The Gillespie Family and Their 351 Sons: A Book Review
Reading Our 351 Sons by John and Jan Gillespie, founders of The Rawhide Boys Ranch, is a heartwarming confirmation of the old saying that, “A parent’s love is whole, no matter how many times it is divided.” Raising one’s children is an arduous enough task (albeit rewarding), but raising hundreds of others with the same love and attention is an incredible feat that the Gillespies not only took on, but did so with unimaginable triumph.
If the authors’ surname is familiar to you, that’s for a good reason. John and Jan are the parents of professional horse trainer Tim Gillespie of Gillespie Show Horses.
About a month ago, I saw Tim proudly sharing Facebook posts promoting his parents’ newly released book, and while I am not usually a fan of nonfiction, let alone memoirs, I asked Tim if he could send me a copy because something about the title intrigued me. You see, as far as I knew, Tim only had one brother, so I was curious as to where this astronomical number was coming from.
Tim replied that he would gladly send me a copy and something about how his parents used horses for therapy for “the boys” all while helping him achieve APHA Number One Youth in the Nation. I was still clueless what this was all really about, but when the book showed up in my mailbox a few days later, and I started reading, I quickly realized that the story of John and Jan Gillespie is not only remarkable in its own right, but that it relates to the horse industry in a most inspiring way.
Written in a conversational dialogue between John and Jan with a few guest writers, Our 351 Sons focuses on the story of The Rawhide Boys Ranch, a home for troubled teen boys that John and Jan founded in 1965. A tale of sacrifice, perseverance, faith and love (with a healthy dose of humor and horses) it opens with the early life of John and Jan and how horse manure played a part in bringing the couple together.
As the story of The Rawhide Boys Ranch unfolds, you begin to see how John and Jan utilized horses to bring a lot of teenage boys back from the brink of ruining the rest of their lives. Jan’s role, in particular, was vital as she was a very intuitive horsewoman and mirrored the great trainers of today, blessed with the ability to match horse and rider in such a way that it would bring out the best in both horse and human.
One boy, Dennis, who came to the Gillespies at age thirteen with overwhelming trust and anger issues, found solace at the ranch and in his own life through the love of a horse. Matched by Jan with a horse who was also a victim of abuse and neglect at one time, Dennis learned what it meant to trust again and developed a meaningful friendship with the gelding, even beyond his years at Rawhide.
A touching and relatable moment in the book, the story of Dennis resonated strongly with me, as I truly believe that if we are around horses long enough and if we are lucky enough, we all know the deep bond that can develop between human and equine and how it can help heal wounds we didn’t even know we had.
Our 351 Sons develops this narrative many times over, yet each story is unique, and with each one you read, you realize there is a lesson to be learned from it. Equally remarkable is the fact that while equine therapy is now a widely utilized form of therapy, the Gillespies were quite ahead of their time using it in the 60s and 70s.
As a mother, reading about how John and Jan took these boys in with such love, patience and unyielding faith in the face of struggle and a few tragedies, deepened my respect for both them, and the story of The Rawhide Boys Ranch. Seeing the amount of support and involvement from influential (and famous) members of society like Green Bay Packer Bart Starr and his wife, Cherry, Brett Favre, Roy Rogers, Chuck Woolery and many others, solidifies that the Gillespies’ vision to share their home and love with so many troubled young men was, and continues to be, a noble cause that we can all learn from.
After reading the book, I called Tim to chat about his childhood and all of these “brothers” I never knew he had and, not surprisingly, he credited his parents with his success as a professional horse trainer.
“I don’t remember ever feeling like I had to share my parents with so many brothers,” he said. “The way they balanced their time and love with each of us was incredible, and looking at the business I am in, one that is so time-consuming and requires a great deal of balance, I see now that I was trained to do this by my parents.”
Tim’s mother, Jan passed away on January 25, 2017, before being able to see her life’s work in print. The stories she shares in the book are a true testament to a mother’s unconditional love and an incredible horsewoman.
I highly recommend Our 351 Sons to avid and casual readers alike, as it is easy to follow and hard to put down and leaves you with “all the feels.”
To find out more information about this incredible memoir, please go to https://www.our351sons.com. The Rawhide Boys Ranch is still thriving to this day…to learn more about the organization, their foundations or to donate, visit http://www.rawhide.org.