Madison Youth Ranch adds equine therapy

PINETTA – Pinki and Sugar may not sound like therapists' names, and their clients are more likely to hit the hay than the stereotypical therapist's couch.

But make no mistake. The two newest additions to Madison Youth Ranch will earn their keep through the healing touch of equine-assisted therapy for boys and girls who find their way to this branch of the Florida United Methodist Children's Home.

Two horses grazing at Madison Youth Ranch
Two donated horses, Pinki and Sugar, join the Madison Youth Ranch program this month. They provide the foundation for equine-assisted therapy for children with emotional or behavioral issues. Photo from Madison Youth Ranch.

A little more than a year after opening its doors, the ranch has embarked on counseling sessions for all 11 children living at the facility. The sessions tap the talents of two donated horses – Pinki and Sugar – and the temporary services of an equine therapist from Rising Star Counseling of Lake Helen.

The program began with a session in November and a second one this month, shortly before Christmas. Rising Star is expected to continue providing services until late spring, said Ruth Moore, administrative services and community relations director at the ranch.

Two Madison Youth Ranch staff members will begin EAGALA (Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association) training in January, with an eye toward receiving certification in equine-assisted therapy that will allow them to take over the program, she said.

The ranch began accepting children into its residential program in late July 2014. All of the 11 children, ages 9 to 16, currently living at the ranch will be eligible for equine therapy services, Moore said.

"The equine therapy piece has been an important component of what we have wanted to offer here at the ranch since its beginning," Moore said in an email.

Less than a year after the ranch opened, the Stickney Stable was built to house horses for the program and pastures for grazing were prepared.

The Children's Home supports the plan, citing studies that show the benefits of equine-assisted therapy, particularly for children suffering emotional or behavioral issues that stem from previous abuse. Because horses often perceive and mirror human emotions, therapists can use the interactions between children and their equine companions to identify underlying issues and begin a healing program of counseling.

Stickney Stable built to house equine therapy at Madison Youth Ranch
The Stickney Stable, completed in July 2015, will house horses in the equine-assisted therapy program at Madison Youth Ranch. Photo from the Florida United Methodist Children's Home.

The Children's Home staff cites its own case study of the effects of equine-assisted therapy for a child with autism.

"One of our residents on the autism spectrum had minimal communication with staff and his peers when he arrived at the Florida United Methodist Children’s Home," Mark Cobia, marketing and communications manager for the home, reported in a news release.

"He did not play with others and would only express himself in angry outbursts. Traditional talk therapy was not helpful for him at the time, but he was an excellent candidate for equine-assisted therapy. ... While he could not verbalize with people, the equine therapist allowed him to walk the horse and encouraged him to talk to the horse.

"He would walk the horse and come to rest by the same tree during each session, the horse patiently standing next to him. He began sharing his story with the horse, outside of earshot from others. After about 10 sessions, he was able to begin communicating with staff and with his peers. It was at this point that we could then begin working with him."

The ranch, a satellite campus of the Florida United Methodist Children's Home near DeLand, can accommodate 18 to 20 children at a time, and programs are available for ages 5 to 18. Therapeutic residential group care is provided for children who have been abused, abandoned or neglected, or whose family has broken down as a result of divorce, drug abuse, illness or death of a parent. Referrals generally come from state agencies as well as private placements. During its first year, the ranch served 49 residents, according to a year-end report.

Volunteers and donations of cash or food, clothing, school supplies and household needs are welcomed. Contact Elisabeth Gadd, vice president of development at the Children's Home, at (386) 753-2066 or visit for information. 

– Susan Green is the Florida Conference managing editor.

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