JOHN DAY - From a horse's point of view, Berry Creek Ranch has got to be pretty near paradise: Thick grass, fresh running water, daily contact with caring humans, health care as needed, a handful of amiable four-legged companions and - best of all - sprawling green meadows to, well, horse around in.
And if horses can appreciate beautiful scenery, this 500-acre spread nestled up against the Strawberry Mountain Wilderness Area delights their spirits as well as their bodies.
That's exactly what Gordon and Julie Larson had in mind when they began their horse-boarding operation five years ago just south of John Day, in Eastern Oregon's Blue Mountains.
"We cater to the horse, not the rider," Gordon Larson said as he piloted his four-wheel-drive pickup across a grassy hillside toward a half-dozen of his charges.
They ambled up to greet him and his son, Soren, knowing that their two-legged friends never show up without a tasty treat for them.
The Larsons discovered their niche when a close friend who runs a full-service boarding facility near Portland told them there may be a need for a facility designed for the retired horse or for horses whose owners can no longer ride. The friend said many of his boarders "can't afford to keep their older horses here because of the high monthly fee."
Larson saw his own ranch as a natural solution. Setting up his land required a couple of things, he said: "You've gotta have good fences and lots of feed."
Fences he built. And the feed comes from the timothy hay, meadow grass and alfalfa he grows.
A little bit of advertising and word of mouth brought in their first clients, and the horse population has grown to about 20 now. That includes working horses from the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife and the U.S. Forest Service, 4-H horses, horses in transition between homes, and some who are retired permanent residents, beloved pets who deserve to be pampered in their later years. Some board here for a while to get used to being around cattle.
Larson figured he has room for up to 30 or 40 horses without being crowded.
Fees run $80 a month and up, which includes feed and supplements. Larson also does worming and vaccines, and but for anything more than a minor injury he calls a nearby vet.
"We're a B and B for horses," Larson said, "though many of them consider this place home." He described seeing them get out of their trailers returning from a stint at work, and they'll trot over to get reacquainted with their buddies.
Added his wife Julie, "They can be a horse here."
Larson said he grew up around horses on a farm in Scappoose, in northwest Oregon. "I rode when I wanted to go somewhere. It was just the way to get around."
Now, at age 39, he gets around in an Oregon State Police vehicle. As an outpost sergeant in John Day, he supervises coverage of about 6,000 square miles in Grant County and parts of Wheeler, Baker, Umatilla and Harney counties.
Besides duties in traffic safety and major criminal investigations, he's a certified instructor and teaches classes on search and seizure, rural law enforcement and narcotics investigations.
Larson also stays involved in the community, serving on the Oregon State University Extension Service and 4-H Advisory Council, the Grant County Safe Communities Coalition and the school district budget committee. And when he gets frustrated with government actions, he's sending off letters to the editor and to legislators.
With this variety of work in government, law enforcement and agriculture, Larson said he might just consider running for the state senate some day.
But when he crosses the cattle guard onto his Berry Creek Ranch, he said he leaves all the pressures behind, just like he intends for his horses.
Sky, mountains, forests and meadows - it works on humans, too.