Notable Neighbors

September 26, 2023 at 11:28 a.m.

By DEAN LAUX Columnist

Living Her Childhood Dream On Harmony Lane

How many of us ever actually get to fulfill our childhood dreams? Did Alice stay forever in Wonderland? Did Dorothy find peaceful bliss in the Land of Oz? Of course not, though we can imagine that they might have, like the heroines in fairy tales, lived happily ever after in more mundane settings. 

Well, say hello to Suzanne Dunn Park, who is training horses and humans to enjoy life together at the Bit of Hope Ranch on quaintly named Harmony Lane, right here in Englewood, Florida. She is, indeed, living her childhood dream. “Oh my gosh, I had an interest in horses my whole life,” she says. “I read horse books, I drew horse pictures, and everything was horse, horse, horse. When I was in high school, one of my criteria for dating was, ‘Do you own a horse, and would you take me horseback riding?’ When we went on family trips I was known to randomly disappear and be found in a horse pasture, riding horses I had no idea were even rideable. That would include donkeys and mules. It was very foolish, and I don’t recommend it, but I didn’t know any better at the time.”

Suzanne was a self-taught ‘horseman’ – a term she uses for any rider, male or female. “We were a middle-class family, and my parents didn’t have the means to pay for riding lessons, so I didn’t even consider it a possibility. But I hung around horse people when I was old enough to do so, and I asked a lot of questions.”

Suzanne grew up in Englewood and had the unusual experience of going to the same school for 13 years, from kindergarten through her senior year in high school. It was a Baptist private school, originally called Englewood Christian School and later renamed the Heritage Christian Academy. A very good student by her own admission, she graduated in 1989 and went off to college at Tennessee Temple University in Chattanooga. “At first I wanted to be a veterinarian,” she says, “but that changed very quickly, and I decided I just wanted to be a horse person.”

The Horse Lady is right at home in her haven for resued equines.

 After a year she transferred to Clearwater Christian College to be closer to her parents, Fred and Joyce Dunn, who owned Left Coast Landscape, a maintenance and landscaping business in Englewood. “I ended up deciding that college was just not for me. I had a pretty good education in all the things that I wanted to do, and I didn’t see that spending more money on college costs was reasonable.” Besides, she had met Paul Park. “It was his fault,” she jokes.

“I started attending a church with my cousin, who was a youth pastor,” she remembers. “He had a youth group, and I was helping him and hanging out, and that’s where I met Paul. We hit it off from day one, and two years later, in 1993, we got married.” Two years after that they left Clearwater for Englewood, where Paul could help Suzannes dad run the business while her mom was working as a church administrator. 

Paul and Suzanne bought a house near Harmony Lane in Englewood, and a life-changing moment occurred the very first night they celebrated their good fortune there with Fred and Joyce. “Before I met Paul, I had really struggled with my passion for horses as an adult,” she says. “It was okay as an elementary and high school student, but in college it just didn’t fit in. As an adult you can’t just jump fences and go ride somebody else’s horses.” One night in her college dorm, she had a showdown with God. “I said, ‘God, you’ve given me this passion for horses, and I don’t know what to do with it. College is not for me, and I can’t afford the money I’m spending on horses. Give me a reason for the passion, or I’ll just put it up on the shelf and move on with my life.’ ” Fast-forward to that night of celebration on Harmony Lane:

“We walked out into the back yard, which was fenced in, and beyond that there was nothing but woods and tall weeds. We were talking and laughing, and suddenly the weeds parted and we heard crunching sounds. What emerged but a horse! I said to myself, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me, God. You can’t put me in a house and have me stare at a horse on a daily basis and not let me get involved.’ Within a matter of days, I discovered who owned the horse, and within months I was the owner of that horse and had access to the property that was to become Bit of Hope Ranch.”

She and Paul formed a company and made it a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization. They were able to secure the use of 12 acres of land through the generosity of Dr. Marguerite Barnett. “What she did not only for me personally but for this community is incredible,” Suzanne emphasizes. The property has an open-sided barn/stable with 14 stalls, and there’s a storage shed for “hay and whatnot,” as she puts it. “The rest of the land is for the horses to roam in.”

Suzanne points out that the space is enough to use for giving lessons and training, but “when it comes to going on an adventure or a trail ride, we load the horses in a trailer and head over to the Myakka River State Park, and sometimes we’ll ride around town, taking along a shovel and broom in case the horses make any deposits. Our neighbors are very sweet, and they like to see us, so we do our best to be great neighbors too.”

She goes on: “At first, now that a horse named Jasmine had walked out of the forest and into my heart, I didn’t know what to do. For several months, that gift was all about me. I was happy. I had a house, a husband and a horse. I had forgotten about my half of the bargain with God, to share my good fortune with others.” But then a second stranger walked into her life: a ten-year-old redhead started showing up in her pasture, climbing over her fences and messing around in the barn. Suzanne was initially angry and upset, but then she asked herself, “What am I doing? First God sent me a horse and now he’s sending me a kid, and I have the opportunity to teach her what I never knew.” The next day she followed the young girl home, met her grandparents, and invited the little redhead to come over to take care of Jasmine and learn about horses and riding. She came, she learned, and she brought some friends. Then they brought other friends. “That was the real birth of Bit of Hope,” Suzanne acknowledges.

Bit of Hope Ranch is now in its 28th year. “We’re open to the public, but by invitation only,” she explains. “We’re not set up to just allow the public to come and visit. When we have groups in for teaching, like the Girl Scouts, home school groups and the vet class at Southern Technical College, we’ve got to be prepared for it. And we can’t have people roaming around the area, which is made up of private homes. We have to be good neighbors. Our goal is to educate people to be good horsemen. There’s no age limit to our clients. We’re now into our second generation of students. We want them to know how to take care of a horse, how to take care of the land around them, how to treat their neighbors, and how to take care of themselves around a horse. When we first started this program, we went out seeking horses that were neglected or unwanted and needed us. Now their owners just come and find us, because our reputation has grown over the years. We’ve discovered that there are a lot of horses out there that need a better place to be in. About 70 percent of them are in that predicament because of their behavior – lack of training, lack of education. They need to learn how to be around humans, just as humans need to learn how to be around them.”

Suzanne does most of the training, but she has some help. “I have raised a generation of young people who are now independently doing their own training,” she says. “Two of my three daughters, Reagan and Isabella, are professional-level trainers, and Isabella has her own teaching and training business at this point. We have a good, solid corps of horses and teachers or mentors, young students capable of teaching.”

The ideal program is to find, rescue, train and adopt out horses that are in need. “We have to evaluate the horses: Is this a behavior issue? A medical issue? A lameness issue? If the problem is permanent and unsolvable, we will politely decline to become involved, because there’s no out. It’s not going to be a happy situation in the end. We need to work with horses that are able to return to a normal society with humans.” 

Bit of Hope has 14 horses right now that are good enough to be trusted with beginners, about 70 percent of them children. “Someone five years old or younger has the attention span of a fruit fly,” Suzanne reckons, “and you have to teach them in small increments. The most important thing to teach them at that age is how to be safe around a horse. Next is how to treat a horse. And they must learn to respond immediately if someone in authority tells them to do something. Do it first, and ask later why they had to do it.” Like what all military recruits learn in basic training: Do what you’re told, and don’t ask questions.

For the program of training, Suzanne says this: “The first objective is how to handle horses safely, how to put their halters on, and then how to move them, how to lead them, how to back them up, how to turn them, how to put them in the stall and how to get them on pasture. And then we move on to how to properly brush them, how to take care of their coats, their manes, their tails and their feet. We go from there to saddling and eventually to riding. All of that might take weeks for some students and only days or hours for others.”

Where does the future lie for Bit of Hope, now that the fantasy of Suzanne’s high school years has become the reality of her adulthood? “We’re a rare horse rescue ranch that has stayed out of debt, but I still need to work essentially fulltime with my husband at Left Coast Landscape to make ends meet,” Suzanne allows, “and it would be really neat to see this place running on a self-sustaining basis. I don’t want to retire from this business, I want to retire to this business. My absolutely favorite saying is, ‘Your attitude is the difference between an adventure and an ordeal.’ So far, it’s been an adventure.” And that’s the right attitude for a lucky gal who is, after all, living her childhood dream before our eyes, right here on Harmony Lane.

That might be enough to make even Alice and Dorothy a little bit jealous.

"We've had a horse of every color here," Suzanne proclaims.
Photos by Grace Anderson.

Dean Laux is exploring  interesting folks living in our community. If you know of anyone with an interesting background please send an email to: [email protected]. Include the person’s name, contact info and give a brief description of the person’s background.