Two Johnson County friends count life’s blessings—on horseback

By Sherri Dugger
Photography by Josh Marshall

They regularly break into song—more specifically, into the theme song from the 1960s television show, “Bonanza.” They giggle, share inside jokes and finish one another’s sentences with ease. They are friends who some might say are having the times of their lives these days.

And, if you ask them, Rhonda Brown and Ann Bastin will likely agree. After all, the Johnson County horse owners and friends are self-proclaimed “bad a** cowgirls.” They have “big girl playhouses” (their RVs), which they often take on weekend camping trips with their other horse-loving friends. They participate in local rides and charity events through groups like the Red Hats and Purple Chaps and American Competitive Trail Horse Association. And, back at home, they each have barns filled with treasured equines.

Life for Brown and Bastin is good. Really good.

From Pepto to Proud

Though they didn’t meet until much later, Brown, now 52, and 49-year-old Bastin each grew up with a love for horses. Brown recalls two Shetland ponies that lived across the road from her family’s home, and she spent all of her free time as a young girl “at the fence line feeding them grass,” she says.

When she wasn’t outside with the horses, Brown was inside “drawing them,” she adds. “All I did was draw horse after horse after horse. It (the love for horses) was just there. You’re either crazy about them or you’re not.”

As for Bastin, someday owning a horse was long on her bucket list. “I’ve always loved horses,” she says. “I always wanted to have them. It was always on my list: I was going to have five acres and a horse.”

Brown bought her first horse—Jenny, a Tennessee Walker mare—approximately 25 years ago. It was also around the same time that Brown and Bastin first crossed paths. In a tiny hair salon owned by Brown’s mother on Indy’s eastside, Bastin was a customer of Brown’s mother. There, she says, she would admire Brown, also a stylist at the salon, from afar. “I knew she had horses,” Bastin recalls. “I was so jealous.”

Bastin wasn’t able to cash in on her dream until about 10 years later, in September 2000, when she bought Buddy Bastin, an American quarter horse, who she said was “the best horse in the entire world.”

Since those first purchases, the two have bought, raised and even bred more of the animals. Bastin now has eight horses in her barn, including a racehorse named Ms. Smitty who has acquired a great deal of recognition and fame around Indiana. (See the sidebar on Ms. Smitty.) Brown has three horses—or two-and-a-half, she says, if you consider one of her horses is a miniature horse named Augustus. One of Bastin’s, Einstein, is also a miniature.

Brown and Bastin reconnected around 2007 when Bastin called upon Brown, who by then worked as a stylist out of her home, to do her hair. That year, they got to know each other better, occasionally going on rides and to training clinics together.

Since those first rides, the pair, along with other women riders in their growing group of friends, have increased their outings to as many as 24 events each year—basically whenever they can fit the rides into their busy schedules.

Over the years the two have become great friends. “We encourage one another if something comes up to unnerve us,” Brown says.

Both Brown and Bastin admit to lacking confidence with their horses at times. As a new horse owner, Brown says she “read every little thing I could read about horses. There’s such as a thing as knowing too much. You scare yourself to death. You know every little thing that could go wrong. I got to that point. I read so much that anything the horse did had me worried.”

And there were times when things did go wrong. Horses became sick with colic and had to be put down. Early on, Brown actually jumped from one of her mares who took off in a panic. The ground, she found, “was unforgiving,” and she came away from that ride with her confidence in riding considerably shaken.

On other group rides, deer have jumped in front of their horses, foxes and wild turkeys have rattled the animals, and Brown says her riding horse, Cash, is definitely not a fan of gunfire. “We had a really good run up a mountain of a hill full speed to retreat from it (the unexpected gunfire),” she recalls.

All in all, however, having horses has been a growing experience for both of the women. “It is a bit of an ego boost,” Brown says, “to take off on a wonderful, huge animal that trusts us.”

“It (having horses) is a pride thing, a feel-good thing,” Bastin adds. “I was a city girl. I’d never even driven a truck, let alone hauling a horse trailer or backing one up. I always picked her (Rhonda) up (to go on rides), then she got her own 24-foot RV, a big girl playhouse we call it. Then in another six months or so, she got a horse trailer, and she’s pulling her own horse like it’s no big deal. Now you talk about bad a**. That’s where you feel so good about this.”

“It is a good feeling,” Brown concurs. “And it does translate into everyday life. I went from drinking Pepto (Bismol, for a nervous stomach) to hooking up and hauling my trailer to several campsites in southern Indiana. Ann has helped me to realize I can do all these things from haul my own trailer with horses to campsites, do quadrilles and parades and ride for hours in our state forests away from our busy lives, rather than stay in my own pasture riding.”

“I may have a lot of confidence in myself, but when it comes to being confident on the back of a beast of burden like that (a horse), well, I value my brittle bones,” Bastin says. “Rhonda was very calm and very assuring and a wonderful friend to talk me off the ledge many, many times. She … helped me keep faith both in myself and, most importantly, in my horse.”

Recharging Their Batteries

Typical days for the women involve working— Brown is still an at-home stylist; Bastin is a managing director at Your Encore Inc. in Indianapolis—as well as taking care of their horses and tending to their families.

Twice a day—rain or shine or subzero temperatures aside—the women, often with the help of their husbands (Brown is married to Randy Brown; Bastin’s husband is Terry Bastin), feed the horses, giving them fresh water, hay and grain. They clean their stalls, and, depending on the weather, allow the horses some time to graze.

Brown has two sons, both of whom have married and now own homes in Indianapolis; she will welcome her first granddaughter in May. Bastin and her husband, Terry, have six children, all also grown, as well as seven grandchildren.

Life can seem hectic for the women, but that doesn’t keep them from making time for their horses. Brown and Bastin regularly take riding clinics to learn to better handle their horses; they credit instructor Michaella Walker for much of their training. They also ride in parades and charity events to raise funds for local nonprofit organizations. In 2011, they put together a four-member team to participate in a drill team competition at Kentucky Horse Park.

Then there are the day trips to Brown County for trail rides and weekend camping trips to Hoosier National Forest and Deam Lake in southern Indiana. “On our trail rides we discuss how beautiful our horses are or how funny their personalities are,” Brown says. “We talk about our lives and our families’ lives, their ups and downs, twists and turns.”

Bastin acts as organizer for the girls getaways, and she says she plans as many trips as possible so that the women can relax and recharge. On the trips “we can drown our sorrows and really and truly refresh our batteries,” Bastin says.

Their trail rides give the women a chance to unwind and to appreciate all that they have in their lives. “We enjoy this sport of riding, of being out in nature with our horses and enjoying the cadence of their journey through the woods and over mud and stones and brush and logs,” Bastin says. “And all the while we are breathing fresh air. … We watch for new flowers, mushrooms, plants.”

Johnson County resident Sarah Hume lives near both Brown and Bastin and often goes on rides and camping trips with the women. “They are hilarious together,” Hume says of Brown and Bastin. “For the first 10 minutes on our rides, they’re always singing and dancing on their horses. Their energy just feeds off of each other. It’s so entertaining when they get wound up and excited.

“They just love their horses,” Hume adds. “They’re fun to ride with because they’re out there appreciating all that they have and all that’s out there in the woods.”

“Our number one phrase when we get out riding is: ‘Who gets to do this?’” Brown says.

“How lucky are we?” Bastin asks. “We never forget how lucky we are that we get to do this.”

The women take special care to prepare and enjoy “gourmet” meals while they’re camping. “We have nice meals every single time, breakfast, lunch and dinner,” Bastin says. “We just eat good. We have microwaves. We have campfires. We have refrigerators and freezers.”

“We don’t rough it,” Brown explains.

“All of that, at the end of the day, planning our meals and having our beer and having our special coffee,” Bastin says, “that is where we breathe and recharge so that when we come back, we can deal with our lives.”

After their meals, the friends relax by the campfire, having positioned their seats just so to enjoy the view of their beloved horses nearby. “We sit in our lawn chairs, and we’re not looking at the ocean,” Bastin says. “We’re sitting there looking at our horses.”

“And we’re in heaven,” Brown explains.