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Miracles: horses, youth and hope in action

Miracles: horses, youth and hope in action

Missions and Outreach

PINETTA—Diagnosed with autism, the little boy seemed to be trapped in a world of his own.

He rarely spoke and showed no interest in playing with other children. When he did communicate, it was with angry outbursts.

Horses are often identified by experts as being able to perceive and mirror human emotions. At Madison Youth Ranch, therapists use their interactions with children to identify underlying issues and begin healing. 

Traditional therapy had failed to break through the child’s self-imposed barriers. Sending him to the Madison Youth Ranch in the rural North Florida community of Pinetta was a last resort for his desperate caregivers.

A satellite of the Florida United Methodist Children’s Home in Enterprise, the 300-acre Madison Youth Ranch opened in July 2014 as a temporary shelter for children ages 5 to 17 who are unable to live at home due to abuse, neglect or severe emotional problems.

In addition to traditional treatments to help children deal with psychological issues, Madison Youth Ranch offers the services of two decidedly unconventional therapists: Pinky and Sugar, a pair of quarter horses that were donated to the ranch.

The horses are central to a new equine therapy program that is yielding remarkable results.

For children like the boy with autism, the horses have succeeded where other therapies failed.

Ranch facilities manager and licensed equine specialist Mike Moore said he simply instructed the boy to walk one of the horses, encouraging him to speak to the animal during the solitary walk. Little by little, the boy began sharing his story with the horse out of the earshot of humans. By the time he’d completed 10 sessions with the horse, he was speaking with ranch staff and other children.

“Many of these children have problems trusting. Once they trust the horse, they’re on their way to trusting humans,” said Moore.

Moore has long been a proponent of using horses to break through barriers that human therapists have failed to breach.

Two of the more popular equine therapists at the ranch are Pinky and Sugar, shown here. The quarter horses were donated to help children break through emotional and psychological barriers.

“I grew up on a farm in Wisconsin where we had work horses and learned early on that horses can influence people in powerful ways,” said Moore.

He continued working with horses at Bible college and later while employed at the Bethesda Home for Boys in Savannah, Georgia, which had a stable of 17 horses for recreation and therapy.

Once the Madison Youth Ranch was up and running, Moore said he felt God was calling him to start an equine therapy program there as well.

Licensed through the national Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association, Moore has now ushered 13 children through the 12-hour equine therapy program since starting it a year ago.

Moore’s wife, Ruth, who has worked with the Methodist Children’s Home for 32 years and now serves as the administrator of the ranch, said she’s been amazed at the changes in the children who have gone through the program.

“We’ve definitely seen changes in the children after working with the horses,” she said.

“We had one young lady who was very withdrawn and didn’t like to be around people, so we had her work with the horses. One of my duties is to give tours of the ranch to guests, and one day I asked her if she’d like to help show our guests around. I expected her to say ‘no,’ but, to my surprise, she agreed and proceeded to give them a tour. Later that afternoon, she volunteered to give another tour.”

One of the most dramatic changes involved a young boy who’d been sexually abused, Mike Moore said.

Madison Youth Ranch, a satellite of the Florida United Methodist Children's Home in Enterprise, has facilities on 300 acres. First opened in July 2014, the new therapy program is said to have yielded remarkable results.

“He had no confidence,” Moore said. “He walked like a crippled old person with his head down and shoulders bent. I asked him to walk Sugar, the livelier of our two horses. He began walking as usual but, as Sugar picked up the pace, his head went up and his shoulders went back as he was forced to walk faster to keep up with her. Instead of focusing on himself, this made him focus on the horse. By the fourth lesson, he was walking the horse with his back straight, looking confident.”

Mark Cobia, manager of marketing and communications for the Florida United Methodist Children’s Home, said the program is especially beneficial for children who are withdrawn and lack confidence.

“Studies show the benefits of equine-assisted therapy, particularly for children suffering emotional or behavioral issues that stem from previous abuse,” Cobia said. “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.”

While equine therapy isn’t intended to replace traditional therapy, the ranch’s gentle horses are often the first step toward healing, said Mike Moore.

”While children may not open up to a person, they can and do open up to the horse they are interacting with,” he said. “For reasons only God understands, these creatures are able to do what the experts can’t.”

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--D’Ann Lawrence White is a freelance writer based in Valrico.

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