"Magic" happens at Las Cruces' Spirit Ranch when at-risk youth and soldiers who've suffered trauma interact with equines.
By Jeff Berg
At Spirit Ranch, says Lia Wiss, "The horses are part of the staff." The Las Cruces facility, run by G. Ann Remick-Barlow, works to help children and families overcome emotional trauma of many varieties. It also has a half-dozen human staff members.
Wiss, chair and spokesperson of the non-profit Helping Kids Be Kids, also operated by Remick-Barlow, says that the six animals that live and work on the ranch have been rescued themselves, much like Spirit Ranch's human clients.
"There are four minis (horses) and two large ones," Wiss adds. Included are: Tzar, who at 22 is certainly the senior four-legged staff member; Ace, an eight-year-old, whose horse personality adds some humor to the surroundings; and Starr, a three-year-old miniature horse who has — are you ready for this? — braces!
"They are all incredibly intuitive," says Wiss. "The horses seem to know that they are 'teachers,' and some of them even want to work with certain kids that come to the ranch."
Remick-Barlow began Spirit Ranch in 2003, starting with what is called "equine-assisted interventions." Originally, the program was started for young at-risk youth, but now always includes their families.
A program called Jump Start has been recently added, which helps US military veterans who are recovering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and traumatic brain injuries (TBI). This program is designed in part to assist the veterans, most of whom have seen combat duty, to reconnect with their families. It also is starting to cover deployment, relocation and reunion issues often not dealt with by the military's own programs.
Recently, an event was held for a brigade of local soldiers who were being sent to Kosovo for a yearlong deployment. Wiss says that even though there was much pomp and ceremony about their departure, no one was really addressing the fact that the families would be broken up for that year and had no idea what the future would bring. This is the exact area in which Jump Start can help, she says.
Spirit Ranch doesn't teach people "how to be," but rather offers different ways to use one's own problem-solving skills. As an example, Wiss says the staff doesn't actually put a halter on a horse. Instead, the halter will be handed to the client without instruction, and it is up to the child or adult — most of whom have little hands-on experience with horses — to figure out what to do.
The ranch's Equine Assisted Intervention (EAI) program is built to correspond with the different mental-health developmental stages of both adults and adolescents. Recognizing that each person needs to develop and maintain clear and healthy mental skills, such as critical thinking, communication and impulse control, EAI is designed to recognize the stages for each of its clients. It focuses on the inner strength of each individual, while remaining aware of potential problem areas.
While working with the horses, six specific behaviors have become the backbone of the program: attention to safety; being present, truthful and committed concerning one's self and others; and moving forward while evaluating the past and not staying stuck inside it.
These models are used in sessions between client and horse, although not necessarily during one session. The needs of the individual are a priority, and sessions can be for just one person or for a small group.
During the first year of the program, in 2003, 50 families were assisted. By 2006 that number had grown to 250, and as of about a year ago, 950 families had been assisted at Spirit Ranch.
The horses employed at Spirit Ranch enjoy a second chance themselves after being rescued from conditions that probably would have led to their deaths. According to Wiss, the horses are "are valued as living beings — respected and chosen for their nature, temperament and behavioral characteristics."
Since the horses are herd animals and sensitive to changes in their environment, they can project back to the youngsters and families any feelings of anxiety, fear, lack of trust and anger that can stop one from progressing in life.
"We find transference," Wiss says. "There are several barn people and two equine specialists [as well as two interns from the NMSU Social Work Department]. They work to teach the clients basic horse skills and safety precautions, and also ask the kids what other safety measures could be taken. It is all part of getting the kids to come out of their shells, and from there, having the mothers learn from their children. It is a whole new way of communicating for all of them. They are all using the skills they are being 'given' through the program."
Wiss has worked with Remick-Barlow since February, when they met through a friend who thought the two women should know each other. They hit it off immediately, and Wiss started to make plans for a fundraiser.
After some initial setbacks, the event, the Las Cruces Celebration of the Horse, drew 300 people. Wiss, a relative newcomer to the area from Ann Arbor, Mich., says, "People certainly do like horses around here!"