Ruth and Lee Sadler are 74 and 67, respectively, and live on Social Security. They retired years ago from their Prince George's County government jobs and have sent seven children into the world.
So why, during their hard-won golden years, does the couple spend thousands of dollars teaching the ways of the Morgan horse to other people's children? The answer is simple, Ruth Sadler says. Seated on a bench at her Brandywine farm wearing jeans and a blue T-shirt with horses galloping across it, she juts a finger toward one of those children.
"When that little girl is a grandmother, she can put her grandchildren on her knee and say, 'Let me tell you about when I was a kid. There was this crazy old lady with horses. . . ' " she says.
For Lee Sadler, the answer is even simpler. "Because I love Ruthie," he says.
Ruth and Lee Sadler are youth directors for the American Morgan Horse Association and operate one of its two youth programs in Maryland. Any child who is interested in learning to ride, groom and care for Morgan horses is welcome at Shadowfax Morgans, the Sadlers' 180-acre horse farm.
Morgan horses, which originated in Vermont in the late 1700s, are the first breed native to the United States and are known for their versatility, stamina and predictability.
At Shadowfax Morgans, children usually pay the association's $10 annual dues, plus $15 a lesson. But for youths who can't afford that, the lessons are free.
Well, almost free.
"It costs a little enthusiasm or some elbow grease," Ruth Sadler says. "Cleaning stables or horses, we'll work it out. No one is turned away."
The Sadlers credit the program with keeping kids out of trouble. Ruth Sadler says it has enabled hundreds of children to avoid what she describes as "the three D's."
"They don't drink, they don't do drugs, and they don't date because they're too tired," Ruth Sadler says.
Ten-year-old Tracey Wakefield of Waldorf, who's been riding the Sadlers' horses most of her life, agrees. "The guys always come and go, but the horses will always be there."
The minimal cost to families doesn't begin to cover the considerable cost of maintaining the horses. The rent on the farm is $1,000 a month, and each of the couple's 12 horses costs $1,800 a year to maintain.
To supplement their pensions and Social Security, Ruth Sadler works as a substitute nurse for Prince George's County schools. The couple also get donations from local companies and regional Morgan horse clubs. And they frequently barter services to get work done around the farm.
For the Sadlers, the work is truly a labor of love--for the horses and for each other. The seeds of the latter romance were planted 35 years ago.
After growing up on a Hyattsville farm, Ruth Bowie attended the University of Maryland, married and had seven children. But her husband left when the youngest child was 2.
After the divorce, she worked at a Prince George's County hospital and struggled to make ends meet. Meanwhile, Lee Sadler, a native of Rhode Island and a former Navy man, was working as a radio technician for the Prince George's police department.
Seated on a bench beside his wife, the silver-haired Lee Sadler tells the story. "Ruthie was working for the school system, and she needed a radio for something, and that's how we met."
Ruth Sadler shoots her husband a stern look.
"That's not how it happened," she says. "I used to see him at a tavern in Riverdale. One night he winked at me, and then I winked at him back. Then we got the nerve to talk and he invited me to his apartment . . . to look at records."
A cynical expression crosses her face. "Now you know [darn] well what that means when people ask you to their apartment. And so I go to his house, and guess what do we do? Listen to records. I was so mad! But he did exactly what he said he was going to do, listen to records."
The couple married in 1964 and Lee Sadler raised Ruth's seven children as if they were his own.
About 20 years ago, Ruth Sadler decided to fulfill her lifelong dream of owning a Morgan horse. The Sadlers bought Miss Pearl, and Miss Sera followed. Riding and caring for the horses became the family's passion.
They became active in the American Morgan Horse Association and started its youth program as a way to indulge their love of children and horses simultaneously.
"These kids are responsible for the horses' feeding, health and care," Ruth Sadler says. "They are here from breeding and birthing and, every now and then, when we say goodbye to one of our horses, these kids are there. They get a much more rounded view of life."
These days, age has begun to slow Ruth Sadler down. She isn't riding today because she's recovering from recent gall bladder surgery. But she insists she wouldn't spend the twilight of her life any differently.
"I will do this as long as I'm physically capable," she says.
Children and adults can learn grooming, riding and caring for Morgan horses at Shadowfax Morgans, 19100 Croom Rd., Brandywine. The cost of riding lessons is $15 a session. Contact Ruth or Lee Sadler at 301-888-9341.
CAPTION: Kim Fullerton takes a jump at stables that are dedicated to passing on the ways of Morgan horses.
CAPTION: Lee and Ruth Sadler enjoy their retirement running the Shadowfax Morgans stables on 180 acres in Brandywine.
CAPTION: At left, Danielle Knight, 5, takes a slow ride. Any youngster who is interested in learning to ride, groom and care for Morgan horses is welcome at the stables. Below, Ashley Beaver spends time with one of the horses after brushing her.