The Sun and Moon Ranch in Lexington, North Carolina
NICEST PLACES IN AMERICA 2021 FINALIST
A place of refuge and healing for horses and people—just when we needed it most.
In 1971, at just two years old, Shannan Hearne mounted a horse for the first time. She felt a deep connection, even at that young age. As an adopted child and the only girl, Hearne was already struggling with anxiety. With the help of these majestic animals, Hearne became free, feeling as though she was flying. She knew that someday she wanted to be able to share that feeling with everyone.
In February 2020, Hearne made that lifelong dream come true when she opened the Sun and Moon Ranch with her husband and “partner in farm” Cory Conley. The eight-acre horse ranch in Lexington, North Carolina, was conceived as a place of healing, for both the thousand-pound animals and people. The Sun and Moon ranch rescues horses from auctions and feed lots, rehabilitates them, and then finds them a forever home once their recovery is complete. In the meantime, the horses help locals heal their own wounds. It’s an idyllic setting for the task, with wide lawns, a vegetable garden, and chickens and other animals scurrying about.
“I see it as an opportunity to have my animals have a job,” Hearne says. “It’s rewarding to see people blossom out of their shells.”
Just a month later, the COVID-19 pandemic threatened to end that dream, as people all over the country started getting sick and cities went into lockdown. Undeterred, Hearne and Conley decided to go with their instincts and open their hearts—and their ranch—to the world, and just when we all needed it.
A nine-year-old boy became a selective mute after being bullied because of his autism. When he learned to ride horses last year at the ranch, he came out of his shell. A 15-year-old boy with physical disabilities gained confidence and skills when he bonded with the animals and began riding.
“My 15-year-old daughter Kalyn, was a shy person and preferred to be alone most of the time, but has truly found her home at the ranch, especially with her favorite horse Chief Blackout,” says local Bruce Moody. He first took Kalyn to the farm in 2020, when she began taking weekly riding lessons after school and has since become a co-barn manager for the summer. “The farm is extremely hands-on and gives one a sense of responsibility and pride. It’s been amazing watching her grow.”
As the pandemic deepened, Hearne wanted to do more, so she opened the ranch further so that locals could have a place to safely gather and enjoy each other’s company. They held cookouts and bonfires, providing food and entertainment free of charge. Sometimes folks came by when they just wanted some peace, put up a hammock and relaxed in nature among the animals. Soon, others saw what was happening and moved to pitch in. Local hay farmers supplied hay for the horses; others gave their extra food to supplement the eggs and vegetables Sun and Moon sent to local food banks from its own stores.
The farm has now rescued 18 horses and helped hundreds of locals de-stress during one of the toughest years of their lives. The ranch provided Hearne herself with essential healing for what has been an up-and-down year for her emotionally: She lost her mother and became a grandmother, all within the span of a few months. Before her mother’s passing, she had reminded Hearne of the importance of being happy with the way you live your life. Fulfilling a lifelong dream and healing others along the way, “Yes, mom, I am definitely happy,” Hearne says.
I am 52 years old and living out my childhood dream. I finally live on a horse farm! Our little eight acres in North Carolina is a slice of heaven. And being a grown-up kid who always loved horses, I have been intentional about making the farm experience accessible to anyone who wants to experience it.
We teach lessons and board horses. But we also do farm tours, provide fresh eggs, allow camping on the property, and hold multiple free-to-the-community events every year so everyone can experience what we do and love every day.
We moved into this property in February of 2020. I worked full time outside the home and ran the farm by evenings and weekends. We moved in with seven horses and rapidly grew to 18. Within a month, I had been sent home to work due to COVID-19. By the middle of summer, my elderly mother had passed away, my middle daughter found out she was pregnant with our first grandchild, and the farm was becoming a bustling community hub.
Daily, I give thanks that during the pandemic lockdowns I have had eight acres of horses, chickens, plants, and space to social distance. We made it available to anyone who needed a place to go for an afternoon or a weekend. Tent, RV, and trailer campers pull in for a quiet night after a day on the road. Neighbors send their kids over to feed horses and chickens. We hired a wonderful farm manager to care for animals and guests during the week while I work in the house. We hold cookouts, bonfires, and community events so people who don’t have space to get out and return to a sense of normalcy can come for a respite.
We rescue horses in need and rehabilitate them, placing them in great homes when they are recovered. We adopt rescue dogs. We deliver farm-fresh eggs to our neighbors and our farm guests who have never known the delicious flavor or who are struggling due to the economic effects of the pandemic. We host birthday parties for children where we can provide for social distancing and the room to spread out and play. We have hosted sorority outings, goat yoga, Easter egg hunts, scavenger hunts, target shooting practices, and just about every activity anyone has inquired about our availability to do. We have held low country boils where pots of steaming seafood and corn and potatoes bubbled away over woody scented fires in the yard. We have held bonfires where all the locals pulled up in their cars and trucks and burned their downed trees after wind or ice storms and shared a hot or cold beverage with friends.
The purchase of our farm funded trusts for two neighboring children—descendants of the family who had farmed this land for many years. The local hay farmer makes money every week when we purchase hay for the horses and the local distributor for the local grain mill makes money when we buy grain, chicken feed, and food for the dogs and the cats. When the going gets tough, we donate food and clothing and used horse equipment to the community outreaches.
We support local animal rescues, local food pantries, and local clothing drives. We plant bee-attracting lawnscapes to maintain a healthy local bee population. We catch and return the neighbor’s cow when she wanders away from home and we pick up lost dogs off the side of the road and use the Internet to find their owners.
Before she passed away, my mother said that if I wasn’t happy now living the life I had always dreamed of I was probably never going to be happy. I work my rear end off by day at a computer job and by night and weekends as a farmer. There are lots of little rewards: an opportunity to take the horses trail riding all weekend, the smile on a child’s face when they pet and ride a horse for the first time, knowing the surplus from the garden fed a hungry family, the laugh of a family unwinding by the fire pit after a long day on the road in their RV, growing flowers from seed like my Dad taught me to do, bringing new horses into the world as our mares deliver babies, and putting down roots in a new place as the matriarch of my own family.
We certainly hope we have been positive contributors to our community in these troubled times. And yes, mom, I am definitely happy.