UIX: Horse, human bond is foundation for hope at H.U.G.S. Ranch

It takes a special kind of touch to reach victims of abuse. At H.U.G.S. Ranch, it also takes hooves.
It takes a special kind of touch to reach victims of abuse. At H.U.G.S. Ranch, it also takes hooves.
H.U.G.S. Ranch, a 12-acre 501c3 facility in Byron Center, approaches healing with the help of horses. Children with social, mental, emotional and physical issues have come to the ranch and found help through equine therapy and faith-based counseling. Lisa Carter, who founded the ranch with Jill Glass, says the ranch does "what God has called us to do."
"It is amazing to see the self-confidence, self-worth, and self-esteem increase while they work with their mentor and their horse,” Carter says. "Their faces just light up."
The ranch is staffed by a single full-time employee and two part-timers, with a few dozen volunteers helping out as wranglers or mentors. The mentors are screened based on their skills with a horse, safety, and education. They're all committed to the ranch's mission of bringing "encouraging emotional, physical and social healing to hurting children and donated, unwanted or rescued equines by allowing them to share together in experiencing hope, understanding, guidance, and support (the title acronym) in a no-cost, safe, Christian environment."
Carter says the ranch was born while she was going through a hard time and found a book by Kim Meeder, "Hope Rising: Stories from the Ranch of Rescued Dreams." The book is about Meeder's ranch, where a rescued horse and a young victim of emotional abuse make a connection.
"One of my riding students parents gave me the book and said I would be good at running a ranch like that," Carter says. "I thought it was a great idea but I didn't think I had the gifts to start and run a ranch like that. Then my daughter was going through a hard time and I gave her the book to read and she said, 'Mom, we can do this.' I kept trying to close the doors and God kept opening them so H.U.G.S. Ranch came to be in 2006."
Children are the ranch's main clientele, Carter says, but the horses get just as much out of the experience. Fifteen in all, there are quarter horses that ride around, a Welsh/Arab cross, a red roan Appaloosa, a miniature paint horse with warm personality, and other breeds that make up the ranch.  Some come from backgrounds of neglect or injury, but all have been donated.
"Horses have a kind eye, a heart that doesn't stop giving, they don't judge you, and they love you just the way you are," Carter says. "The kids can braid their manes and tails. They can ride and be in charge of their horse and help with jobs around the ranch. The children feel important and can relate to the horses as they have stories of their own. Some suffer from anxiety, depression, anger, loneliness, and fear just as the children struggle with similar issues."
Encouragement to grow while bonding with these animals is the goal of the ranch. In place of mental health professionals are volunteer wranglers and a horse pen. In place of a therapist's couch is a saddle. And Carter says the children impress her with stories of breakthrough consistently. A child who had issues with anxiety and cleaning up at home found a way to work those obstacles by applying his experience at the ranch. He was told he couldn't ride the horse until he cleaned up after it and took care of it, Carter says. The boy saw that the animals have to be treated with respect, too, and understood the lesson. He cleaned up and was able to ride the horse, and when he went home he was able to use the same principles to clean up.
It's by giving the children the responsibility of caring for an animal, or the responsibility of helping on a farm, that helps many of them concentrate and learn, Carter says. In turn, the animals share their trust and love. The volunteers get to work with the horses and see them grow, and the parents can find support, too.
"They usually all sit underneath our big tree and they can talk and form a support group with other parents that are struggling with the same issues," Carter says. "They get to see their child blossom and see how the horses are truly helping them, which in return affects the whole family."
H.U.G.S. Ranch is funded completely through donations of money, hay bales, and alfalfa, and current goals for the ranch are listed on the hugsranch.org "Prayer and Praise" tab. Its largest fundraiser is an auction held every fall. And while financial issues and finding volunteers are a perennial challenge for the ranch, the session slots  from June through September are filled up quickly. Those interested in helping should act soon, too, as the deadline for new wranglers is the end of March.
For more information on H.U.G.S. Ranch, visit http://www.hugsranch.org/
Urban Innovation Exchange highlights the people and projects transforming West Michigan through sustainable efforts. Matthew Russell is the editor for UIX Grand Rapids. Contact him at [email protected].
Photography by Steph Harding 
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