Sitting on 19 acres of Collin County pastureland, Storybook Ranch is part nonprofit, part for-profit kids camp and dude ranch, with horseback riding, a petting zoo, and a faux-Western saloon — a place where exurbanites can indulge in their nostalgia for a simpler time. And that’s the feel the city of Dallas was going for when it enlisted River Ranch Educational Charities, Storybook’s nonprofit arm, to co-run the $11 million Texas Horse Park, the latest jewel in the Trinity River Corridor Project crown.
The city was also desperate: It needed to justify pouring millions of dollars into a project that, though approved by voters as part of the grab bag of pricey baubles in the 1998 Trinity River Corridor Project bond package, no one outside a couple southern Dallas council members and a handful of their constituents seemed to care much about. Had they cared, the Texas Horse Park wouldn’t have fallen so woefully short of its $15 million fundraising goal.
To some, this might have suggested that the project should be tossed in the garbage. Instead, plans to build an elite, world-class equestrian center were scaled back, and the park was reimagined as a therapy center for special-needs kids that would also offer trail rides, horse-riding lessons and summer camps to the general public.
Under the deal, the city lets River Ranch use the land rent-free for the next 20 years. In exchange, the nonprofit will build trails, handle programming and maintain the property. (A separate nonprofit, Equest, handles the therapy). The pictures of disabled children riding horses, which figure prominently in presentations to the City Council, are a bonus.
All of that requires horses, of course, which River Ranch will provide and care for. What the city of Dallas didn’t know when it was negotiating the deal was that Storybook Ranch and its president, Harris Wayne Kirk Jr., was the subject of an ongoing animal cruelty investigation in Collin County. And while the charges against him were eventually dropped, animal control officers were concerned enough about Kirk’s care for one sick horse that they asked a judge to let them take it away — and the judge agreed.