"I was the little girl with a bike and a jump rope pretending like the bike was a horse. This is a dream come true for me."
That dream became a reality almost 20 years ago when a twist of fate led Nicki Francis to shut down her teaching career and open up Happy Trails Ranch.
When we arrived, the horses were hungry. All 16 of them! They literally ran for the barn at feeding time. I got right to work, feeding a grain mixture to horses like Apache.
We'd just finished one meal when it was time to prepare another! Nicki hopped on the tractor to haul bales of hay, but it doesn't always start on the first try.
That's when she calls in "the persuader." A couple of whacks from this hammer usually does the trick.
Nicki's a grandmother and a real lady, but she's no sissy. She's got the muscle to load up plenty of 40 pound bales of hay every day.
"You have to go to the gym three times a week to have muscle enough to carry these bales of hay" says Nicki. After seeing her substantial muscle, I asked her to handle a bale for me!
She's tough and brave. Nicki says her most frightening moment came when a big horse in a trailer got its leg stuck in a feed bag. Nicki says "I went in to try to get the horse out and nearly was killed. The horse panicked and pushed on me against the trailer."
Nicki's got courage, but does she have what it takes to make me do the nastiest job on the ranch?
I had to mentally prepare for that challenge! I adjusted my hat, vest, and belt for a showdown!
I knew she'd won when she bellowed "This ranch ain't big enough for the both of us. Get to work!"
Well.. what goes into a horse , must come out! As I shoveled manure out of the stalls, Nicki observed that I was pretty good at it. it. I joked, "I'm a journalist. I AM a muckraker!"
With that nasty chore done, it was time to ride. We saddled up Chance the palomino.
I managed to mount up without falling off as Nicki pointed out that the reins functioned as both the steering wheel and brakes.
As Chance trotted along, I found myself bouncing in the saddle so hard it felt like every filling in my mouth was ready to rattle out.
Nicki gave me some tips like keeping your back straight and rear end up against the back of the saddle. Besides giving riding lessons, Nicki also holds a summer camp and hosts birthday parties where kids ride the range.
Says Nicki, " I love this job because it's outdoors. I am not in a cubicle in front of a computer doing something I would not like to do."
No, Nicki will never be happy, stuck inside all day.
And after my experience on the ranch, I just might be ready to turn in my microphone for a fine- sitting saddle and a Palomino named Chance.
Happy Trails is located on Quail Valley Road off Bradfordville Road just northeast of Tallahassee. You can reach Nicki Francis by calling 850-893-0771.