The love of horses

Bernadette Ruckdashel says horses understand human emotions. She should know—she owns 40 of them. Turn to page 3C for her story.
Ozaukee Press staff

Bernadette Ruckdashel found her equine dream a few miles from where she grew up and she has been living it for more than half a century.

The founder of Appy Orse Acres in the Town of Fredonia has more than 100 acres for her 40 horses to roam and enjoy life.

Lessons, rides, boarding, summer camps, parties, engagements and weddings are held on the farm not far from Highway 57.

Ruckdashel has loved horses since she was a child.

She bought her first horse when she was 7, had three horses and a trainer by the time she was 10 and has been teaching since she was 14.

Ruckdashel showed horses through 4-H and later participated in jumping competitions on the American Horse Show Circuit. Her highest jump was 5 feet, 8 inches — “three inches higher than I am tall,” she said.

Ruckdashel educated herself. “I learned by picking myself up off the ground,” she said.

Ruckdashel’s father, who she described as a sweet man, wasn’t a fan of the hoofed creatures. “He tolerated them,” she said. “Every time he handled a horse they’d pull away or knock him. He and horses didn’t get along.”

She remembers packing a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and going out to cut wood to make herself a corral so she could hang out with horses.

They’re affectionate animals, she said, that will offer certain places on their bodies to be scratched. Sometimes, they will put their heads on people’s shoulders. Horses pick up on how humans are feeling more than they get credit for.

“They’re very keen on your emotions,” Ruckdashel said.

Ruckdashel went through her own ups and downs in building her business. When she bought the farm in 1968, it didn’t look anything like it does now.

A berm with flowers is where an old barn stood before it was torn down. The indoor arena is where a silo was imploded.

“It just kind of took on a life of its own,” Ruckdashel said of the farm. “None of this was here. Nothing.”

The business wasn’t as bustling as it is today. Ruckdashel worked in the factory at the West Bend Co. for 28 years to earn a living.

Her seniority earned her six weeks of vacation, and she took it all in two-week stints during summer to hold riding camps for children.

She later worked at Kelch, an injection mold company in Mequon. An efficiency expert, Ruckdashel raised output by 30%.

Eventually, she grew tired of factory work and some of the sexism that came with it. She decided to work on the farm full time, no matter how tough a job it was to make a go of it.

Ruckdashel has a specific way of caring for her animals. They stay outside 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

“It’s the way God intended them to be,” she said.

When horses get cold and shake, she said, they will grow a thicker coat.

Ruckdashel does not keep her horses in box stalls. Imagine, she said, if people were confined to one room without a TV or phone and stayed there hours on end.

Horses in box stalls, she said, will develop health and personality issues. Some will constantly sway to pass the time. Others will try to walk around and some chew on the bars.

It’s no wonder, Ruckdashel said, that some people think horses are wild when they come out of their stalls. They have so much built-up energy.

“You’ve got to let a horse be a horse,” she said.

And no two are alike. Ruckdashel takes this into account for trail rides.

“Each horse has its own personality. You have to know which horse suits which rider,” she said. “You can’t put little kids on all of them.”

Some horses look forward to training. Children ride on certain days of the week and their horses will walk to the fence line to wait for them, Ruckdashel said.

She only buys geldings ­— “they’re the most even tempered,” she said — around 16 years old. They cost $5,000 to $6,000 each and have to be “calm enough to do the job.”

The cost of running the farm can rise and fall with the weather. A recent drought had Ruckdashel spending $63,000 for hay for winter. The normal rate of $120 to $180 per bale rose to more than $300.

Horseshoes are a more fixed cost. It’s $115 per horse, and each animal gets new shoes every four to seven weeks.

Sand in the riding ring, she said, acts as a nail file on the shoes, which requires that horses get new ones often.

In winter, horses have pads put on to avoid slipping in snow. In hot weather, horses get rinsed to get the sweat off of their bodies and prevent sores, she said.

The Covid-19 pandemic caused Ruckdashel to close for three months during winter. She set up a schedule for boarders so they never got within six feet of one another.

Once golf courses reopened, so did Appy Orse Acres, and the response was overwhelming from people itching to get out and do things again.

“As a matter of fact, the staff was close to burnout,” Ruckdashel said, adding they made thousands of dollars in tips.

For people whose children are interested in horses, Ruckdashel recommends against buying a pony to grow up with. Horses are not like dogs.

“Ponies are nasty little buggers. They’ll drop you at the drop of a hat,” she said.

But the benefits of children riding and handling a horse, she said, are immense. She has seen students drastically improve in school after summer camp at her farm.

“You teach them decision making. It builds their self-confidence,” Ruckdashel said. “Just dealing with a 1,200-pound animal builds up their confidence.”

Equine experience brings wisdom. Just as Ruckdashel taught herself as a child, “Falling off is not a failure. It’s a learning experience,” she said.

Now in her 70s, Ruckdashel is not a child anymore. But she has no plans to retire from what was “always the dream.”

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Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

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