Back in the saddle

Hal Valentine likes “fixer uppers.” He has an exceptional ability to see past something that is broken, tarnished or weakened to uncover the unique treasure buried underneath. He is a firm believer in second looks and second chances. He admits he is both of these.
Back in the saddle

Valentine is a cowboy, raised on a 30,000-acre ranch in Palatka where, as a little boy, he learned to herd cattle and rope calves. He grew up within a family unit grounded in values, where children worked alongside their parents and helped support the family business.

Yet he broke away and paved his own journey, impassioned by what he describes as a superficial need to “live like the Joneses.” He built a landscaping business in Palm Harbor that soared so quickly he barely had time to enjoy the rewards of his zealous ambitions.

“I had the 5,000-square-foot home,” he said. “I had the brass door handles, the expensive cars. It didn’t mean anything in the end because I wasn’t happy.”

The lifestyle Valentine lives today might seem less glamorous. Tucked away on a quiet street in Spring Hill, he returned to his cowboy roots and crafted a pleasing “dude ranch” where he trains horses. Sitting under an oak tree, it is surprisingly quiet, although much activity is already under way.

“I’ve been up since 6 a.m.,” Valentine said as he swipes his palm across a sweaty brow. It is a typical day on the ranch.

While the landscaping business is as viable as ever, Valentine’s passions are clearly focused on his ranch. Rustic wooden fences surround the back, separated into training areas where horses are worked in everything from trail riding to barrel racing. There is a calf pen and shoot where the calves are released for rope training.

“He has such a way with the horses,” said colleague Nikki Durkee, who owns and operates her own stable in the area. She sometimes comes into contact with a horse that needs a special touch only Valentine can give.

Most problems in training stem from a lack of communication, Durkee explained, noting that 90 percent of the time a horse wants to behave. “It’s only when the instruction is messed up that the horse behaves badly and doesn’t do what you want.”

Durkee, who mainly trains in the English style, had trouble with a hunter/jumper.

“This was a difficult horse,” she said, despite the fact that he had been broke at a barn in Boca Raton. “He had the sweetest disposition but you couldn’t get on him.”

Durkee called Valentine, who took the horse for a week. He came back a riding horse and was recently ridden in the Pasco/Hernando Sherriff’s Walk for Hospice.

“I could watch (Valentine) all day,” she said. “He’s like the best-kept secret.”

To Valentine, the technique is simple. “I communicate with the horses in their own language,” he explained. “I understand how they think and know how they will react even before they do.”

His passion is training. And his reward is what happens after the job is complete. “I watch a scared and confused animal turn into a loving, trusting partner,” he said. “I use nothing but a loving communication that the horse will retain and take with him even after he leaves the ranch.”

But there is quite a bit more to Valentine’s story than what shows on the surface.

The healing benefits of horses are huge in the therapy world for physical and emotional issues. Recently Valentine began working with Gary Bogard, who suffers with Parkinson’s disease believed to be an adverse effect of Agent Orange exposure during his time fighting the Vietnam War.

Bogard began taking lessons at Red Heart Ranch about a month ago after searching Craig’s List for a reliable source. “He couldn’t even get on the horse,” his wife said. Horse people themselves, they understood the importance of getting Gary back in the saddle. “He’s now going on trail rides.”

Valentine’s dream is to provide an opportunity to help people, particularly children, in some significant way. The unique connection he shares with equines and his cozy dude ranch are vehicles for introducing a calmer way of life.

Growing up on a ranch built a foundation Valentine consistently pulls from. He wants to share even a small part of it with those who might never get the opportunity to experience a dude ranch in Spring Hill.

Like Gulf Coast Academy students who recently visited Red Heart Ranch as part of their field trip curriculum. Valentine opened his gates to 150 middle school students, many of whom had never been this close to a ranch before.

He described the experience as amazing, watching the transformation from apprehension to excitement as the students embraced a piece of the cowboy/cowgirl life. Valentine even fed them a traditional lunch on the range.

“Why can’t we let people know they can come here, in the middle of town, and be happy?”

Valentine wants to extend equine therapies for children on the autism spectrum and other debilitating childhood and adult issues that have proven successful. “Horses have a special communication, particularly with children,” Valentine said.

In fact, Red Heart Ranch is sponsoring a charity event for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital Aug. 20. The 10-mile trail ride begins at Jay B. Starkey Wilderness Park in New Port Richey. A barbecue follows. There is a $20 entry fee and all proceeds benefit St. Jude’s.

Hal Valentine has big dreams to match his big heart. He is also boundless in his energy when it comes to finding the right avenues for exposing his message. Though typically gentle and private, he understands that a dream this big requires assistance. So he recently auditioned for Survivor and is awaiting the outcome.

“It’s about giving something back,” Valentine said, as he rests against a weathered fence post. He chuckles lightly and nods toward the fence. “I’m all about patching it up,” he says, “because I like fixer uppers.”

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