On a sunny afternoon in May, Leslie Hunter kicks back in the dappled shadows in front of her 100-year-old farmhouse. Sugar and Goober, her dogs, sprawl on the lush grass by her feet. Flanked by pear orchards and rustic, old barns just northeast of Ashland, her 11-acre Flying L Ranch is a bucolic portrait of the Southern Oregon good life.
Hunter spends much of her time buffing that portrait. It's rare to find her sitting, unless she's on the back of a horse. You're more likely to find her refurbishing an old trailer, planting trees or catching horses for a trail ride.
"When I bought the property eight years ago — on my waitress' salary — I knew I had to figure out what the heck I was going to do to make it all work," says Hunter.
Hunter's income streams include horse boarding, kids' camps, equestrian vacations and City Slickers Trail Rides, which range from one-hour jaunts to multiday adventures complete with meals and lodging. She takes clients, from the total greenhorn to the experienced rider, through the entire State of Jefferson. Though she has a special place in her heart for the coast's redwoods, Hunter waxes lyrical about the Rogue Valley, despite increasing restrictions and occasional conflicts with cyclists on mixed-use trails.
"I could ride every day of my life, staying within a two-hour radius, and enjoy a different trail each time."
Favorite local routes include Grizzly Peak, Wagner Butte and Ashland's Creek to Crest Trail. Hunter enjoys sharing what she calls the "horse-human connection," along with the views, flowers and wildlife.
"I love showing people a side of the valley they wouldn't normally see."
Hunter has more than 50 horses. Most are pastured off the property this time of year, but there's still plenty of activity on the ranch. About 30 chickens roam free, along with her three dogs. Dairy goats, two exotic birds and a tortoise named Hobo complete the menagerie.
Some of her boarders pitch in, minding the chickens and training horses. In return, Hunter throws perks their way: trail rides, impromptu parties, pitchers of sun tea. Over the years, veterans and troubled teens have sought solace at the Flying L.
"People are drawn here," she says. "The horse is a very intuitive, healing animal."
Hunter started taking in equine rescue cases during the economic downturn. She trains the horses, if necessary, then puts them to work.
"Horses need a job to feel useful," says Hunter.
She claims to love them all, though she does profess a special fondness for Wild Child, whom she calls the "James Dean of horses."
"You should see him leaping through the waves at the coast."
Hunter allows her horses to be horses, spending time in the pasture as part of a herd.
Like any entrepreneur worth her salt, she's always hunting for a deal — think bare-root fruit trees at Bi-Mart — and a new opportunity. When the Running Y Ranch's trail-riding operation folded a couple of years ago, for instance, she started negotiating with the Klamath Falls outfit.
"I've got the horses, the tack and the wranglers," she says. "Now, I just need to go over there and turn over some rocks." Hopefully, one will yield the perfect acreage for lease. Meanwhile, she has plenty of projects to keep her busy.
"Ranch work means wearing several different hats," says Hunter. "There's a certain person who likes manual labor and being outside."
One of those "certain persons" is Jen Hagen, who learned about the Flying L through World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (www.wwoof.org).
"I'm getting a good glimpse of what it takes to run an operation," says Hagen, who has been living at the ranch since April. Her tasks range from pulling blackberries and chopping wood to wrangling horses.
Hagen will work the entire season; several more WWOOFers will join her in midsummer. Hunter will need the extra help once Camp Howdy, a series of weeklong day camps, begins in mid-June. Certified instructors will teach kids basic horsemanship in this hands-on program while Hunter hits the trails with clients old and new.
"The ranch life is good, even if it is a lot of work," she says. "It beats working in a cubicle in the city."
And yes, she still rides for her own pleasure. Recently, she managed to squeeze in a ride along the Pacific Crest Trail near Hyatt Lake with friends "just for fun."
"Most times I think, I live the life," she says, reaching down to give Sugar a pat. "I really do."
Flying L Ranch is located at 776 W. Valley View Road, Ashland. For information, call 541-951-4611 or see www.oregontrailrides.com.