This is part 4 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. You can read the story of New Horizon Ranch founders, Brian and Joy Miller, here; the story of NHR employee, Jessica Freund, here; or the story of volunteer and rider, Don Long and Molly Witker, here.
Matt Syverson enjoyed eating breakfast with Brian Miller, founder of New Horizon Ranch, a few weeks after attending the ranch’s “Deck the Stalls” event in December 2009.
“Sure, we’ll come down and take lessons,” he told Brian, having little idea the impact that decision would have on his family.
“Everything was a surprise [at the beginning],” Tammy Syverson said. “We didn’t know anything about ranch work. We didn’t know what benefits there would be to riding a horse. I didn’t know that they were Christians, or that this was a ministry and they came from a faith perspective.”
A New World
Matt and Tammy had moved to Olathe, Kansas with their identical twin girls in 2004. Three years later, their third daughter, Lily, was born, and shortly after her delivery, they unexpectedly learned that she had Down syndrome.
“Within 24 hours, our whole world had changed,” Matt said.
Tammy agreed, noting that nothing can really prepare a person to parent a child with special needs. However, she is thankful to have known two children with Down syndrome when she was growing up and believes those positive examples helped prepare her at least a little. Ultimately, though, it was her and Matt’s relationships with Christ that made the difference.
“I don’t know how people handle it without that,” she commented.
The Syversons’ first riding experience at the ranch with their young daughters wasn’t quite what they expected. Their older daughters, Grace and Sophie, were petrified, refusing even to go into their horses’ stalls. By the end, the twins had reluctantly fed treats to their horses and allowed an adult to set them on the backs of horses that were standing stock still just outside their stalls.
“We started from nothing with them,” Tammy said. “It’s incredible to see the difference in them now and how they’ve learned confidence, assertiveness, and responsibility.”
A couple years into their riding experience, the two horses that Grace and Sophie rode both died within about six months of each other.
“The way Joy and Brian handled it and allowed the girls to be a part of that event was extremely good. It was a maturing process for them,” Tammy said. “That’s an extreme example of them learning all aspects of the ranch and life – and what happens at the ranch is so applicable to life. I really am thankful for those hard experiences they had.”
Shortly after the Syversons went for their first lesson, they began learning just how beneficial riding could be for Lily as well.
“I’ve always wanted to be involved with horses, like every little girl,” Tammy said. “That was my one hesitancy in going to the ranch. I thought, ‘Well, this is just me trying to live out my dream of horses.’ But once we talked with Ronda [NHR’s physical therapist], I realized it would be helpful for Lily.”
“I remember Lily being a little trick rider from the beginning,” Matt said.
Indeed, Lily’s first riding lessons at the ranch were hippotherapy lessons with Ronda. As part of that therapy, she learned to ride backward and on her knees. The first noticeable change the Syversons saw in her was not her physical strength, however, but her speech. Her vocabulary increased, and her family was able to understand her better.
Today, Lily also participates in NHR’s reading program, which provides collaboration with her school and incorporation of her education goals with her riding experience.
“It’s very exciting to see,” Tammy said. “Lily responds so differently on the back of a horse or at the ranch to the reading than she does anywhere else with her level of confidence and joy, just because of where she is.”
Joining the Board
When Matt and Tammy moved to Olathe in 2004, Matt started his company, Sound Stewardship, LLC. Sound Stewardship® helps clients “make a meaningful impact with their wealth,” through financial planning, wealth management, and opportunities for stewardship and generosity.
“We help people do the best they can with what God provides to them,” Matt said.
Because of his financial experience, Matt realized early on during his family’s time at the ranch that he might be able to offer help in that area. When NHR’s treasurer suffered an injury and wasn’t able to keep up with his work, Matt stepped in to help. Now, he has been a member of the board for three years.
“That’s a comfort zone for me,” he said. “We help them so they can focus on programs.”
The Secret to Adoption
In 2011, the Syversons began a new journey – toward adoption.
“Yeah, Tammy was struck by lightning in 2011,” Matt joked, “and God said, ‘You need to move forward on this.’”
Adoption had been a possibility for Matt and Tammy since early in their marriage, but three family moves, the birth of twin girls, and then the birth of a child with special needs all put the idea of adoption on hold. In 2011, the Bible verse James 1:27 came individually to the forefront of Matt and Tammy’s minds, and they began to consider what caring for the orphan might look like in their family. They adopted their son, Levi, from China in 2013.
After they brought Levi home, NHR became a blessing to their family in a new way.
“The secret to adoption is how quickly or strongly you can become connected to this new little person that you didn’t birth,” Matt said. “We feel like the horse experience is the one thing all six of us can do together that helps him know he’s part of our family.”
Involvement at the ranch is no longer a passing thought or an off-hand “yes” for the Syverson family. It is an expected part of their weekly routine.
Lily and Levi ride, experiencing better health and stamina as a result.
Grace and Sophie not only ride but also volunteer, mucking out stalls and acting as side walkers for younger riders.
Tammy talks with other parents, helping introduce new visitors to ranch life, and she takes advantage of the option to groom horses as “horse therapy” on stressful days.
Matt chauffeurs his kids, serves on the board, offers financial advice, and volunteers with other tasks like mowing the lawn when needed.
Over the last five years, Matt and Tammy have grown to believe deeply in NHR’s mission and the power the ministry has to help people.
Matt put it simply: “Horses can benefit anyone. Whatever your problem is, they can probably help with it.”