Military kids spilled off of a charter bus at the Riding on Angel's Wings ranch near Felton, Minn., and were greeted with smiles and hand warmers. The frigid cold of Dec. 4 didn't damper spirits as the kids made their way into the horse arena for a day camp to learn about horses and pick up a few life lessons. The camp was sponsored by North Dakota's Operation: Military Kids (OMK) and was open to all military Families.

"OMK is an exciting initiative that the N.D. National Guard partners with to advocate for the needs of our children and youth. What's truly neat about OMK is that they are here in our communities to support all military children," said Jessica Clark-Woinarowicz, N.D. National Guard state youth coordinator. "So with these events, you can bet you will have a melting pot of Active Duty, National Guard and Reserve children and youth. This event is a perfect example of that."

As the first attendee cautiously approached a miniature practice horse named Tinker, the other 8 kids, ages 6 to 9, looked on in nervous excitement. One by one, the kids made their way to the small horse in anticipation of interacting with the towering Quarter Horses. With the miniature horse, the kids practiced approaching, greetings, contact and handling, and they learned how to read horses' mannerisms and body language.

While some kids were waiting to meet the miniature horse, the participants who had finished stayed warm in the chilly arena by doing calisthenics with a volunteer near a propane heater.
After learning proper horse etiquette, the kids were thrown into their first big test - haltering the gigantic Quarter Horses and walking them to a fence. The kids were not given instructions on how to get the headgear on and had to rely on each other and use their problem-solving skills to complete the task. This job proved to be a real challenge.

One participant, Emma, said, "We really didn't know what was going on at first, so we were trying to put the [halter] on the horse's nose and in its mouth. Finally, we figured it out!" With a smile on her face, she added, "I'd like to point out that we were the first to get our horse over to the fence, though. We tossed a rope over its head and pulled it over so we could win."

On another team, Connor and Lily's horse helped them with their complex task.

"All we had to do was hold the harness up and he pushed his head in!" Lily said. Connor instantly jumped in, "Yeah, he thought he was going for a walk."

The first of two sessions ended with a walk around the barn and was followed by a lively discussion about the morning over cookies and juice packs. While there was talk of horses and of all the day's fun, the kids visited with Riding on Angel's Wings group leaders about the importance of obedience, patience and careful listening, as well as other life lessons.

"As the kids are directing the horses, it's a natural connection to relate that to the experiences they face every day. They're constantly being told what to do and how to do it, and it doesn't always make sense to them. If they see why they're doing certain things with the horses, they can understand why they need to listen and obey, too," said Mark Schaefer, a school psychologist, clinical director at Dakota Boy's and Girl's Ranch and horse enthusiast from Minot.

"Being part of this great organization has been one of the most fulfilling experiences of my life," said Vince Babbler, retired 119th Happy Hooligan fire chief and volunteer with Riding on Angel's Wings. "I think I get more enjoyment and happiness than anybody."

The inspiration for Riding on Angel's Wings came from founder Bette Shipley's son, DJ, who was born with congenital heart defects and cerebral palsy. Bette's dream of riding horse with her son took some creative thinking and a few extra hands. The therapeutic benefits and sheer joy DJ experienced riding horse were too much for Bette to keep within her family, and Riding on Angel's Wings was born.

In 2002, with the help of two therapists and a handful of volunteers, the first seven riders were given the opportunity to share in Bette's dream and were able to ride. Since then, Riding on Angel's Wings has touched the lives of hundreds of kids and continues to build on that foundation.

Photos to accompany this release can be found at