Kimba and Kevin MacRitchie, without reins, stand on their horse’s backs while overlooking a 200 foot drop in the Black Hills of South Dakota.
By Sharon Greene, The Oakland Press
Take the next step on a trail that leads riders to succeed and find confidence no matter the environment or task at hand.
Kimba and Kevin MacRitchie of Holly want to guide equestrians to a new level of education that will lead to a cool, calm and confident horse. They founded their new program, The Next Step, Horseplay for Equines, in 2012. After a combined 16 years of law enforcement training, the couple retired this past June from the Oakland County Sheriff’s Mounted Unit.
In many ways their new venture is a love story. Married for four years, this talented cowgirl and cowboy came together, combined their horsemanship skills and created a very unique and fun equine business partnership that focuses on three elements — exposure, confidence and trust.
“We have centered our lives around learning and growing our skills while helping riders to take the ‘next step’ in their riding careers with their horse while having fun doing it,” said Kevin, who learned the horse trade early at his uncle’s farm while managing livestock and participating in rodeo styled events.
Kimba spent her career as a trail guide and studied schooling techniques of Parelli and Stacey Westfall as well as mounted law programs from across the country. Before retiring from the mounted unit, she became lead trainer.
The MacRitchie’s believe they have leveraged their tactical skills for creating partnerships with their deputized horses. They want to share their expertise in crowd management, obstacle training and scenarios including herding buffalo — everything that simply cannot be obtained from a single approach.
“We take riders locally to ride or to places like the Great Smokey Mountains National Park, Custer State Park and the Bad Lands in South Dakota,” said Kevin.
They have no formal lesson program in place.
“Our training is about exposing horses to as much of the crazy world they may encounter,” added Kimba. “We want to help the horse to trust their rider so both can build a strong foundation, a special bond and be safe while having a great time together.”
They understand that horses look to the herd for safety. “When it is just the horse and rider,” explained Kimba, “the two of them become the herd.” According to the MacRitchie’s, when the two become dependent on one another, they can create a positive outcome in wind, rain, ice, snow, trail riding, crossing water, walking over obstacles, riding safely through traffic, etc.
“Our goal is to accomplish this in a calm and safe manner so as new obstacles and experiences get introduced, the herd of the two become one in their trust of each other,” said Kimba.
The end result is that no matter what faces them, be it flares, fireworks, plastic bags, flags, teeter totters, buffalo, parades or bridges, the rider and horse will gain confidence together.
Program not for the beginner
This program is not intended for beginner riders looking for basic riding skills, but for riders of every discipline who want to take their relationship with their horse to the next level.
Following an initial evaluation of both horse and rider, the MacRitchie’s will determine a plan for the training and the engagement fee. Horses actively participating in the program can be boarded on site at their 10-acre farm.
Although they agree that one-day obstacle events are helpful, both eagerly share their sensible approach and theory of improving the riding experience.
“We don’t learn the alphabet in one day, and we don’t learn to become a confident public speaker in one day,” said Kimba. “These things take time and practice — and lots of it,” added Kevin.
With this in mind, the MacRitchie’s concentrate the root of their program on consistent and repetitive exposure that strengthens the horse’s trust and leads to long term success. The horse will reward the rider with a calm ride down a trail, along the road, crossing a stream or over a bridge without giving it a second thought.
The MacRitchie’s summed it up this way, “This is all about fun, learning and spending time with your horse to go where you want and when you want.”
Buffalo Roundup Checks Health of Herd
Buffalo are strong, fast and can be unpredictable.
Their agility and speed, combined with their great size and weight, makes bison herds difficult to confine and manage.
However, it wasn't a problem for the partners and volunteers of New Beginnings Ranch and Midwest Buffalo Company, when they conducted their annual health checkup on a herd of just over 200 bison on October 25.
In February, Kevin and Kimba MacRitchie purchased the former Romanik's Ranch on Weadock Road in Munro Township. Combining operations with Midwest Buffalo, which was already established in the area, the partners have a plan to expand the joint venture to maintaining a herd of 700-1,000 buffalo by the year 2020 and to be among the largest ranches on Earth breeding, selling and serving buffalo to their customers year-round.
However, part of raising and breeding buffalo is being able to manage them. Bison, just like other livestock, need vaccinations, parasite control and proper identification, as well as to be individually examined periodically in order to maintain a healthy herd.
Todd Ross, who along with his wife, Katie, are partners in the herd, said this annual “roundup” or one-day gathering of the animals, is one of the most important for the herd in regard to management.
“Herd health is important,” Ross said. “This is the one time of the year we can get close and personal with each animal, provide them with preventative medicine recommended for our area for potential parasite and worm hazards, and ensure they have their proper identification tags in place. It also allows us a moment in time to inspect each and every animal, sort them for proper herd management purposes and prepare the animals that have been sold for shipment to their new homes.”
In order to minimize the stress on the animals, the roundup is only conducted once a year. It is generally done in late October or early November since the cows are not far into their pregnancies at that time. This is better than spring, when they are close to calving.
The animals are gathered from their large pastures and collected into smaller corrals and pens that eventually funnel the animals down and have them pass through a series of metal chutes. Within these chutes, the management team can evaluate each animal's condition, read ear tags and radio frequency tags and can administer any necessary treatments before they are released back to the herd.
Rich Sangster, who is also a partner in the herd along with his brother, Chris, said that the roundup is also an opportunity for new producers and buyers of breeding stock to learn more about management practices.
“Managing our herd and their health is our top priority, and assisting new producers in learning how to handle these majestic animals properly is our responsibility when we sell to them, so we invite them to watch, participate and learn,” Sangster said. “We even let the new owners of BalaBok Buffalo Ranch in Argentine, Mich., that purchased 32 buffalo bull calves and yearlings, tag their own animals to help them gain a better understanding of how these animals behave and the steps necessary for excellent herd health and management.”
Page 2 of 4 - Once through the chutes, the animals that were being purchased were loaded into livestock trailers instead of being returned to the herd. Kevin MacRitchie said he was pleased to get new producers involved in the industry.
“We had two main purchasers present for the day,” MacRitchie said. “They are purchasing all of our bull calves and we invited them to participate and learn throughout the process as they are new producers and these will be their first animals. We also had interested investors and others that came in from all over Michigan and three additional states to help with this year's roundup. It is a great time for all.”
The volunteers and ranch staff that help with the roundup try to get the animals through the chute and back out to the pastures as quickly as possible in order to minimize any chance of injury or stress. However, rarely an accident does occur, as any animal can be unpredictable, and there is always the possibility of capture myopathy, a disease associated with the capture or handling of any wild animals. The animal cannot cool itself due to extreme muscle exertion and stress and can die as a result.
“While we try our best to limit injuries, they do happen in the wild, in pastures and in the corrals,” MacRitchie said. “We did have one animal get injured in the process who was being sorted for meat. She, along with six others, headed for the packing house that day. They were humanely treated and delivered to the packing house according to plan.”
MacRitchie said it is important to remember that the buffalo industry revolves around producing quality meat animals that were raised and treated humanely and naturally.
“In the end, buffalo cannot be sustained as a species if no one is eating them,” MacRitchie said. “It is the hard truth about the livestock business. The business of buffalo meat and production has brought this American icon back from almost certain extinction, and it is imperative that we remember every animal we own will eventually make its way to the packing house after living a happy and healthy life here at the combined ranches of Midwest Buffalo Company and New Beginnings Ranch.”
Ensuring that both the buffalo and those helping and watching the health check stay safe is an important aspect of the roundup, according to Kimba MacRitchie.
“Safety is critical for both our buffalo and the people that help us round up the herd, work them through the chutes and our spectators that are here to either simply watch or learn for their own experience as new or existing producers,” Kimba noted. “We have installed safety fencing for the viewing areas and provided a safety review at the beginning of the day to ensure our people know what to do, where to be, and how to keep themselves, and our buffalo, as safe and stress free as possible.”
“The biggest challenge is teamwork to ensure we manage the herd responsibly from each unit on the team,” Sangster said. “We have six to seven teams in the back pens and alleyway at all times, a team dedicated to record keeping and a team at the chute with each animal. We also have spectators and family present and we try to make it a fun day for all with great food at the end of the day, buffalo of course. Keeping it all organized and counting on each other is what we have to do, as this is the one pay day we get every year. We have expenses daily, but only one paycheck a year. Sorting our sale animals and ensuring our animal health for the next year is what this team is dedicated to.”
As far as evaluating each animal that goes through the chutes, MacRitchie said any animals that don't appear to be in good condition are removed from the main herd and given some special attention to build them up health-wise for the winter.
“If an animal is on the bottom of the pecking order, they may come in and fall in the 'lightweight' category,” MacRitchie said. “If this is the case, they get sorted to be placed in separate pastures from the rest of the herd and put on a special feed mixture to help them ready themselves for winter and 'catch-up' to the rest of the herd in terms of average weights. This year, we were very pleased we really only found one animal that needed this special TLC ,and she will join the heifers and calves, keeping them company for the next two or three months as well.”
MacRitchie said he and the partners still plan on increasing the herd over the next few years and expect full crop of calves in 2015.
“We are ever-expanding our herd to reach our goal of 700-1,000 buffalo by the year 2020,” MacRitchie said. “This year we are at just over 200 and are hoping for as many as 110 baby buffalo in 2015. This will allow us to primarily grow organically from within our own herd while also purchasing outside bred heifers and tested bulls from top blood lines to improve our herds overall health and genetic quality.”
MacRitchie was pleased with this year's roundup.
“Our 2014 event was certainly the best it has been in several years,” MacRitchie said. “The last two years we were met with snow and rain mixed and in the high 20’s and low 30’s. The weather was perfect and the teamwork was awesome, making it one of our best years ever.”
Page 4 of 4 - He said the help of volunteers and the attendance of family and spectators also made the day a success.
“We had about 30 people assisting this year and an additional 20-plus family members and spectators,” MacRitchie said. “We even had some assistance from the core team at Custer State Park in South Dakota and were delighted to see AJ and Helen Walters, of Grand Rapids, Mich., join us along with friends from Maryland, Minnesota and Kentucky as well. They, along with our steadfast crew from Cheboygan, made the day successful for all.”
For more information on New Beginnings Ranch, visit www.newbeginningsranch.net .