Spirit Rider

Not far from Columbia, there’s a place where kids in public housing and foster care go to have an experience they would get nowhere else — riding and training horses. And the reason the kids have this place is because 13th Circuit Associate Circuit Judge Sue Crane made a promise to God when she was just a teenager.

Her vow came while she was out for a ride on her chestnut horse, Gypsy. Overwhelmed by how wonderful it felt to be atop such a powerful animal, with the wind whipping her hair, Crane whispered to God: “I will make this experience available for kids who would not otherwise have the opportunity to do this.” Crosswind Ranch in Callaway County is the fulfillment of that promise she made so many years ago.

The ranch is home to 14 horses and the Spirit Riders — an equestrian program that serves kids in public housing and foster care. “We embrace children however they come to us, and somewhere in the quiet time with the horse, transformation occurs,” Crane says. “The kids come to play with cats and dogs, to fish in the pond and ride a horse, but more importantly, they come to be guided and embraced.” In fact, she repeatedly tells the kids in Crosswind programs, “It’s not so much about learning to ride a horse; it’s about being transformed by the horse we ride.”

She teaches the kids that what’s going on inside of them will always be reflected in how the horses respond to them. “That’s how we help the kids work on their own being and things like self-control,” she says. “When they work on self-control with the horse, they’re really working on self-control within themselves. There are bigger things in life that are beyond our control, so if we learn to work on ourselves, we learn to handle the bigger things of life.”

Kia Kemp first met “Miss Sue” while in middle school and was, initially, reticent to participate in the program. “I learned about Spirit Riders from my friends, and it seemed like a good program that was benefitting them, but I was a little nervous to do it,” she says. “At first, I couldn’t get the horse to respond to my commands, but soon riding became easy, kind of like reading a book.”

Kemp, who is a freshman at Missouri State University in Springfield, attributes that transition to Crane’s patience. “She’s a very kind and patient woman because she has to deal with the horses and the children,” Kemp says. “Some of the kids have anger problems and have trouble calming down and focusing, but she would never stop helping them because of their problems.”

Chris Wilson, Callaway County Prosecuting Attorney, was more than impressed with what he saw at a Crosswind event where the children demonstrated their skills. “It was such a neat thing to see these kids who would never, never get to be exposed to something like this being so confident in what they were doing,” he says. Though Wilson has no affinity for horses, he loves to fish, so when Crane asked him to help out with a “Fishing With Friends” event, he readily signed on.

More than a decade before the birth of Crosswind Ranch, Crane began guiding and embracing troubled kids as a public defender in Callaway County’s juvenile court system. According to Crosswind board member, Malia Parnell, launching a riding program for inner-city kids was simply another outlet for the boundless compassion Crane has for children. Parnell, a local attorney, often witnessed that compassion first-hand in the courtroom. “It’s great to see someone in authority approaching someone in trouble with a sense of grace,” Parnell says. “No one is ever in front of her because of something good; it’s almost always because of trouble, and she’s able to navigate those difficult situations. There’s always room for compassion when you have to be tough.”

When Crane began Crosswind Ranch 10 years ago, Spirit Riders was the sole program. Now the ranch consists of 348 acres of trails, obstacle courses, a bunkhouse and a fishing pond. Program additions include Fishing With Friends, Camp Wildfire, Christmas at Crosswind and Extreme Mustang Makeover, a program sponsored by the Mustang Heritage Foundation that allows kids from all over the country to compete for scholarship money by working with a wild mustang for 100 days to “gentle it” in preparation for adoption. Crane’s newest project is a collaboration with Therapy Dogs International. She sees the value of having certified therapy dogs available when families with children appear in court.

She is just as amazed as everyone else by Crosswind Ranch’s growth and success because it’s never had any big financial backers. “We’re committed to this, regardless,” she says. She calls a lot of those who help her “non-horsey people.” For example, her husband, Ronnie O’Neal, plans and builds trails and obstacle courses. Their daughter, Riki Shipley, and son, Taylor Holiman, have helped out in ways that free her to do the thing she loves most — be with a kid and a horse.

It seems that Judge Sue Crane is willing to be stretched to any length to reach the heart of a child. “Growing up on a farm and having horses was the best thing in the world for me,” she says. “Growing up in that environment probably saved me from the challenges and adversity I experienced in childhood, and I know what it can do for other kids.”


Pam Ingram is the founder and director of Granny’s House, a place where Columbia kids see “God’s love and tender mercies” in action.