Last Spring, a friend of one of the youth ministry students approaced me for an interview. She had heard about Bright Side Youth Ranch and wanted to know more about the heart and vision of it all as she prepared a paper on animal therapy. It was so fun to share about the ranch, especially since this all came about shortly after we purchased the property and were in the initial stages of filing for a nonprofit status. As I am now in the midst of preparing a case statement, developing a vision frame, and pounding out the values and measureables for Bright Side, I find that the answers to this question and answer format really do speak to what the ranch is all about. While some of the responses might be familiar to those of you who have visited the website or read previous blogs, there are parts that might be completely new and add a whole new perspective to why we use horses as part of our mentoring sessions. So I want to share it with you:
1. Tell me about Bright Side Youth Ranch, and what you hope to achieve through it.
Bright Side Youth Ranch's mission is to Rescue the Horse, Inspire the Child, and share Hope for the Family. We seek to share the love of God with children through a relationship with horses and a connection with a mentor. Bright Side Youth Ranch is a safe place where the hurting and broken can find redemption, horses can find help, children can find hope, and families can find support. Through an environment of love and an interactive session, we desire for children to learn values of faith, family, and trust.
2. When did you decide that you wanted to open a ranch?
The journey to start Bright Side Youth Ranch began about 10 years ago with a dream and a prayer. The dream was to combine our two passions and vocations for some type of ministry, and the prayer was that God would show us how that could work. Then, about 6 years ago, I was given a book written by Kim Meeder called Hope Rising. My heart resonated with the powerful images of hope and redemption from the “Ranch of Rescued Dreams” in Oregon, and we believed God was showing us a picture of what a combined love of horses and children could look like as a ministry. In May of 2010, we packed up our bags and went out to Bend, Oregon, to Crystal Peaks Youth Ranch for an informational clinic. While there, we gained a better understanding of starting and running such a ministry. Our hearts and minds were spinning with all of the overwhelming information, but we returned home believing in a vision God set before us.
The next two years were filled with tears and prayers for God to reveal more. During that dry period, I often wrestled with whether this dream, this vision, was really from God or just a selfish desire to have horses in the backyard. But, we witnessed for years the anxiety and pressure and stress that so many teens carry, and we have spent countless hours helping students learn how to deal with heavy emotions in a healthy manner. So, we believed in having a safe place for kids to be heard, valued, and loved, and we knew a ranch could provide that kind of environment. We truly began to envision the ranch as a place to rebuild trust, confidence, and hope, with that hope being sourced in Jesus.
In the fall of 2013, we packed up our family and moved to the Carolinas in response to God's call for us to step forward into the adventure of starting Bright Side Youth Ranch. Over the past year, we have purchased property, established a Board of Directors, and are obtaining a 501c3 nonprofit status. We believe the best is yet to come in this journey to mentor the next generation.
3. Why did you decide this?
Devin has a Masters of Divinity and has been a Youth Pastor and worked with students for the past 18 years. I have a degree in Equine Studies and have worked with horses in various capacities for the same amount of time, while also volunteering in youth ministry as an adult mentor and leader. We have seen the heavy emotional, spiritual, and sometimes physical burdens kids and teens deal with on a regular basis and long to provide an outlet for them to work through their emotions and hurts in a healthy manner. We have also seen the power of relational ministry and the impact a mentor can have on a child or student's life, regardless of their background.
The mission of Bright Side Youth Ranch is to Rescue the Horse, Inspire the Child, and offer Hope to the Family. But, what does it look like to inspire or mentor a child, and how do horses and the family fit into the picture?
We desire the ranch to a welcoming environment where all children ages 8-18 can come as they are and experience hope, healing, and encouragement. So many kids and youth deal with difficult life issues such as trauma, anxiety, depression, or abuse, and we long to provide a safe place for them to find the love of God through a connection with a horse and a relationship with a mentor. Whether hurting, healthy, or somewhere in between, all children need a mentor, an additional outside voice, in their lives.
The heart of it all will be the Session Program. It is through a flexible, interactive 60-90 minute session that a child is paired with a horse and a mentor. This personal, one-on-one focus paves the way for a customized session that is geared to a child's specific need or unique situation. The session will usually begin with an activity. All activities are chosen at the discretion of each individual mentor and may include a farm chore, learning about basic horse care, games, crafts, or may focus on horsemanship and leadership development. The remaining part of the session will be spent working with or riding horses. Whatever the method or activity, the sessions will be designed to encourage students toward hope and personal growth. There is one main purpose - to Inspire and mentor the Child.
We also desire to offer Hope to the Family by bringing families together and bridging the emotional gap between the child and the family. Because of this, we will ask a parent(s) or a guardian to accompany their child to the ranch. Connecting family members together is often a vital part of the healing process.
All children are invited to come just as they are. The only requirement we will have is that they want to come. This shows an open heart and a willingness to participate. Any "therapy" that may take place is done through our "angels in horsehair" and through the presence of God. We long to create an environment where kids can know that they are heard, valued, and loved by our leaders and horses, and most importantly God. We truly envision the ranch as a place to rebuild trust, confidence, and hope, with that hope being sourced in Jesus.
4. Why do you think horses have such an impact on children?
In sharing the mission and vision of the ranch, this question inevitably comes up: “Why use horses? I mean, I understand wanting to reach kids, but why do you need horses to do that?” It’s a good question actually, and it’s one that I’m more than happy to answer. In fact, I am often excited to share about the impact animals can have on a child’s life, especially when that animal is a horse. There are many studies that show the values kids learn from horses. I completely agree with those findings, because I have seen the same results in my own life. I have spent many years working in and around the world of horses and with some of the people connected with it. Through those experiences, God has shown me so many truths and revealed much of Himself to me. Here are just a few of the things time spent at a barn and with horses have taught me: perseverance, community, trust, self-control, hope, patience, passion, courage and focus.
Animals can be such great partners in the process of healing. They do not lie, and all of their responses are in direct correlation to what we are feeling and experiencing. This is especially true about horses since they are herd animals. Their world is built around interactions and relationships with other horses and people. They find strength and comfort in being with others and often seek to share the same with those who are lonely. Horses are often like mirrors that reflect back our strengths and weaknesses, which can bring about very teachable moments.
Since they live in the moment, horses (along with other animals) are remarkably forgiving. They don't hold grudges or worry. They live in the here and now and are completely focused on what is currently happening. This is such a great aspect for children who struggle with letting go, dealing with what was in their past, or wonder what might happen in the future.
Animals are also accepting of people for exactly who they are. Horses do not care what a person looks like or what they wear or where they are from. Horses just focus on the immediate relationship, and this can be such an encouragement to a child who has struggle with his/her self-image. It is through this unconditional acceptance and emotional support that children can develop an improved self-esteem and confidence.
5. What benefits do you think children receive from direct contact with animals, therapeutic and otherwise?
I have seen kids who were reluctant to smile or talk much suddenly relax and open up around an animal. There was a time when my own dogs have cheered up a girl in a former youth group who struggled with cutting and needed a positive outlet. Sometimes, even the simple act of grooming a horse can relieve tension and help overcome fears. The physical demands of riding and horse care alone can build muscle strength, balance, coordination, and improve cardiovascular health. Working with horses requires teamwork and communication, between the horse and the child and between the child and the instructor/mentor.
There was an Impact of Equine Activities on Youth Development study done a few years ago by the Pennsylvania State University Animal Science department in conjunction with several equine relation youth clubs and associations. The study found that about 25% of the development of youths' life skills were directly connected to the development of horsemanship skills. "Horses serve as both teachers and friends, and in both roles, positively impact the physical, mental, and emotional well-being of youth." Through riding and the care of horses, children can learn compassion, responsibility, and self-confidence.
Animal therapy has certainly gained popularity in recent years, and there are many organizations that take all sorts of animals to schools and hospitals and nursing homes. These animals are taken to patients and students to help relax and inspire residents and distract them from their health problems. There is even a new wave of therapist who are using animals to facilitate treatment of children with emotional, social, and even physical problems.
6. Would you consider animal therapy an effective form or treatment for a variety of conditions? If so, why?
I am not sure what long-term studies will reveal as far as the lasting effects of animal therapy are concerned, but I know what I have experienced in my own life and witnessed in the the lives of others. The sense of purpose and well-being in taking care of and interacting with an animal helps reduce insecurity, stress, and anxiety. I do believe that an animal can pave a way to a child's heart and teach so many valuable life lessons and skills. I do know for a fact that riding a horse even at a walk can stimulate muscle movement and help heart health. However, I don't think that the animals alone are completely responsible or capable of being the only form of treatment. Interaction with the horse is only one aspect of the healing process for Bright Side Youth Ranch. It is the main avenue, but connecting with a mentor, involving the family, sourcing it all in Jesus, and sometimes finding medical assistance is all apart of the road to health, balance, and self-confidence.