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Texas Horse Park Operator Is Refusing to Pay Out Settlement to Injured Grandmother

Its president has a history of not paying his bills. Now, the city wants him gone.
Its president has a history of not paying his bills. Now, the city wants him gone.
Lucas Manfield

River Ranch Educational Charities, the scandal-plagued operator of the city-owned horse park in southern Dallas, is refusing to pay out a $25,000 settlement to a woman who was thrown off one of its horses in 2017.

The woman, Rhonda Allen, was there on a staff-supervised ride with her daughter and two granddaughters when her horse, Starbuck, startled, bucked her off, breaking her wrist.

The parties agreed to the settlement in June, which was far less than the more than $100,000 Allen originally requested.

And then, crickets. River Ranch never paid up, and its lawyer hasn’t shown up to hearings or responded to emails and calls, according to Allen’s attorney, Stephen Pipkin. A county judge slapped the nonprofit with a $900 fine for nonpayment in late October. Another hearing is set for this month.

“Un-be-lievable,” Pipkin said. “I’ve been practicing for 27 years … and I’ve never seen this before.”

Perhaps he shouldn’t be surprised. Wayne Kirk, an oil magnate and president of River Ranch, has a history of criminal allegations and unpaid bills.

One prior landlord charged him with criminal mischief after he cut down a fence. Another said Kirk owed $200,000 in unpaid rent.

But that didn't stop the city of Dallas from giving him a sweetheart deal to run its new $15 million facility in 2012. The 20-year contract gave him the land rent-free in exchange for maintaining the grounds and providing the occasional free riding lesson to underprivileged kids.

The city regretted it almost immediately. It turned out that Kirk was under investigation — first reported by the Observer — for animal cruelty after a veterinarian discovered a dozen undernourished horses at his other ranch in McKinney.

In 2014, D Magazine published a letter sent by Harley Cozewith, an employee at the Perot Museum of Nature and Science, to the City Council warning them that "Kirk’s reputation in the DFW equestrian community is frightening" and that he treated horses as "disposable."

In a memo to the City Council, a city administrator admitted that little research had been done into Kirk's background before signing the contract. "Staff's research focused primarily on the financial aspects of the charity," the memo said.

Neither Kirk nor his lawyer responded to calls requesting comment for this article.

By 2017, that charity was in the red and had more than $5 million in debts, according to its most recent filing with the IRS.

River Ranch was accused last year of not paying for more than $3,000 of rented equipment. River Ranch settled that lawsuit as well. Matt Cosby, the owner of the company that initiated the suit, confirmed that the settlement was actually paid out.

Thanks to Allen, the city moved this year to finally boot Kirk off the land. After being added as a defendant in Allen's lawsuit — it turns out River Ranch wasn't adequately insured and the city had known about it for years — the city filed its own lawsuit, accusing the charity of trespassing on city-owned land. River Ranch has denied the allegations, and a trial date is set for next year.

Meanwhile, the charity continues operations on the land it shares with another horse therapy nonprofit. On Wednesday morning, construction crews were at work on the parking lot.

But things aren't running smoothly. In July, city officials found a dead Shetland pony on the park's grounds "in advanced stages of decomposition," according to a police report obtained by The Dallas Morning News.

The city obtained a court order requiring the nonprofit to notify city officials if any other horses die on its watch. 

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