How Three Generations of a Horse-Loving Family Came to Live in a Barn in McKinney: a Tribute to Camp Rusk

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The Stephens family agreed to share their story and photos of their barn apartments at North Dallas Equestrian Center to raise awareness of the Camp Rusk Foundation, a horse retirement sanctuary described below.  Here’s the tale, as told to Valerie Jarvie, along with inspiring photos of what can be done in a barn:

Curt Stephens entered the horse world on the back of a mule as a teenager on his uncle’s dairy ranch near Stephenville, Texas. You all know what I mean.

There were few horses, and being the odd man out, he always got the mule while the cousins got the horses. As you know, a mule can act like a horse at times, but at other times, not so much. This particular mule gave Curt memories of bailing off just before the mule reached a tree limb hoping to scrape Curt off his back.

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Summers with cousins ended. Curt and Annabeth married. The kids grew up. A good life.

Fifty years pass. Curt retired to Florida and found a passion volunteering at Naples Equestrian Challenge, where he witnessed therapy horses connecting with humans some thought unreachable, restoring spirits and healing souls.

Derek, the oldest, calls Dad. Unknown to Curt, his oldest son had used his IBM community service time to volunteer with the Ronald McDonald summer camp for special need kids in their horse therapy program.  He later moved to North Texas, where a horse property in McKinney caught his eye.

Neither knew the other had an interest in horses. Derek simply thought it would be good for his dad to get involved.  The conversation continued.

Then, the building began. First, some fences.

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City people need a logo and a barn.

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The property came with a wonderful round barn.

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People noticed, and horses arrived.

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Year after year, Dad and son persisted. North Dallas Equestrian, a spot in McKinney for horse boarding, training, lessons, and camps, became a showplace:

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Curt had the thought “I think I might like to have a little apartment to stay in when I’m visiting. The barn has plenty of space.”

When a son has a passion for architecture and a day job geared toward optimizing customer experience as CEO of the management consulting firm Watermark Digital, an apartment in a barn is gonna be well done:

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It’s in a snug corner of the barn, less than 1,000 square feet, with a porch overlooking an equestrian arena. Inside, they built cozy living quarters, a kitchen, one bedroom and one bath all with premium finishes — Italian tile flooring, custom hickory cabinets, granite countertops, copper sinks. It’s all well insulated and super energy efficient, every inch designed to make the most of small space.

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Younger son Darren, and his wife, Colleen, lived in Justin, but kind of liked the country life, too. A second apartment in the barn was added with two levels, a second-floor deck, an office for Darren teched out to the max, and a loft for media viewing that doubles as room for a guest.

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Raising one end of the barn by a few feet made room for a third apartment on the premises for granddaughter Desiree, who is pursuing post-graduate studies at Texas A&M University, too.

A barn is a big place. In the building, there’s still plenty of shady space for events. It’s a work in progress. Soon there will be screen porch and a hot tub on site, too.

North Dallas Equestrian is a haven for horses and horse-loving family, including a man from Florida who now calls Texas his second home.

And Camp Rusk Foundation?

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Both Derek and Curtis have seen the impact horses have on humans, bringing happiness to recreational riders and therapeutic services to children and adults experiencing challenges such as autism, paralysis, PTSD, Alzheimer’s, and Parkinson’s Disease.

“Horses have a tremendous sense of where people are emotionally,” Curtis said of the healing he has seen through his volunteer work with therapy horses. “They are naturally curious, and if they feel they are safe will try to connect. The (new) rider starts to see the horse is relying on them for trust. They communicate. It’s amazing to see the kids grinning.  If a rider is out of balance, the horse will try to compensate. A horse’s movement mimics walking. On a horse, a child who is paralyzed can feel what it would be like to walk.”

A horse’s life span is 20 to 25 years. Like people, the time comes when they should no longer work. Each year, out of the approximate 9 million horse population in the United States, several hundred thousand horses are retired. Some find good homes; others are shipped for slaughter to Mexico or Canada. Many are abandoned. There is a crying need for retirement situations for horses which have spent their working lifetimes in service to us.

The Camp Rusk Foundation is a nonprofit organization raising funds to provide and train others in establishing sanctuaries for retired horses to live in compatible family units, overseen to ensure adequate feed and veterinary care, in natural environs.  For information, contact Camp Rusk Foundation, Inc. You can also make a donation through the Communities Foundation by clicking here.