In mid-summer, even, you'll be tempted to break out the Swiss Miss and start reading Little House on the Prairie by a fireplace once you get to SOUL Haven Ranch. The growing enterprise is four businesses in one, one of those philanthropic.
The background: After 25 years as corporate hotshot and then a layoff, Susan Nastasi decided it was time to get outdoors. She already shared a sprawling Victorian-style home on a quiet 4-acre expanse of Winter Garden, Florida, with her teenage children. Why not work the home into a living?
Today, Nastasi has created her livelihood here, in a quaint Orlando suburb that's known for a mix of lovingly restored historical buildings and an international food scene.
Here's what's worth seeking out:
SOUL HAVEN RANCH CARRIAGE RIDES
Starting Valentine's Day 2018, February 14, SOUL Haven Ranch will offer horse-drawn carriage rides around Winter Garden's historic downtown. This first batch will depart from Newton Park every 20 minutes from 3pm to 6pm. (A few spots are still open, so reserve today. Find the link on the website). $60. Over time, the rides, with personalized historical narration or without, depending on your mood, will be offered from both Newton Park and another location. You may get to ride in the vis-à-vis carriage shown above, or may be treated to the Cinderella carriage below. Both are also available for private rentals. Now that's the way to ride off from a wedding.
SOUL HAVEN RANCH MINIATURE HORSE EXPERIENCES
Adorable little mini horses are trained and registered for therapy via Pet Partners at SOUL Haven Ranch, and you can be a part of it. For a fee, you can take a guided stroll along the scenic West Orange Trail with your fuzzy little four-legged friend. The price is $35, or $120 for a group of four. Seniors 65 and up pay $30 instead. Sessions last a relaxing 90 minutes.
On the philanthropic side, SOUL Haven Ranch trains the mini horses to be registered therapy horses, and trains interested locals to become registered handlers, which involves six months of active education and an exam. Volunteers also receive strict training.
Then a trio might bring the horse with which they've bonded into a hospital or nursing home, say, or welcome a busload to visit.
That's where the sparkly little horsey shoes come in. The SOUL Haven Ranch animal therapy arm has a sister outfit run by Nastasi's cousin, Jodie Diegel. It's called SOUL Harbour Ranch Animal Therapy Program, and that one's in Barrington, Illinois. For both sanitation and safety reasons, the cousins wanted to cover the mini horses' feet when they enter hospitals and such. After deeming commercial options ugly, they started using the adorable footwear that's part of the Teddy Mountain stuff-your-own toy enterprise. This collaboration has been so successful that Teddy Mountain is now an official sponsor of both not-for-profit animal therapy programs.
SOUL HAVEN RANCH AIRBNB
SOUL Haven Ranch's two-story Victorian-style house is big, and Nastasi rents out its empty bedrooms via Airbnb. They're decorated in a kind of Americana style you might expect in New England. As a more modern touch, mugs, signs and event a whiteboard provide inspirational sayings, and they're placed throughout the home. It probably goes along with the name. "SOUL stands for Sharing Of Unconditional Love!" says Nastasi. Prices start at $79. Take a look.
Talk about "the other Orlando." Located so close to both Disney World and Downtown Orlando that it's a bedroom community for both, Winter Garden now has this lodging facility, mini horse experience, contract carriage ride options and the chance to train, for free, to become a registered mini horse handler or volunteer. Plus, you'll get to see the animals wear those adorable Teddy Mountain sparkly sneakers.
Take a look. You may be inspired.