Outdoor Escape for Your Inner Cowboy
By Peggy Bair
About 10 years ago, a couple of Kansas teenagers, Michael Green and Cody Heim, bumped fists in a promise to each other for the future: that they would own a ranch and spend their lives as cowboys helping other people experience the joys of country life.
In the most unlikeliest of times, that dream came true in August 2020. When news of the ranch hit social media, it was immediately welcomed by a pandemic-stricken population longing for outdoor activities. With a three generation deep legacy in Northeast Kansas, Watkins “C” Ranch found had just found a new home on larger acreage on August 1, 2020 in Kansas City, Kan.
Sweat equity was the first order of business for the now-26-year-olds Cody and Michael. Clearing brush, hauling hay, cleaning stalls, rounding up firewood, breaking horses, riding lessons and trail rides may sound like too much work for some but for Cody and Michael, the physical work is welcome. In addition to that, though, Michael’s internet marketing skills came into play with building a web presence, organizing a schedule, social media connecting and live streaming daily happenings. His efforts quickly paid off with nearly 2500 likes in less than a month on the ranch’s Facebook page.
Michael Green is actually a fourth generation horse handler in the Northeast Kansas area. His grandfather owned the land on the original Watkins “C” Ranch in Atchison County right on the Leavenworth-Atchison County line. In 1995, Green’s mother Tonya Theis (Charles C. Watkins’ daughter) turned that ranch into a horse riding and boarding facility. Michael’s great grandfather, was also a horse trader back in his day though he did not own or run a horse ranch like his son Charles.
“(Grandpa’s) name was Charles and everyone thought that was the reason for the name (of the ranch). But the old property was shaped like a ‘C’,” said Michael, explaining the real reason for the original ranch name.
Michael’s mother Tonya Theis bought the ranch from her father. It was nine acres. She rode and trained horses there for a couple of years after buying the property. In 1995, Tonya turned it in to a working ranch for boarding horses, riding lessons and trail rides. Michael and Cody, just young boys at that time, had already been riding since they just about could walk. They worked the ranch as older kids – giving lessons, breaking horses, maintaining the stables – while hatching the dream of one day being in charge.
“I started teaching and breaking horses when I was 14. I was a freshman in high school,” said Michael. “We would have close to 120 students a week. It was my mom, my grandfather, my mom’s sister and all of us kids [running the ranch]. Cody Heim was out there working with us all the time. We went to school together. Cody learned on the ranch was teaching lessons and breaking horses at 14,” said Michael.
The young friends left the ranch when they both reached 18 to seek other ideas – Michael getting married and moving to Texas where his father Gene Green lives, close to Houston.
“I wanted some new scenery and a different kind of life so I went down there – went to see the world for myself,” Michael said. But he found the Midwest calling to him again and returned to the Kansas City area in 2018.
“Cody and I , back when we were in high school, we told each other one day we’d own the ranch. That seed was always there,” Michael said. Michael had spent his time away from the ranch as an adult working in sales and marketing.
Michael credits his uncle Charlie Watkins, Jr., with setting up the original ranch as a business to help it thrive.
“One thing, too, when Grandpa started the farm, my dad, my uncle Charlie, my Aunt Jill, my Uncle Adam – they all helped build the place and all of us really worked as a family. My Aunt Jill would do different events, mom would teach, my dad was teaching and riding, my uncle Charlie and Adam doing maintenance,” said Michael.
Michael’s mother Tonya explained a bit more of the family history. “In 1969, my parents bought their original place. They were married in 1967 and they bought the original place where Watkins ranch was from my grandfather. My grandfather never had horses on it but they [her parents] probably had horses on it from day one, because my dad loved horses,” Tonya said. “But it didn’t really become a business until 1995.
“In 1995 we got very fortunate and we got a contract from Fort Leavenworth that we were the ones they went to if they wanted horses. So, we went to the MWR, their children’s activities program,” she explained. “Then we started going to PAIR Day. [ed. note: Where businesses introduce themselves to families stationed at Fort Leavenworth.] Our first PAIR Day was Aug. 5, 1995. We signed up about 90 students in about three hours,” Tonya said.
Tonya ran the business with her father until he retired in 2012. Then she ran it with the help of the now-experienced older children, Michael and Cody. Her second husband, Jerry Theis, was and is a veterinarian at Fort Leavenworth as a civilian. He helped as much as he could during that time but he also has a family farm raising angus cattle.
Eventually, with the children growing up and leaving home, the original Watkins “C” Ranch became too much for Tonya to run by herself. The two boys had gone off to college together then split off into different paths to explore the world.
“Michael had moved to Texas, Megan was in college and me being 48 years old, having horse ranch with very little help was just impossible to keep up,” Tonya said. The original nine acre ranch was sold and Tonya concentrated on her angus cattle farm with her husband, Jerry.
In the meantime, though, the allure of that cowboy promise had not left Michael and Cody.
Then, in 2020, a fortunate break happened: The 28 acre property came up for sale in Kansas City, KS.
“I knew that was it,” said Cody.
The rolling acres of hills, trails, a pond and woods can house about 12 horses at the moment but Michael said “it’s an evolving project.” It has an indoor area and two barns with stalls, a round pen for horse training. The pond will be good for fishing, Michael said, with a little more work.
“We’re living on the property. You can’t do this unless you’re here 100%,” Cody said. “We’re out here every single day and you just really forget about what’s going on in the world. Our goal is to bring a nice calm culture to Kansas City – especially with everything going on. But with the pandemic here or not, me and Michael had started discussing starting this kind of culture about a year before we found the place. I’d actually moved away to Oregon because we were, like, ‘Okay, we’re not finding the perfect location.’
They had gotten to the point where they were accepting that they were going to have to do some more exploring up in Oregon when this property came up.
“Immediately when we found out it was confirmed, I headed straight back from Oregon to start the rest of our lives and what we’re doing here,” Cody said. “It was great seeing people really from all sorts of cultures coming together and enjoying the same kind of things.”
Cody’s brother Steven chimed in on that point: “What’s a pandemic if [running the ranch] is your love, that’s your passion – if you’ve always dreamed of bringing that experience to other people? You can do it your entire life – bringing that kind of joy to other people and learn that kind of life skill. You’re already living your best life helping other people live their best life. You’re helping people do things outside, not indoors,” said Steven.
Cody and Michael, both 26, have about 12 years’ experience each teaching, breaking horses, and tending a ranch. Michael had been running his own internet business for two years. The two brought more skills to the business: Cody is a farrier.
Training horses is also a part of the ranch business. It takes place in a round pen just down from the main stables.
“That’s a very important part of training a horse,” Tonya said. “One of the main things you do is to get your horse tired out, and then teach it so is isn’t so wild and young and crazy. So you tire it out and then you teach it.”
Some of the horses brought to the ranch have had a rough start but end up also becoming a part of the healing culture of the ranch, Cody said, while seated on top of a horse that is fairly new to the ranch.
“This horse is eight years old,” speaking of the horse he was riding at the moment, “and I’m riding it for probably the 15th time now. This horse had no idea people were nice. You bring it here. You show it that. You get that connection with it,” Cody said. “This horse didn’t know anything. So, you teach it in a calm manner and that horse will learn to respect the rider, respect what you’re telling him and will become the best horse in the world.”
“It’s more of a relaxation, forgetting about everything else. You see the beautiful scenery, you see the beautiful horses. There’s no talk about politics. Some folks don’t even have signal down in here and it’s just so relaxing to people,” Cody said.
Cody said that he tries to emphasize the relaxation part of it with trail riders.
“Hey, guys, if you’re feeling nervous, try to take a deep breath and relax, enjoy all the oxygen with all these trees and the nice shade from all the beautiful plants, just relax,” Cody said.
Up in the arena, riders get a chance to have a trial start and lessons before hitting the trails. People of all ages can have an opportunity to get on a horse and get guidance from the team of experts.
“We have time slots [for classes], said Tonya. “And what’s going to happen starting this week, Monday through Friday. They’ll be teaching at 3:30, 4:30 5:30 and 6:30. Maybe even 7:30 for adults. They’ll put five in a class, then there will be an instructor. The ultimate goal is to have five classes a night, five kids in each class, five nights a week.”
Jermaine Wilson, former mayor of Leavenworth, came out to the ranch for its soft opening August 1, 2020.
“I think it’s amazing,” Wilson said. “It’s one of those things that exposes kids to another lifestyle that they might not have ever experienced before. It’s very therapeutic when it comes to the horses,” he said.
“Bringing people together is something he does very well,” Wilson said of Michael, with whom he has worked before on church and other community projects. “[The ranch] attracts people from all walks of life. I see blacks, I see whites, I see all types of people come together. When they are there, they are sharing memories that are going to be long-lasting ones. It’s the love he has for giving back and paying it forward,” said Wilson.
“The trail was amazing!” said Wilson. “I’m no horse rider but that adventure in itself – that was amazing. Some things are just hard to explain. If there was only one word, it was definitely adventurous,” he said. “You really get a chance to escape from what is going on in our society – you don’t see the negative. You see Mother Nature. You see peace. You have clarity with your thoughts. You’re not overwhelmed with the negative that is taking place in society. It’s relaxing as well.”
“It gives people the opportunity to come outside their homes – that’s inspirational within itself. It’s like, ‘Man, we’ve got something positive to look forward to now,'” Wilson added.
Michael said it’s in the family tradition to make the ranch more than just a place to ride – but a place for the community to come and hang out.
“I want it to be a community ranch,” Michael said. “If people want to help and all the stalls are clean – and I learned this from my grandpa – I ask them to pick up rocks and sticks so you don’t hit them when we are mowing. So, a lot of people are out picking up rocks and sticks. People will grab a weed eater and start weed whacking. A lot of people are enjoying coming out and cutting down the weeds on the trails and making sure they are clear. There are days we will be painting the fence and people will help. They just do whatever is needed.”
Tonya brings a positive outlook towards working with the children and horses:
“It’s my goal what when your kids feet hit the ground out of their car that they are there with a mission,” Tonya said. “It’s my job – it’s my responsibility – to make sure this happens today – ‘I get to ride today.'”
But the experience at Watkins “C” Ranch is about more than riding horses, she said.
“It’s not always about the ride. I’ve had so many families who say, ‘Thank you for teaching my kid the responsibility that comes along with it (riding),” Tonya explained.
“We might ride for an hour, but they come out for four or five hours a day,” Tonya said. The rest of it is that they want to help. And that’s what we try and teach kids. Something that I never do is go behind them and tell them what they did wrong. I’ve never been, ‘There’s only one way,’ but, ‘Here’s what we’ve got to get done today. Let’s decide how we should do this.'”
Michaels’ father Gene Green, who was born in Atchison, KS, remembers his son growing up around the horses: “He had been around horses since he was a baby,” Gene said. “He always loved riding. He took to it naturally – both kids did [Cory and Michael].”
Gene said the original ranch was a place where people could hang out and experience the “country” life.
“It had the same feeling where you could come out and forget about the world, really,” Gene said. “Lots of kids, even adults, could experience what country life is like, including work – what it was like to actually take care of a horse, feeding and cleaning – anything that was connected to a ranch or farm work. You name it. Some even became owners and went on either getting a farm to own horses or even compete.”
Michael is philosophical about the detour he took to get back to the cowboy way he grew up in.
“I think it’s sometimes – and this is my belief – that sometimes God will really let you go through it till you can appreciate what you are naturally good at, and where your position should be in the world. And it’s like that seed’s always been there, but you want to run from it because you think it’s not going to be what you thought it was gonna be,” Michael said.
“With my kids, I’ve always encourage leadership. I don’t want to be the boss,” said Tonya. “I want to be someone who is helping to create more leaders.”
“You know, I’m talking for Michael but he really missed it,” Tonya said. “He really missed it.”
“I am just so excited about this starting back up,” Tonya said. “It’s just revived our whole family again and being able to give back to the community.”
That philosophy carries into the atmosphere at Watkins C Ranch – especially at time when people are looking for new ways to stretch out in a world that feels restricted and isolated.
“We really want to be a place where people can come and drop everything at the door that they’re dealing with in life,” Michael said. “Whatever’s going on in that person’s life they can drop it at the door and deal with the horse. There’s a lot of therapy when a person and a horse get connected it really does change somewhat. We really want it to be a place where people can come and feel like family and their life is forever changed.”
“There’s a lot of things we do here,” Michael said. “It comes down to the culture of that place and be able to spread that out in the market place. People realize ‘I just want to spend time with horses,’ maybe give them snacks or brush the horses. We want people to come out and feel like they are at home.”
“I heard stories from my grandpa about trouble kids. And when they left, when they got older, those are still friends with Grandpa,” Michael said.
“You’ll see the kids doing different stuff, playing with dogs, they might clean out a couple stalls. Then you’ll see kids forming different friendships than they would have had anywhere else,” Michael said. “You’ll see an innocent, shy person who is struggling in school start being around like-minded kids who are all riding horses together. It just brings out different stuff in different people.”
Since the property was acquired, Michael has been using his social media skills to attract and engage enthusiasm for the ranch. The Facebook page Watkins “C” Ranch quickly acquired 1,000 members. Cody and Michael blast out messages daily with the latest activities on the ranch.
“We are about to try something really special,” Michael said. “We’re going to have a Romantic Trail ride. This couple came out here and found a really pretty spot and tied up their horses. And we had cooked them a steak dinner and potato and some cool stuff like that. And they had some wine and all that good stuff. That’s something we’re going to be doing here that will be really interesting.”
Coming up in September 2020 will be a September 11th event billed as “Armed Forces/First Responders Appreciation Day.”
What’s a ranch, though, without a singing cowboy? Michael fills that roll as well, stepping in to entertain at bonfires and barn dances.
“I tell people ‘Just come out and see us,'” Cody said. “People have come out planning to just stay 20-30 minutes and end up staying four or five hours vs. what they planned on – just to check it out,” Cory said. “They come out and just feel that weight fall off their shoulders.”
Watkins “C” Ranch is located at 3605 N 59th st, KC Ks 66104. Call the phone number in the highlighted link to inquire about lessons, trail rides and special events.
Peggy Bair is a Midwest journalist and photographer covering human interest stories throughout Middle America.
I am an alum of the English Department of the University of Missouri – Kansas City. I am a member of the American Society of Media Photographers, the National Press Photographers Association and Professional Photographers of America. I have worked on the staff of six different newspapers throughout my career and specialize in people stories.Your support of local journalism helps keep bringing these stories to uplift your spirits.
Although my business has been heavily impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, I have not accepted any payment, grants, government assistance or unemployment for my journalism during this pandemic. If you would like to donate to the support honest storytelling, you can contribute to my PayPal by posting any amount to my PayPal donation link.
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