Restoration at the Ranch

HIDDEN FAR DOWN NORTH FLORIDA AVENUE IS A BIT OF LAND TO CAPTURE RESPITE, A SPACE TO CHASE WORRIES AWAY RIDING HORSEBACK, A BRIEF VENTURE TO RETREAT FROM EVERYDAY LIFE: A PLACE CALLED LEANING W OUTREACH RANCH.

PHOTOGRAPHY BY JASON STEPHENS

A sign toppled over, broken branches scattered, the grill tarp blown askew — just some of the damage from the previous evening’s winds and rain at the Leaning W Outreach Ranch on Earnest Road in North Lakeland.
“I’m in the process of trying to get everything put back right,” founder and owner Richard Wilder explains, surveying the landscape.
That seems to be the mantra of all that happens at the Leaning W: to get everything put back right.
Wilder is the sole caretaker at the Leaning W, and he shoulders the responsibility of caring not just for the 18.5-acre property, but also for the thousands of veterans and at-risk youth who have passed through his gates, approximately 4,000 in total during the outreach’s nearly six years of operation.
He says, “I tell the veterans and kids that visit, ‘When you come through the gates out there, leave your problems on that side of the gate.’”
Wilder considers the Leaning W to be a retreat, a place to get away.

IT’S NOT JUST A PLACE FOR VETERANS TO COME. IT’S NOT JUST A PLACE FOR AT-RISK KIDS TO COME. IT’S A PLACE FOR ANYONE WHO NEEDS TO GET AWAY AND TRY TO THINK.

There’s no medical personnel, no rooms for counseling sessions, just wide-open spaces for clearing your mind and healing from your past — all at your own pace.
“Here you can relax,” says Wilder. “There are no cares, no worries. You don’t have the traffic and the noise. Your mind can just roam to a degree — get things straight. Any time you want to leave, you can get up and leave. You don’t have to worry about restrictions.”
A Vietnam veteran diagnosed with PTSD, the idea for the organization came to Wilder during the early ’90s while volunteering with the disabled at Ember Ranch in Polk City. As Wilder spent time working with the horses there, he noticed it helped him to relax. Soon after, a doctor recommended to Wilder that he spend an hour a week riding horses to help manage his condition.
“The horses don’t care who you are or what problems you might have. Just to put your hands on them is relaxing. That one hour a week turned into half a day, which turned into all day, which turned into every day. A change came over me,” Wilder says.
Although he had already been working with veterans and at-risk youth for years, Wilder was granted nonprofit status and officially opened the Leaning W’s gates in October 2011.
He has always had an open-door policy for anyone who wants to visit, from Boy Scout troops to corporate executive teams, asking only that you let him know you’re on your way. “It’s not just a place for veterans to come. It’s not just a place for at-risk kids to come. It’s a place for anyone who needs to get away and try to think.”
“The horses don’t care who you are or what problems you might have. Just to put your hands on them is relaxing. That one hour a week turned into half a day, which turned into all day, which turned into every day. A change came over me,” Wilder says.
Although he had already been working with veterans and at-risk youth for years, Wilder was granted nonprofit status and officially opened the Leaning W’s gates in October 2011.
He has always had an open-door policy for anyone who wants to visit, from Boy Scout troops to corporate executive teams, asking only that you let him know you’re on your way. “It’s not just a place for veterans to come. It’s not just a place for at-risk kids to come. It’s a place for anyone who needs to get away and try to think.”
The serene setting is perfect for just that. A lake for fishing flanks the winding entrance on one side, trees on the other. Horses, hammocks, a horseshoe pit, and a grilling area are all available for visitors to use and enjoy, whether they’re just there for the day or plan to camp out overnight. Wilder himself is also available for anyone unfamiliar with horses who wants to learn to ride or gain confidence in interacting with them.
The best part? It’s all free.
Wilder doesn’t charge visitors anything for using the facility — nor does he accept any sort of outside funding to maintain the Leaning W, though he has been offered it in the past and been encouraged to grow his organization through those means. Funding his operations personally allows him to keep the focus of the place on his original vision: helping others.

THE HORSES DON’T CARE WHO YOU ARE OR
WHAT PROBLEMS YOU MIGHT HAVE.

“At many other organizations, over 50 percent of the funding is going to administrative fees and salaries. What about the veterans?” Wilder asked. “I don’t want to get funded and then have this turn into something else.”
With his limited resources, Wilder is adept at finding new uses for old items. The feed room next to the horse stalls is a repurposed porch. The arena — known as the Bucket Arena by regulars — features a perimeter of tires and buckets from a trash dump he removed from the property’s entrance as well as bleachers and cones donated by the Richard Petty Driving Experience in Orlando.
The round pen, which is used to train horses in a confined space, is made of brush that has been cleared from the property over the years. Wilder views the building and rebuilding of the pen’s walls as the brush settles to be a therapy tool.
“Just the act of going around to collect the branches and piling them up and getting the thing round again is therapeutic. There’s no right and no wrong way, but it’s the act of engaging your mind so that you can try to learn to focus again.”
According to Wilder, learning to concentrate is essential to managing PTSD. “Your mind is constantly racing all the time. You have to learn to focus.”
Most of the ranch’s maintenance is seen to by Wilder, who rises as early as 5 a.m. and works, at times, until 10 p.m. to stay on top of cutting the grass, caring for the six horses, and tending to the other necessary jobs around the Leaning W and his personal property — which is in addition to his responsibilities as a historical reenactment soldier and Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) post commander. He enjoys and appreciates the work, however, because it helps him stay physically fit, having recently celebrated his 66th birthday.
Visitors do chip in at times, though. Some of the veterans helped him put together the ranch’s barn, and Wilder always invites the kids to work alongside him, mucking out the stalls, grooming the horses, and rebuilding the round pen, among other tasks.
For the at-risk youth sent to the Leaning W to fulfill community-service requirements, Wilder takes a “no nonsense” approach. Each is asked to write a 250-word essay titled “The Consequences of My Actions,” with one copy going to Wilder, one going to the probation officer, and one kept by the juvenile offender.
After completing their community service, many choose to return to the ranch to spend time with Wilder and the horses, even several years later — known by him as his kids. However, if they get into trouble again, they’re not welcome back at the Leaning W until they’ve once again served their time and fulfilled any service requirements. And if they happen to be sent to the Leaning W to complete that service, Wilder pulls out the essays as a reminder.
“For every action, there’s a reaction,” says Wilder, a lesson in consequences that he feels is vital for at-risk youth to learn, having himself been in trouble with the law years prior.
In fact, that seems to be the secret to Wilder’s effectiveness and the positive impact he has had on so many: his commitment to learning from life’s challenges and the ability to relate to the ranch’s visitors because of similar past experiences.
“Some things you just don’t have to explain,” he says. “A lot of times what we need, particularly in the case of veterans, is a place to go where there’s someone who understands how you feel.”
Wilder makes himself available to his guests in case anyone needs to talk, though he does ask his visitors not to pry uninvited into each other’s lives and problems.
“What I try to be is a sounding board,” he says.
For Wilder, sitting back and listening can be a challenge, however.
“I like to run my mouth,” he says, laughing.
This is why he cites patience as his greatest lesson learned through founding and operating Leaning W Outreach.
His hope for the future of the ranch is to keep it operational and personally funded — possibly even to find someone to continue on his mission for the place, whether it’s in Lakeland or elsewhere.
“If there’s even one person out here a month, then that’s good. It will have been worth it.”

FOR MORE INFORMATION ABOUT LEANING W OUTREACH RANCH AND TO SCHEDULE A VISIT, CALL 863.255.8663.

THE RANCH IS LOCATED AT 2620 EARNEST ROAD, LAKELAND, FL 33809.