our wonderful volunteers to become horse moms and dads. They can groom, train and ride their favorite horse. We have the 721-acre Trillium Community Forest nearby for riding. Volunteers take care of the ranch, muck out the sheds and keep the paddocks clean. Some volunteers come to the ranch because they only want to ride, but we let them know they need to help with our programs and maintain the ranch, too.
“We are supported by grants, donations and hold fundraisers. We are also very fortunate to be a recipient of Michaels Subaru of Bellevue ‘Share the Love’ campaign for five years now– $250.00 for each vehicle sold. Their grants paid for a new tractor, farm utility vehicle, fencing, a new horse shelter and we hope to expand our covered arena with their grant money.”
Dale added, “I tell everyone who comes to volunteer, I hope you find lifetime friends here and you have one of those moments that takes your breath away. We hosted a Life Skills class from Oak Harbor with a young non-verbal boy on the autism spectrum. We could tell by his body language, that he did not want to ride, so we brought a horse over to the loading platform so he could see it up close. The boy sat down on the platform, grabbed on Justin’s halter and put his head against the horse’s muzzle. Justin let out a sigh and put his big head down on the boy’s lap. The dad cried and said it was the first time his son had ever connected with any living thing.”
Standing out in the paddock, Lucy the mare comes by to snuffle my hair and size me up with a deep look into my eyes. She is pregnant. (Dale let us know that Lucy had her foal, a colt named Ryker after this interview.)
Across the fence in the gelded yearling’s pasture, is a frisky horse named Neil, after Neil Diamond. He enjoys playing rough with the other four boys, nipping and running. Randy said, “They’re like football players. They bang into each other. They’re comical.”
Three eagles circle overhead. Rita and Rumor, the foals born in May, shadow their mamas, Special and Brisa. They are haltered soon after being born and are weaned in four to six months. The moms stand in the sun providing shade for their foals, who fold their legs and lie down to nap after nursing.
“After about a month, the babies will stick closer to the other babies, than they do now,” Dale added. “Their moms are very protective and will flatten their ears back and chase coyotes away.”
M-Bar-C is another of Whidbey Island’s gems and worth getting to know. For more information visit the M-Bar-C webpage. Meanwhile may the horse be with you.