Promoting “a world where teens live like they belong, and love like others belong,” Acres of Hope Youth Ranch in Independence, Oregon, offers a free equine mentorship program to benefit hurting youth ages 12 through 19 and their families. Founder Emmy Arana and Executive Director Heather Holcomb, alumnae of Corban University in Salem, Oregon, focus their healing efforts across six main areas (self-esteem, responsibility, self-control, healthy relationships, emotions, and independence) through a faith-based program that welcomes all, regardless of religious affiliation.
Leaders tailor weekly, one-hour sessions with equine partners to meet youths’ individual needs and knock down emotional barriers, while generous community partners help underwrite program costs to knock down financial ones. During intake sessions, leaders discern participants’ strengths and challenges and later consider the growth gained at six- and 12-month check-ins: Increased trust and responsibility, greater resiliency, maturing emotional responses and deepening empathy. Celebrating these wins is a given, especially when the healing’s been hard-won.
In the following, Holcomb speaks of their mission of sharing HOPE (Healing, Opportunity, Purpose, and Education) with adolescents who are feeling HURT (Harmed, Unseen, Rejected, or Traumatized), thereby creating connections with horses, nature, instructors, and parent-guardians…and ultimately fostering freedom and healing.
Why do you use horses to connect with youth, and what makes them good animals to work with?
While many of our youth have been introduced to traditional counseling, it can feel hard to engage and uncomfortable to talk directly, one on one, with an adult. Now, imagine a horse in between; our youth can focus on the details of the horse’s body, brush and run their fingers through their manes, and feel the warmth of their eyes when the horse turns toward them. Horses can be incredibly intuitive, tender, loyal, and protective. Under such circumstances, fight-or-flight is disarmed and open conversation can begin.
Have horses always been a part of your program?
Yes: Jesus and horses are the foundations of our program.
How do youth react when first introduced to a horse?
Some are very excited and feel comfortable right away, and others are petrified. The beautiful thing is that each introduction becomes the beginning of a story, and every single story leads to a deeper love and understanding of the horse.
How do you believe your youth benefit from their connections with horses?
We find the famous Buck Brannaman quote to be very true in this case: “The horse is a mirror to your soul.” Horses communicate clearly through body language, cues, and releases. When our youth are paired with the horse and their Session Leader, the latter is able to point out how the horse feels about the interaction. In the process of healing from pain and trauma, some youth have become withdrawn and downcast, as though they wish they could simply disappear. Others have developed patterns of making choices and moving through life with seemingly no thought about how they impact the world around them. Our horses can show a shy youth when it’s time to step out of their comfort zone to be the leader they need, and then meet their vulnerability with clear loyalty. If a horse is overwhelmed and needs a more emboldened youth to show them more consideration and empathy, the latter can lower their energy and watch the horse calm down as well. Both conversations are incredibly impactful and lead to growth through connection with the horse.
How do the animals benefit from this work?
All of our horses receive so much love and attention. We consider them family so, as a staff, we connect with them on personal levels and genuinely love them as our own. Concurrently, the horses also must be well-trained and safe, so our staff invest in them constantly. Interacting with many different people and carrying the emotions of our youth can be hard for some horses; others soak up all of the attention and touches. We get to partner with our herd in raising the next generation of horse lovers that’s learning to treat them with love, gratitude, and respect.
How do youth find you, and who are some of your partners?
We receive most referrals by word-of-mouth, as well as support through our community partnerships with the Department of Human Services, school-based mental health teams, local- and regional counselors, residential care programs and the like. In addition, donors like Real Estate Broker Sarah Freigtag of Windermere Pacific West Properties, Pioneer Trust Bank, IUOE Local 701 and Angels in the Outfield help support us financially by underwriting some of our operating costs. We’re also blessed with support from our alma mater, Corban University.
What are your future goals with Corban to help prepare college students for a program like yours?
There are so many opportunities! Corban students who are preparing for careers in occupational therapy, nursing, or counseling, for example, could apply those skills in an equine setting for a comprehensive, holistic career. Corban’s Introduction to Animal Science class will aim to hold at least one class in the barn as part of the university’s hands-on learning in its equine science unit. Ag Science students also will be encouraged to investigate internship opportunities and capstone projects with Acres of Hope as they seek more experience in working with horses and/or mentoring youth. We plan to continue partnering with Corban to offer students the opportunity to put their classroom learning into real-life action, and we’re so thrilled we get to watch as God turns these passions into concrete applications.
If college students wanted to learn more about preparing to work with Acres of Hope or a similar program, what would you recommend?
We’d love to meet them and have them tour the ranch! Email email@example.com and we’ll answer your questions about the work we do and our hopes for the future.
Courtesy of Corban University