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Horse sense, common sense

Take a walk through the barn at Black Oaks Ranch. There's a story behind every stable door.

Here's Lady, a roan mare. Ranch owner Kathy Chmielewski said that when Lady first came to them, the horse's weight was dangerously low, less than 700 pounds. Now, she weighs about 1,050 pounds. "She is so glad to be alive," Chmielewski said.

So is Sunny, a 9-year-old mare, who was at the edge of starvation when the folks at Black Oaks found her. "She was just a skeleton," Chmielewski said. "She was eating the wood off her stall. If we had left her there, she would have just died."

There's Patrick, a 26-year-old horse who had been malnourished for more than half his life. When he was brought to the ranch, his back was bent, his hooves were split, he had wasted away to nearly nothing. It took Chmielewski, husband Ken and daughter Kim Aursland nine months to nurse Patrick back to health.

"Some people . . ." Chmielewski began. She shook her head. Poor care is almost always based on ignorance rather than malevolence, she said. "They don't mean to but they just don't know."

The goal at Black Oaks is to change that fact: to teach, to enlighten, to rehabilitate the animals and the attitudes that have led to the problems they see all too often. "The ignorance, the boredom, the neglect," Chmielewski said. "People move to the country and they just have no idea. . . . If people just knew, basically, what to do."

Chmielewski (pronounced shim-uh-LESS-key) has made instruction in the equestrian arts her career for nearly 40 years. She and her family moved to Pasco County 10 years ago from Michigan and, until 1992, they leased several acres in Hudson to run their business.

That was when they decided to buy 20 acres off State Road 52 to build their ranch house, stables and pastures. "It was all scrub oaks and palmettos (then)," Chmielewski said. "It was so thick you couldn't get through."

Now, they teach horseback riding there in three styles _ basic western, basic English and advanced English _ to both adults and children. They also board horses for other owners. Aursland's show horse, Norway, is a quarterhorse that lives at the ranch. They also run horses at the annual Chasco Fiesta and various parades and functions throughout the county.

"It was a flip of the coin (at first) whether we were going to make it or not," Chmielewski said. "We brought this here thinking this area needs something like this."

Taking in horses that have been abandoned or mistreated, however, "just kind of fell on me," she said. "But I'll tell you what _ there is a lot of satisfaction in it."

Chmielewski smiles with pride as she watches Aursland lead her 3-year-old daughter in a slow trot on Patrick's back around an exercise ring. "This horse literally could not walk when he came here," she said. "So much of horse care is common sense."

She offers Black Oaks' assistance to horse owners who need help or have questions. "If they have a horse that they can't feed any more or even if they just want information," she asks them to call the ranch at (813) 856-1244.