This is part 1 of 4 in a series of posts about New Horizon Ranch, an organization in Rantoul, KS, which works to enrich lives through equine assisted activities and therapies.
Brian Miller first discovered the power of therapeutic riding in 1999 when a friend of the family invited him to watch as she gave pony rides to kids with disabilities. There were 20 kids in the group that day, and 19 mounted their horses with no problems. The last little girl seemed to be in her own world and had very little control over her body as her arms and legs jerked in sporadic motions.
No way! They are never going to get her on this horse, Brian thought.
But when they brought the horse up to the young girl, her entire body went still, and with a trembling hand, she reached up to pat the horse’s neck as tears streamed down her face.
I didn’t see that coming, Brian thought. I don’t know what this is, but I want to do something like that.
Looking for a Mission
For a long time, Brian and his wife, Joy, had felt called to missions work. Brian spent a month in Albania on a mission trip, and then he and Joy went together to Thailand. After they returned, they interviewed for a mission position in Africa but didn’t feel God leading them in that direction.
They weren’t sure what to do next. As Joy approached graduation from college, they began looking at a piece of property southwest of Kansas City.
The idea of buying it seemed strange. Why are we looking at buying property when we’re going to the mission field? they wondered. But slowly, over the next several years, God made it clear that this was their mission field, serving kids and families through therapeutic riding and other equine assisted activities.
They began training at a therapeutic riding center, and then, in 2004, they found out Joy was pregnant with their first child. Their daughter, Sara, was born on January 12, and on January 14, Joy’s sixteen-year-old brother died in a tragic car accident.
“We were devastated and went through all that grief of saying, ‘God, this makes no sense—new life to tragic loss,’ and asking questions like, ‘What are we doing? Why are we doing this?’” Brian explained.
Founding the Ranch
Ten months later, they were sitting in a church service, and the pastor began speaking about dreams.
“If God has given you a dream,” he said, “now is the time to pursue it.”
“It was like everybody in the congregation just disappeared. And we were like, ‘Are you listening? I’m listening,’” he said.
Despite the darkness and grief of that time, they were determined to hold on to the light found in the promise of each new day. From that hope, New Horizon Ranch (NHR) was born. They finished their training in spring of 2006, founded the ranch that fall, and welcomed their first rider in April of 2007.
Today, the ranch offers a variety of programs for kids and adults of all ages and ranges of ability. Their focus is on kids with physical, emotional, cognitive, or behavioral difficulties, but they often integrate other children into the mix also. Programs range from week-long horse camps to therapeutic riding and hippotherapy (a medically-based type of equine therapy) to mental health and reading programs to a program for older adults. Through NHR, they have watched many children’s and adults’ lives be changed for the better.
Open Hearts, Changed Lives
Some of Joy’s favorite stories come from the week when the ministry KidsTLC from Olathe, KS brought a dozen of their kids down to the ranch for camp. As the campers got off the bus, several of them were dead set against ever even getting on a horse, but after a few warm ups and icebreakers, every single one of them mounted their horses and were beaming.
One of the activities they did that week Joy calls Old World/New World. The corral is strewn with random items, such as cones, hula hoops, stuffed animals, etc., and each child is told to pick two items—one that represents his or her old world before coming to camp and one that represents his or her new world after coming to camp and meeting his or her horse.
One of the boys that week picked a barrel for his Old World item. It was closed, just like he had been—unwilling to let anything in or out. His New World item was a mailbox, and it was wide open—ready not only to accept but also to give.
Another activity they did toward the end of that week was to let the kids talk to their horse alone to tell the horses their stories and how meeting the horses had changed them. Joy remembers watching one young boy talk to his horse for fifteen minutes, while tears rolled down his face.
“Whatever happened for him was real,” she said. “We don’t always get to know the nitty-gritty details. . . . Horses rely on nonverbal communication. You might be saying you’re fine on the outside, but you’re not really fine on the inside, and the horses know that. The kids have to be real in order to connect with a horse.”
Seeing Value Where the World Doesn’t
Brian remembers another young man whose life has been changed through NHR. His parents initially decided to try letting him take lessons for eight weeks. Now, he has been taking riding at NHR for seven years.
Early on in this boy’s time at NHR, his mother came to Brian, crying. She had just been informed by her son’s school that they had decided not to set any new goals for him in his IEP (Individualized Education Program). They said that he had peaked and wouldn’t be able to learn anything new.
“He’s ten,” she said. “How can they not set new goals for him?”
“Well,” Brian said, joking, “I guess we’re just dumb enough here to think he can learn new things. So we’ll just keep going with what we’re doing here.”
Since then, this young boy has learned to groom and saddle his horse completely by himself, as well as walk and trot on his horse. Learning to buckle his saddle helped him gain the dexterity he needed to tie his shoes. He has excelled in school and even plays sports at the high school level now.
Brian remembers a different time when a caregiver brought a nonverbal little girl to a lesson. He was talking to her and asking questions when her caregiver broke in and said, “You realize she can’t talk, right?”
Brian was angered by her words, especially the fact she would say it in front of the little girl.
Is it better for me to look at her and talk to her, or for you to talk about her? he wondered silently. Inside, she may know everything you’re saying.
He summarized his perspective on the situation. “It instilled into us such a desire to say, ‘She’s a human being, a child of God.’ I’m going to love her because that’s what we’re called to do.”
Joy echoed his sentiments. “What more beautiful thing can I model for my kids than what it means to serve other people?”