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Rescued donkeys Tex and Jack enjoyed some attention from farm volunteers Deserae Metz, 12, of Merrimack, Katelyn Smith, 9, of Bedford, and Sarah Cardullo, 16, of Nashua. (APRIL GUILMET/Union Leader Correspondent)

Rickety Ranch offers sanctuary for kids, animals

HOLLIS — The Rickety Ranch, a working farm staffed by schoolchildren, is a place where animals and humans go to leave their troubles behind.

Moving to their Nartoff Road home over a decade ago, Diana and Gary Bergeron started off with a couple of horses and a strong desire to help others.

“Soon after I came here, I realized the simple act of riding a horse was cost prohibitive in every way,” Diana said.

The couple’s youngest son, Gary, a middle school student at the time, adopted some chickens and began selling eggs to area businesses.

He’d eventually move on to college, but the chickens and horses — and countless other critters — would remain.

“One of the selectmen gave us a couple of goats,” Diana said. “More animals arrived and we just kept on growing.”

These days over 200 animals live on the ranch and at several other sites around the region. Around 25 children, ranging from age 8 to 19, work on the ranch.

Right now most of the kids working onsite happen to be girls, though the Rickety Ranch opens its doors to all.

“We all have a bit of ‘rickety’ in us,” Diana said. “Some of us have had a troubled past, or are dealing with tough things at school. And sometimes animals, as well as people, can be taught how to trust again.”

Hollis resident Carolyn Maul said the farm has become a second home for her 12-year-old daughter, Ella, over the past couple years.

“She’s always wanted to be a veterinarian,” Maul said. “So this has been the perfect opportunity for her.”

On any given day, a dozen or more children are tackling the day’s chores, riding the farm’s five horses or learning firsthand where their food comes from.

Gary oversees the farm’s food production, which includes eggs, grass-fed beef, free-range duck and chicken, pork, lamb and goat meat. Products from the farm are sought after by many of the region’s upscale eateries and markets.

However, as a rule, animals that arrive on the farm from abusive or neglectful situations are never eaten and are allowed to live out their natural lifespan.

Deserae Metz, 12, of Merrimack, has been working at the farm for the past two years.

Metz learned to ride on the farm and she’s now helping out as a mentor for some of the younger kids.

She’s bonded with Cinnamon, an older horse who had suffered from a tongue injury in her previous life but now looks forward to daily nuzzles with Metz.

Sixteen-year-old Sarah Cardullo of Nashua was already a seasoned rider when she arrived at the farm last spring.

“I just fell in love with this place,” she said. “It’s like having 25 sisters.”

Katelyn Smith, 9, of Bedford, is also new to the farm, but said she “loves everything about it.”

Ask her which animals are her favorites and she’ll answer without hesitation, “the horses.”

Among the farm’s permanent residents are Tex and Jack, a pair of miniature donkeys that arrived last year. Initially very shy — and dangerously overweight — both donkeys are blossoming from daily doses of healthy food (and plenty of cuddles) from their young keepers.

Tagalong the horse arrived at the farm five years ago when her owner, an elderly woman, was no longer able to care for her, while Chance, a piglet that’s become a barn favorite, was the runt of the litter and had been slated to be euthanized by her previous owner.

Chance has found friendship in the form of farm volunteer Krystal Kyrias, who bottle fed the piglet to help get her strength up

“She’s my baby,” said Kyrias, 12, of Hollis.

Cassie Kendall, 17, of Hollis, started coming to the farm five years ago and now oversees most of the barn’s operations.

“I was riding by with my sister one day and we saw goats and horses outside,” Kendall recalled. “We stopped to check them out and it kind of took off from there.”

Now entering her senior year at Hollis Brookline High School, Kendall plans to major in animal science next year. She’s considering veterinary school after that.

“This place is kind of a sanctuary for me,” said Kendall, who gives riding lessons at the farm and has formed a close bond with Julianna, an aging paint horse with an abusive past.

Julianna survived a bad tractor trailer accident and when she first arrived at the farm, a veterinarian recommended euthanizing her due to her unpredictable nature.

“She was rather grouchy at first, but I kind of adopted her,” Kendall said. “Now she’s become one of our gentlest horses: it turns out she really loves kids.”

A fundraiser to benefit the Rickety Ranch will take place at Sullivan Farms, 70 Coburn Ave. in Nashua in October.

The “Wicked” Haunted family Halloween event will take place Fridays and Saturdays on the last two weekends of the month, and on Friday, Oct. 31.

For more information visit the Rickety Ranch Facebook page.

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