PORT DEPOSIT — Despite whipping cold and freezing rain on Sunday, dozens of people gathered at Rolling Hills Ranch in Port Deposit to celebrate the holiday season at Christmas with the Ponies.

The event is one of two community outreach days that the ranch, which is home to Freedom Hills Therapeutic Horseback Riding Program, hosts per year. It included live music, a live nativity scene and, of course, live horses, ducks, chickens, rabbits and ponies.

Live music filtered through the stables, performed near Christmas tree at the entrance to the barn by musicians from Restore Church, as well as Michelle Kipp and Dave Reed. Music included well-known Christmas favorites like, “Hark the Herald Angels Sing,” “Away in a Manger,” and also contemporary acoustic Christian music.

Laura Aducci and Pat Dixon staffed the ticket booth throughout the event. Aducci is a volunteer at the ranch, and Dixon is married to ranch’s proprietor and main instructor, Renee Dixon.

Renee Dixon has lived on the 58-acre ranch with her family since she was a toddler, and became interested in therapeutic riding as a teenager. She has been running Rolling Hills Ranch and the Freedom Hills center for 37 years.

Dixon has a degree in equine studies, and is an advanced instructor with the Professional Association for Therapeutic Horsemanship. All of the ranch’s instructors are certified, and the program has been designated a premier center of the Professional Association for Therapeutic Horsemanship, as well as a Maryland-based farm education center and a Maryland horse discovery center.

“We do this event twice a year,” Pat Dixon said. “We also do it in May and it’s called Family Day on the Farm. We have live music, crafts, games and pony rides, but it’s much warmer then.”

Dixon said one of the best draws of these events is their affordable price point.

“For a family of five, it’s $20. This is basically a community outreach that we do. But generally, we do therapeutic horseback riding.”

On Sunday, children and families could take pony rides, do crafts, pet animals, embark on an engrossing scavenger hunt, or get their picture taken with St. Nicholas.

Instead of a traditional secular Santa Claus figure, Dixon preferred a fully religious theme to accompany the Christian music and live nativity. Jeff Compton, whose daughter rides at Rolling Hills, was happy to oblige, and looked the part with a tall pope-style hat, white beard and robes.

Meaningful volunteering

Volunteers staffed the event inside and outside of the barn, and many families attended.

“It’s super fun,” Aducci, a volunteer, said of helping out year-round at the ranch. “I help get the horse ready for people who are taking lessons, and some people need help with a horse. It depends on the student. Some need a lead during lessons. Sometimes people are here by themselves and they just need someone to walk alongside.”

Aducci became a volunteer after seeing someone improve after coming to Rolling Hills for therapeutic horseback riding. “I’ve done it a couple of different places, but here they really get everyone involved. I just love it.”

Addie Ahern and Molly Allen are two middle school students who live in Baltimore County and Cecil County, and became friends through riding at Rolling Hills. They have also become volunteers, and were on hand to handle Cotton and Nugget, a pair of older ponies.

“We usually have one main horse that we ride, but we can ride on any horse that they put us on,” said Ahern. “Lessons are typically one hour, but most people stay for the day and just kind of help out. This summer we were here a lot, just helping out at the barn.”

Ahern and Allen have volunteered with Rolling Hills Ranch for many special events, including Special Olympics and an area apple festival.

The girls, as well as other area youths and volunteers, took part in a live nativity scene while the Dixons’ son performed a jaunty reading of the Christmas story from the gospel.

Mary, Joseph, the wise men, shepherds and angels were all on hand to act their part.

“A manger is kind of like a stable,” said the narrator. “A lot like what we have here.”

‘It just made sense’

Renee Dixon learned about therapeutic horseback riding as a teenager, when the field was just bourgeoning in the United States.

“We’ve lived here since I was two, and when I was 13 my mom had some foster children,” she said. “One of the children got hurt, and I got to know the occupational therapist at Johns Hopkins. I thought, ‘Wow, helping people. That’s what I want to do.’”

But Dixon knew she didn’t want to spend hours in a hospital.

“We had horses, and it just made sense,” she said “I wanted to put my love for people and horses together.”

In the summer, the Cecil County ranch serves more than 100 people per week. In other seasons, Dixon said they will serve between 50 and 60 therapeutic riders per week.

For her part, Dixon — a lifelong equestrian — manages to get up early to make sure she stays in practice as a rider, and she takes lessons from a former Olympic coach. She said she loves eventing and dressage.

Dixon praised her many volunteers, saying that they are all a part of makes the ranch work.

“Let’s say you’re an able-bodied rider,” she said. “After your lesson, if a group of people with disabilities come in, the first students will usually ask to help out.”

Although the ranch is 58 acres, there are almost 300 acres available for riding during lessons. “We have very, very good neighbors,” she said.

“We have close to 50 volunteers,” said her husband, Pat Dixon. “We also have Rolling Hills Ranch, which is riding lessons for everybody else, for the able-bodied. We do birthday parties and events, and we have the bed and breakfast, too. Renee loves what she does. She’s an amazing person.”

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