“You have to fall off a horse seven times before you become a cowgirl,” Bruce Lawrence told Kristen when she was first learning to ride. Kristen wanted nothing more than to be around horses when she was a little girl.
Alfred "Chuck" and Shirley Woodhead gave their daughters something more to do than electronic games as they were growing up. Kristen and her older sister Jamie are “Navy brats”, Jamie having been born in Florida and Kristen born in South Carolina. The family later came to Georgia to settle down.
Kristen was seven years old when she and her sister wanted to take horse riding lessons. “My sister and I loved horses and we begged our parents to let us take lessons. We took lessons with Bruce and Marie for about a year and I really got into it. We have been here ever since,” Kristen says.
Bruce and Marie Lawrence own Mystery Dog Ranch where they board horses and hold several events as well as therapeutic riding. “We have the ‘Rock and Ride’, the first weekend in June every year. We have live bands and an old western town cowboy shooting going on; games for the kids, petting zoo, hayrides, a big barbeque with a whole hog on the grill,” Bruce says.
During the last three weekends of October, they also host a haunted house on Friday and Saturday nights for $10 a person. The Rock and Ride benefits the therapeutic riding which brought in over $6,000 this year. “Our haunted house also benefits that but helps in paying for these guys to do this stuff out here – rounds for pistols for the Cowboy Action shooting, a competition …10 shots with pistols and now we added shot guns,” Bruce says.
When asked about the photo of Kristen taken by David Cox that has gone viral across Facebook, Bruce says, “We did a demonstration of how it was in the old West, the good guy chasing the bad guy – she was the bad guy. She was losing her hat and she grabbed her hat, shooting behind her. David captured that photo at the event. He is a good guy to have around; he can take some awesome pictures. We do the ‘headless horseman’ for our haunted house. Our head therapeutic instructor, Sarah Haase, is the one who rides as the headless horseman. She has a big black horse out in the pasture that she can rear up on cue - it’s awesome,” Bruce says.
As the photo swept across Facebook, Sarah decided to try her hand at painting it. “Kristen has been one of my volunteers at the farm,” Sarah says, “She has grown up at the farm and we have become very close, sort of like a big sister/little sister relationship. I adore that girl - she has such a future ahead of her.”
Sarah had attempted art classes in school. “I was taught to start out with bowls of fruit and I just wouldn’t do it – I ended up painting dolphins and horses,” she says. “I was on Facebook one day and saw that Kristen had been tagged in that picture. I thought it was an awesome picture so I decided to try and paint it. I have never painted a person before.” Sarah is still in the process of detailing the portrait, using oils.
Kristen says, “We wanted to show off some mounted shooting. We had some guys out here doing SASS shooting (Single Action Shooting Society) and people were here doing little skits and stuff. Bruce and I ran through there and ran back,” Kristen points out to the pastures. “Bruce was shooting at me and I was shooting at him. I started to lose my hat – so it was like, ‘shoot, hold the hat – no reins’ but it was okay; I trusted my horse. I pushed my hat down, put the guns up and ended up stopping up here,” she laughs.
“When I saw the photo I thought, ‘that is really awesome, who did this?’ The whole time I was riding I thought I must have looked dumb. I didn’t even have my hat strapped on…but in that photo it looked really cool. I didn’t expect that to happen,” Kristen says.
Growing up around the ranch most of her life, Kristen remembers getting “Mate”, her first horse. He was also the horse she rode when the picture was taken. She says, "My parents got me and my sister a horse almost 10 years ago. Joe is my sister’s horse but my dad mostly rides him now. Sometimes my mom and dad and I ride. Dad rides Joe, mom rides Mate and I will ride Belle.”
Belle is the horse that Kristen had bought on her own while working at Jason’s Deli on Gunbarrel Road. “I have Mate and my other horse Belle - she came here about three years ago. She was Bruce and Marie’s horse,” Kristen says.
“Bruce got all of us girls together saying, ‘Here’s all these baby horses, let’s break them, pick a horse’ so I picked Belle and at that time, you couldn’t touch her at all. We would have to go out in the pasture for about a week with the feed bucket and just barely touch her to get her used to me,” Kristen remembers. “Then eventually she would come when I whistled. We started working her up, which was an extensive process… that was the first time I had ever done that.
“Bruce was right there the whole time showing me how to do it. Within the third time riding her, she bucked me off and that was a scary thing. I told myself, ‘Nope! I gotta do this!’ It didn’t hurt but the shock of it is what is scary. I got back on and ever since then I have been working her. Last summer I bought her from Bruce and Marie – myself, through my job,” Kristen proudly says. “I paid board, vet bills and everything.”
Kristen mostly rides her first horse, Mate, for competitions. “I come to the ranch about five times a week. I try to come every single day – it hurts me not to come because I love him so much. When I come here I stay at least four hours. My dad pretty much rides my sister’s horse. I don’t really deal with him much except when he needs worming - which I did today,” she states.
Kristen’s childhood dream was to become a veterinarian for large and small animals.
Not only having a love for animals, Kristen was around a medical background from her parents' careers. Chuck Woodhead is a physical therapist working at a hospital in Calhoun and her mother Shirley works for Stoltenberg Consulting installing systems for hospitals. Kristen will be attending Berry Collage in the fall, majoring in animal science.
After working that first year with the Lawrences, Kristen was instructed by other trainers with what disciplines she chose. She learned English, the basics of Dressage and Western. “I like Western better. I am glad I did the other training, but I love barrel racing, timed event things and riding fast, it’s my favorite!” Kristen expresses.
“Bruce and Marie did a lot for me. Before I came up here, I was sitting at home watching TV everyday not really doing much. We began lessons here and my parents asked if we wanted to come up here – every single day. Mom told them, ‘Do what you want with the girls’ so we helped to feed and water every day - cleaned stalls and we loved it. It got us out of the house and taught us everything about horses,” Kristen says.
When it came to hanging out with her friends, Kristen still took her responsibilities seriously. “Friends would say, ‘Hey, let's go do this’ and I’d say, ‘Nope, gotta ride my horse’ or ‘Gotta deal with my horses.’ I still hung out with friends; sometimes I would bring them here. It does take a lot of discipline. Since I got a job, I can’t be here as much as I would like,” she says.
Though there is much hard work involved, Kristen still finds time to have fun. “One time we had a cookout and there was a big group of us playing ‘hide and go seek’ on our horses while all the adults were cooking out and sitting around eating. We were out there running around hiding from each other and that was so much fun.”
It is obvious that Kristen loves riding fast, “We made a rule if you were within a certain distance you were tagged. We would try to sneak past one of the seekers, run our horse and they would do the chase – that was the fun part,” she professes.
“I have done NBHA and GBA (National Barrel Horse Association and Georgia Barrel-Racing Association) for two or three years. They have different places around here that you go to every month. I have gotten a couple of halters, breast colors and bridals for prizes,” Kristen proclaims.
“Bruce always told me when I would ride that you have to fall off seven times before you become a cowgirl. That scared me at the time because I hadn’t fallen off at all. But it has happened a lot. One time I broke my ankle and the other time I broke five bones across my foot. That is all the injuries I have had, but not all the times I have fallen off,” Kristen admits.
Remembering the first time that she fell, Kristen says, “I hadn’t even bought my horse yet. I was taking a lesson and I dropped the reins on the ground. The horse stepped in them and didn’t like its head being pulled back so she started flinging me around. I was only eight years old, but I didn’t get hurt at all. You either have to stick with it or you gotta be done and I said, ‘Nope, I gotta get on this horse.’ During camp Bruce and Marie made sure that I rode that horse every single day,” Kristen maintains.
With determination, Kristen didn’t let any falls or injuries stop her from staying with it. “I just love horses so much and always wanted to interact with them. If that is what it takes to be around them, then I will deal with it,” she says.
Kristen will attend college for four years to get her bachelor’s degree and then on to veterinarian school. During the summer she will come back to the ranch to do the Rock and Ride and other events. She hopes to have her own ranch someday and have a lot of horses.
Her advice to anyone beginning with horses is, “They are huge responsibility. You need to be able to take a lot of lessons first and learn with the horses before you ever decide to get one. You are going to fall off if you decide to stick with it – it is gonna happen. You can’t get into horses without expecting something to happen to you or the horse. They have a mind of their own and so do you, but if you really want to stick with it – you will.”