After podcaster and journalist Ashley Ahearn launched her “Women’s Work” podcast last spring, the Roundhouse Foundation in Sisters, Oregon, invited her to give a talk and mentioned that she should consider doing a residency as well, at their Pine Meadow Ranch Center for Arts & Agriculture (PMR).
Formerly a privately owned 260-acre working ranch, the PMR was acquired by the Roundhouse Foundation in 2017, and continues to operate as a working ranch while “developing and expanding arts, agricultural and ecological projects using the assets of the property.”
“Sure,” Ashley thought, “but I don’t really have a project in the works right now, so I’m not sure what I’d do with the residency.” But before the words could leave her mouth the “crazy” idea she had been playing with all spring came into sharper focus: a children’s book about a wild mustang and the girl who adopts him.
Life imitates art, right? And sometimes art imitates life. A self-described “crazy horse girl as a kid,” Ashley adopted a wild mustang last January, picking him out of the Oregon Wild Horse Corral: a government holding facility filled with hundreds of wild mustangs.
“Horses are prey animals, so when you go to the corrals, they all huddle on the far end, side-eyeing you,” Ashley says. “But this one horse squared off and looked right at me and followed me around the corral. I knew he had spirit.”
Ashley bought the spirited horse and brought him home, naming him Boo. After spending weeks slowly getting accustomed to a round pen, a halter, Ashley’s other horse, Pistol, and life in the Rendezvous, Boo settled into domestic life, more or less.
Ashley has been researching a podcast series about wild mustangs, who she says are “incredibly symbolic but controversial in the American West.” Concurrently, she was slowly building a foundation and relationship with Boo. And slowly a third mustang-based project took shape in her mind. “I wanted to write a book for young kids about a little mustang taken into captivity, the little girl who adopts him, and the new freedom they find together. It’s the book I wish I had had as a kid.”
The PMR residency offered Ashley the time to develop the book and she already had notebooks filled up with ideas for the plot and dialog, but she needed an artist for the visuals. So she reached out to the artist who did the artwork for her “Women’s Work” podcast: Catie Michel. Although Catie lives in San Francisco now, she’s a Colorado girl with a horsey background, so she was enthusiastic about the prospect of partnering with Ashley on the project.
“I asked Roundhouse, ‘I’d love to do the residency, but can I bring another person and two horses?’” Ashley says. “They agreed, so I put Boo and Pistol in the trailer and we picked Catie up at the airport before heading out to PMR for a week.”
Catie sketched Ashley’s horses for hours, and together Catie and Ashley storyboarded the book. “I had the storyline laid out,” Ashley said, “but I hadn’t thought through how each page would look. Catie helped me hammer it out page by page, how the text and visuals could work together. Now Catie will work on the illustrations.”
The book will be published in late 2022 or early 2023. “When I was a little girl I yearned for a book like this,” Ashley says. “I think 5-year-old Ashley would be very happy with what 39-year-old Ashley is doing.”