When COVID-19 Struck, One Woman Turned Her Horse Ranch Into an Oasis the Community Needed

“I had a vision for the space being therapeutic for whoever the universe sent our way—horses or people.”

Shannon Hearne standing next to a horseCourtesy Shannan Hearne
Shannan Hearne wants everyone who loves horses and ranch life to have easy access.

Shannan Hearne’s oldest dream was to own a ranch. From the moment she was first placed in the saddle at age two, she had always felt most comfortable on horseback. In February 2020, her dream finally came true, when she and her “­partner-in-farm,” Cory Conley, opened the gates of Sun and Moon Ranch. Then, just a month later, the country spiraled into COVID-19 lockdown. Soon Hearne’s vision began to grow into something bigger.

With eight acres of pastures and an abundance of sunshine and fresh air, there was no safer way for frightened neighbors to get out of the house. The ranch, Hearne realized, should be for everybody. “It didn’t feel right to suddenly become protective of what I thought I was being a good steward of,” she says.

A little bit of farm and horse therapy

Sun and Moon Ranch is nestled between the Appalachian Mountains and the Atlantic coast, in Lexington, North Carolina. Sure, you can sign up for riding lessons or board your horse. But you can also drop by to play with the chickens, goats, and dogs. Wander through the vegetable garden. Break bread—and crab legs—during the farm’s low-country boils, when pots of shrimp, scallops, sausage, and corn cover the length of a newspaper-­covered picnic table. Or join the younger ranchers playing on the big pile of freshly dug dirt.

Hearne, a digital marketer by day, now saw the ranch as something more than a business—it would be a place the community could call home.

Little girl riding on a horse.Courtesy Shannan Hearne

As the pandemic deepened, locals began to gather there, not just for the free cookouts and bonfires, but for the chance to put up a hammock when they wanted some peace. RVs and campers were welcome to pull in for a quiet night after a day on the road. “I had a vision for the space being therapeutic for whoever the universe sent our way—horses or people,” says Hearne.

One of those people, now 15, was born without fingers on one hand. His grandmother brought him to Sun and Moon for riding lessons. Learning to control a horse with one hand helped him better manage his disability, and he grew closer to his grandmother over their shared love of horses. Plus, a special bond with two of Hearne’s 18 rescued horses, Annie and Honey, was a real leg up confidence-wise.

“There is something empowering about controlling a thousand-pound animal, and I believe this is especially true for children or anyone who struggles with any sort of self-­esteem issues,” Hearne says.

Another boy became selectively mute after being bullied because of his autism. Lesson by lesson, Hearne watched him slowly come out of his shell. Taking the reins, literally, helped him do so in his daily life too.

“I could see how the empowerment of riding was helping him feel once again in control of the world around him,” says Hearne. “He went from not answering questions to literally talking our ears off.” And there’s no nicer sound, especially when answered by an affectionate whinny from a four-legged best friend.

Next, find out the Nicest Place in America 2021 and read the heartwarming story of how one man turned his hotel into a home.

Reader's Digest
Originally Published in Reader's Digest