In a corral at the New Mexico Baptist Children’s Home, Mark Naranjo, 28, holds the young horse’s lead rope as his wife, Tara, works with the animal’s saddle as part of its training.
The horse, Sundae, fidgets as firecrackers pop nearby, but the Naranjos remain unfazed.
Today, the two are house parents at the home and are helping rebuild its horse program. Several years ago, Mark lived at the home and both he and Tara were members of the equestrian drill team there.
Mark tells his story:
At age 9, Mark, an Espanola native, moved in with his grandparents.
“It’s hard to go from your mom, who’s your disciplinarian, to your grandparents, who spoil you, so I was kind of a spoiled brat,” he said.
When Mark was 12, his grandparents sent him to live at the children’s home.
“The first year was really hard,” he said. “In fact, the first year bothered me so badly, I developed ulcers.”
However, at the end of the year, Mark decided to stay, and he said the thought of leaving never occurred to him again during his childhood.
At age 13 or 14, Mark said, he began roping from horseback and knew he wanted to be around the animals as an adult.
When Mark was 14, he met Tara, who was 12 at the time. They were both on the home’s drill team, and Tara’s father shoed the horses.
Two years later, Tara moved to Fort Sumner.
In 2001, the year after Mark graduated from high school, he began working at a dude stable in Ruidoso during the summers.
During his second summer there, he and Tara met again and eventually both went to a riding stable in Phoenix, where they began dating.
Later, Mark and Tara returned to Portales, married and had their daughter, Jocalyn, now 5. Over the next few years, the couple worked at several jobs, mainly on ranches, and had their son, Landon, 3.
During a time when the Naranjos were looking for a ranch job, Mark called the children’s home to say hello and learned house parents were needed.
Mark said he had wanted to come back as a house parent when he lived at the home, but Tara needed to decide if she was willing.
“This is not an average job,” he said. “You don’t get to go home after work; you don’t get regular vacation time.”
Like ranch work, Mark said, being a house parent is a chosen lifestyle, not just a job.
Tara said she was nervous about being a house parent because she didn’t know what kind of boys she would care for or what it would be like raising her family at the home.
“And I’d never lived in town,” she added.
However, because Mark had always wanted to return, because she believed they needed to get back into church and because there were no ranch jobs in winter, Tara agreed to take the position.
The Naranjos arrived at the home in January.
Now, they are raising four teenagers as well as their two children and say things are going well.
Mark said being a house parent has made him realize how difficult he was as a teenager, but his experience as a resident helps him understand the teenagers for whom he is now responsible.
“I know what they’re thinking; I know how they feel,” he said.
In addition, Mark uses himself as an example to show the boys what opportunities are available to them.
Due to his life at the home, Mark said, he knows what not to do and tries to listen to his charges and let them make decisions. Still, he said, because of his sympathy, he can be too “lax” with the teenagers.
Tara said the only thing that prepared her for the job was her work with horses. If a horse tries or gives a little, Tara said, the equestrian backs off, but only when the horse gives.
“If a kid can give me just a little, I’ll be happy,” she said.
As for the horse program, Mark said he would like to think his and Tara’s equine knowledge is allowing its rebuilding, a shared goal of the Naranjos and the home 4-H director.
Resident Brenden Cutbirth, 15, works with a 3-year-old horse at the home and said the horse program has made a 180-degree turn since the Naranjos arrived. The residents work with the animals a lot more now, he said.
Brenden has also lived with the Naranjos for four months and said he liked having someone to relate in “Uncle Mark,” who knows what it’s like to live at the home.
“It’s hard to get away with anything because they know all the tricks,” Brenden added.