“As a kid I used to think, ‘oh it would be fun to have a horse farm’,” Tara Hills mused. “I used to draw horse farms, I still have my book. I would have all these detailed plans of my horse farms - a stallion barn and a mare barn and I had named them.”
Though Tara was born in Washington state, she feels that Tennessee has always been home. Her parents, Ric and Bettie Griffin, moved their three daughters to Chattanooga when Tara was just 12. That was when she got her first horse, Bagel.
“I remember things in my life the most after moving here, so this is home,” she notes. The main portion of the farm where Tara began her horse farm business in 2003 was acquired by her whole family in 1986.
“They had leased the property before that and they own the other half of the farm across the road that my great-grandfather had owned. I think my grandfather moved here when he was 12. This is a fourth-generation farm. Most people in the community remember it as the Chastain farm,” Tara says.
She attended Southern Adventist University and received her master’s. “I wanted to be a vet. But in my sophomore year of college, I looked at my biology courses and I thought, ‘Oh no, this is not good’. I got depressed just looking at it,” Tara admits.
“The vet I was working for at the time even asked, ‘Are you sure you want to do this?’ I graduated with English - it was easy for me and I write decently well. Then I met Mike.”
Mike and Tara Hills lived in Cohutta for two years and were adventure guides at Cohutta Springs Retreat Center in North Georgia. “We did caving, rock climbing and canoeing; and led youth groups,” Tara says.
The couple then ventured to open Country Inns Suites in Atlanta and ran it for four months.
“That was just a little hic-up in our lives. We then moved back here and we started our own outdoor education program. We would work with Spalding Elementary and took the students caving and fossil hunting. I became a home-economics teacher at Collegedale Academy teaching life skills – that was very interesting,” Tara says.
Tara’s mother was the one who suggested the name for the horse farm - “Hidden Hills” as that is Mike and Tara’s last name and the farm is nestled in the hills at the foot of Grindstone Mountain.
“I started out teaching horse riding lessons on Bagel and then we started boarding. The horses just ran everywhere because I didn’t have these fences. It was exciting. I had learned that rotational grazing is best for the pastures,” Tara explains.
“We want the pastures to have as much grass as they can and, if you can put herds in smaller pastures, they are going to eat what’s there and not just eat what they want. Most of the horses get along; there was only one time where I had to move a horse to another herd,” Tara says.
Tara and Mike have two children. Son Caven is six and daughter Renn is two.
“Renn loves the horses and always wants to be on one, and Caven just sort of hangs out. He knows all of the cats and who’s who… to me they all look alike but he can tell the difference,” Tara says, as three black kittens climb on her.
When Caven hears his name he picks up one of the three identical kittens. In his wee voice he names them. “This one is Rainbow, that one is Scratchy and that one is Fluffy,” he announces.
The April 27th tornados hit the farm with a vengeance. “It took out every trail that I had,” Tara says. “There were at least a hundred trees down on the trails and the road coming in. The whole fence line was gone. I had a herd out in that pasture.”
As Tara remembers observing the property after the storm had passed, she says, “Every time I would see a big hunk of something, I was scared it was a horse, but it would just be a tree. I don’t know what the horses did, but they were all fine. The cost is still crazy – the amount that we had to pay for cleanup and moving dirt …and insurance didn’t cover it.
“We have most of our trails back; we have really great people around here. One of the rent-a-car places had a group come out and church groups came once the main places were taken care of . Volunteer groups were looking for other places where they could help. Friends of ours who were in charge of some of these groups had sent them out our way, which is just really nice; otherwise, I don’t know when I would have had trails.”
Though staying busy with what she has going on now, Tara has visions ahead for the farm.
“I would like to find someone to run our programming. I am tired with doing everything and trying to be there for the kids and I want to be a good mom. This was supposed to be just my little side job to help me raise my kids and - it just isn’t. I am still so blessed. I love the fact that the kids can be here. How great is this kind of living? I would like to improve our events in programming, but I have as many borders that I can take, I can’t really improve on that right now.”
One of the things that makes Hidden Hills different from other boarding facilities is that it is a self-care facility.
“I just think I have the greatest boarders because they are here caring for their horses and, if they don’t get out here as much, they know their horses are fine. At other places people can be picky and high maintenance and I don’t have a lot of that here - we have really fantastic people.”
Hidden Hills' slogan is encouraging the simple pleasures of good horsemanship.
“I just wanted riding to be something that was enjoyable and not so much about the shows – which, I think shows are good but I want people to find peace, enjoyment, relaxation and education when they come out here,” Tara insists.
“I have people come and say ‘It’s so peaceful’ and that’s what it needs to be. We have summer camps and lessons, then I have some volunteers that come out and help me with chores. One girl helped me build the farm, helping to put fences in and now she is about to graduate from college. We do a couple of shows here; we try to keep our events family-friendly to all disciplines and we try to capitalize on all our trails. We do two classic equitation shows here in the arena, but then I have been trying to do more trail-type events whether it is hunter paces or competitive trail rides or cowboy challenge,” Tara says.
“We are trying to get people out here to teach clinics. My boarders are interested in improving their skills - education is something that is important to me,” she vows.
When talking about horse soring which has recently been in the news, Tara said that she was not concerned at all that any of her boarders are involved in that type of practice.
“They take really good care of their horses, I only had one person who kind of let their horse’s feet grow out and I told them they needed to take care of that. It is part of the rules that you keep up your horse. That’s why we have specific schedules that everyone follows or you don’t get to board here, because that is the way we work. My job is to make sure that the pastures are in good shape, that the facility is in good shape, I make sure the horses have water, hay, grass and salt. A horse could come on this property and live here without being touched by someone else and survive very well unless it needs special care,” Tara maintains.
“Life will change once we move on the property. We are building a house here from the fallen trees of the storm. I call it my ‘tornado house’,” Tara quips.
“One thing I have noticed about the horses that is funny is that they seem to take on their owners' personalities. It is fun to watch,” she laughs.
“I would love to do more educational mid-day programming for homeschooler groups. I hope to eventually have a garden here and to live that life of sustainability.”
“I appreciate that lifestyle,” Tara says. “You know - just a natural life and sharing it with others. I am just your simple little backyard horse girl.”