By Nora Mounce
“Wild Souls Ranch was exactly what I needed as a kid,” explains Wild Souls newest employee, ranch manager/head trainer Tessa Lawson. Growing up in Humboldt County, drug use was prevalent among the adults in Lawson’s childhood; as a result, she went through every kind of abuse a little girl can experience. Today, Lawson is a mother of two young boys and a sought-after horsewoman with over a decade of experience teaching kids and adults to ride. Though Lawson is quick to explain that horses helped to shape her life, she believes that she’s only begun to develop the emotional tools to cope with her own childhood trauma. But as Wild Souls new ranch manager, Lawson has never felt more in line with her purpose than helping kids thrive and heal through equine-therapy.
“As a little kid, I was always obsessed with horses,” says Lawson. With her wavy blonde hair, cowgirl boots, and easy smile, Lawson, 29, looks like she was born in the saddle. But growing up in Humboldt County, far removed from Humboldt’s rural western culture, Lawson never had the opportunity to ride a horse until she relocated to San Diego at 18. Working at a kid’s camp called Rawhide Ranch, Lawson started her horse education on everything from riding to veterinary care. “In two years, I went from knowing nothing about horses to being one of the lead riding instructors,” explains Lawson. She credits her hunger for knowledge pushed her up the ladder, and soon enough, Lawson was teaching a variety of advanced horse skills, including Western equitation, cart driving, and vaulting. “They could stick me anywhere,” adds Lawson with a laugh.
Life changes brought Lawson back to Humboldt for a while, where she started the Zion Riding Academy in Carlotta, teaching kids without any horse experience. Lawson’s riding school thrived, repeatedly reaching capacity and having to relocate, and always maintaining a waiting list for new students. One of Lawson’s favorite aspects of her business was starting colts and training horses for their owners.
In 2017, Lawson moved to Bakersfield along with her ex-husband and children. Sharing her story, Lawson pauses for a long moment after mentioning the word ‘Bakersfield.’ It’s as though there’s nothing left to say –Bakersfield should explain it all. Starting again, Lawson describes how much she’d underestimated her support system - friends and family back in Humboldt – until she moved away. In Bakersfield, Lawson continued building her reputation as Tessa Lawson Horsemanship in addition to starting an equine transport business to keep her clients in Humboldt. As the primary breadwinner for her family, Lawson was under considerable stress and working every day. “I’ve always kept myself busy,” says Lawson. “But that only works for so long.”
While in Bakersfield, Lawson experienced the “lowest point of her adult life,” eventually checking into a mental health facility and getting the long overdue therapy she needed. Talking candidly about her experience, Lawson again emphasizes how much she needed someplace like Wild Souls in as a kid. Emerging from her health crisis, Lawson’s therapists asked her what she’d like to do after leaving. Having met Wilds Souls Ranch executive director, Savanah McCarty, years ago at Hillcrest Stables in Loleta, all Lawson could think of was getting to Wild Souls. “If I could do anything to help kids to develop confidence and coping skills, that’s where I wanted to be.”
Returning to Humboldt County, Lawson feels empowered to be in a positive environment at Wild Souls, where she’s “surrounded by therapy.” Her job as ranch manager will be to take care of the horses mentally, emotionally, and physically – they have an important job to do – so that McCarty can focus on everything else. “I hope to add to what’s already an amazing program and share my experience as far as horsemanship and safety” says Lawson. Her daily duties at the ranch will include helping McCarty and the staff with feeding and care and staying on top of the dental and medical needs of the ranch’s eight horses and mini donkey.