Those who grew up with horses know the therapeutic benefits they can provide. They teach us to communicate without words. They react to our body language and our demeanor in ways that force us into a heightened state of self-awareness.
At Aspen Hollow Young Ranchers near Morrison, Colo., at-risk and troubled youth are leaving the inner city and even juvenile detention centers behind and are connecting with horses in life-changing ways.
Located just outside of Denver, Aspen Hollow is a sprawling ranch solely dedicated to providing meaningful experiences that can translate into life skills using horses as the vehicle for those lessons.
“Most of the groups that come to the ranch are from very urban areas and have had a rough upbringing. For many of them, this is their first experience with horses,” said Carina Kellenberger, founder and co-owner of Rocky Mountain Equine Assisted Psychotherapy, a private practice that operates out of the ranch.
Carina and her business partner, Dana Schultz, are licensed clinical social workers, certified animal assisted social workers and lifelong horsewomen. Both grew up riding and both attended the University of Denver's Graduate School of Social Work. They met while working together at an equine rescue and decided to combine their academic strengths and equine talents.
“Aspen Hollow was built with the sole intention of serving youth,” said Carina. “The Gardner family started the ranch ten years ago after watching the effect the first horse they owned had on their daughter, Alison, who is now a surgeon at The Ohio State University Veterinary Medical Center.”
Aspen Hollow is not a hippotherapy facility that deals with physical and occupational therapy, but rather it offers psychological and behavioral support. While the focus is mainly on juveniles, the ranch also offers team-building sessions, corporate retreat experiences, and family days for adoptive families.
Carina and Dana got involved three years ago, and Aspen Hollow expanded its reach and the array of services it offers.
“When we came on, we helped to revamp the programming and added a clinical element to it. Now, we see adults, families and individuals,” said Carina.
Many of the people the team serves have experienced significant trauma in their lives — emotional, physical or both — and they suffer from lasting effects and mental health disorders. Some have committed serious crimes as juveniles and their experiences at Aspen Hollow and with Carina and Dana's program help them navigate their way out of the juvenile detention system and back into the community as productive members of society.
Aspen Hollow has fifteen horses of various ages and breeds, three of which are Thoroughbreds and one that used to race. A 1999 model, Jake, as he's known at the Ranch, raced as Reignmaker. He made only three starts before being retired as a show horse prospect.
“Reignmaker was donated to us after his owners learned about our mission and what we look for in horses,” said Carina. “He wasn't working out for their daughter, but had a great personality – he loves people – and they thought he would not only enjoy the work, but be good at it as well.”
Carina said they look for horses who enjoy human interaction and have an even keel. While they only have three Thoroughbreds, she says the Thoroughbreds are actually extremely even tempered, patient and kind, bucking the stereotype with which they are often labeled.
“Thoroughbreds have this reputation of being so hot and difficult to handle, but these are three of our best horses. They never swish a tail, never seem to get frustrated. They're just so personable. We'd love to have more like them,” said Carina.
“Some people have this idea that certain breeds are a certain way, but it's more about the specific horse being happy with what they're doing. I think that's important no matter what is going to be asked of the horse, whether it be showing, trail riding, or equine assisted therapy.”
Carina and Dana have advanced training in trauma-focused equine-assisted psychotherapy and combine that with their academic background in cognitive behavioral therapy. The women help clients dealing with trauma, grief, PTSD, divorce, loss, abuse, neglect or other adverse life events to develop adaptive coping and self-regulation skills by working with horses.
“We use some of the fundamentals of Natural Horsemanship combined with Natural Lifemanship, a method that uses horse physiology to regulate and help to heal human physiology. Clients do a lot of ground work with the horses with the goal of creating a partnership with the animals rather than a relationship in which they strive to be the alpha.”
The ultimate goal for many of the clients is to develop enough communication and training skills, as well as confidence with their equine partner, to transition from the ground to the saddle for their sessions.
Client results are often dramatic. As they learn about and gain confidence working with horses, they also learn about themselves. This introspective awareness often translates into clients learning to self-regulate their emotional reactions, increases their self-esteem, teaches them to set personal boundaries and helps them orient to and participate in the present rather than dwelling on the past or focusing on fears related to the future.
To learn more about Aspen Hollow Young Ranchers, go to www.ahyr.org, and for more information on the services Carina and Dana's Rocky Mountain Equine Assisted Psychotherapy, go to www.rockymountaineap.com.
A video about Aspen Hollow Young Ranchers:
Jen Roytz is a marketing, publicity and comprehensive communications specialist based in Lexington, Ky. A native of Cleveland, Ohio, her professional focus lies in the fields of Thoroughbred racing, health care, corporate and non-profit marketing. She holds board affiliations with the Make a Wish Foundation, Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance and the Retired Racehorse Project, among others, and she is the go-to food source for two dogs and one off-track Thoroughbred.
Email Jen your story ideas at [email protected] or connect with her on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
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