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  D e s e r t   E x p o s u r e  February 2011


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Horse Sense

"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.

spirit ranch

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!"

Wiss will soon be taking a leave of absence from Spirit Ranch, when she heads to her daughter's restaurant in the Virgin Islands, where she will be the pastry chef for a few months. "She said that I only have to work in the morning, by myself, and the view from the kitchen overlooks the sea."

Sounds like a tough job, but someone has to do it.

Both fundraising and baking professionally are part of Wiss' extensive resume. She has been in Las Cruces for about two and a half years. Her background ranges from a master's degree in Pastoral Ministry to operating a biscotti-baking shop back in Ann Arbor to managing the first Fair Trade store in that city.



Spirit Ranch also sponsors several Horse Camps that run two days each week for kids who are 6 to 13 years old.

The first camps were gender specific, but after that it went co-ed, and soon swimming therapy was added to the curriculum. At Horse Camp, the children are allowed to interact with horses but don't have to do any actual riding unless they want to, learning care and grooming skills and increasing their insights into horse and human behavior.

Wiss describes several amazing experiences during the camps. One child couldn't swim at all at the start of the camp, but by the end had conquered the entire pool, shallow end to deep end.

"We had a mother and daughter here who needed to work on patience," Wiss goes on, "and they were amazed to find that it was something they could work on and discuss while working with the horses.

"The only expectation here is to show up and do the work for the hour that you are here."

Another program, Wild Women Retreats, takes place several times each year in cooperation with Ranch DuBois, located in Corrales, just north of Albuquerque. These weekend-long adult retreats are designed to have small groups of women "utilize their deep inner resources for living out their passions." Using the wisdom of their fellow women campers and horses, guests are offered opportunities for "ongoing renewal, moving beyond self-imposed barriers" and "self-nurturing."



The Jump Start program began last October when 12 physicians from the William Beaumont Army Medical Center in El Paso came to Spirit Ranch to see if the ranch could be utilized to help soldiers. By unanimous consent of the doctors, the program began, and is slowly taking root. Says Wiss, "We don't take soldiers who are right off the front, but rather those who (have returned) and are wondering, 'How do I reconnect with my family?'"

Previously, the Army Medical Center had used dogs for therapy. As Wiss points out with a smile, however, "Dogs are nice, but usually all you can do is pet them."

It is different with horses, and she again notes that the horses at Spirit Ranch seem to have a special sense of what they are there for and why they are doing it.

Remick-Barlow is also a life coach and marriage counselor — and it's probably a good thing that she has other sources of income, given the costs of maintaining Spirit Ranch. "Last year alone, Ann had $50,000 in expenses just for the horses," Wiss says. "They are very expensive to keep and maintain."

Remick-Barlow won't turn down anyone she knows she can help, although she cannot take charity cases.

"Too many people don't' get what we do and how it works," Wiss says. "If they would just try it, I think they would really see how it can serve the community."

Besides expanding and continuing the work with veterans and their families, future goals of Spirit Ranch include EAP programs for childhood obesity, grief and loss programs for children and families, and the continued rescue and rehab of horses.

Wiss wraps things up neatly with three words when describing the ongoing work of Remick-Barlow and the other folks who work at Spirit Ranch:

"Magic happens here."



For more information on Spirit Ranch, see equineassistedprograms.com or call (575) 526 6040. For more information on Wild Women Retreats, visit ranchdubois.com/wildwomenretreats.html Like most nonprofit organizations, the related Helping Kids Be Kids has a wish list that ranges from updated office equipment to hay and special horse feed. Although it's not looking for volunteers to work with clients, the group does welcome help with cleaning stables and grooming horses; contact Gabe Rochelle, the recently appointed volunteer coordinator, at (575) 524-2296.

 

Senior writer Jeff Berg also wrote this
issue's story on author Jennifer Cervantes.

 



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