A Labor of Love

Horse eating out of a black feeding bucket

Here at Bright Side Youth Ranch, we seek to inspire the next generation toward Hope, and the primary way we do so is through Sessions. In our Sessions, children and teens in crisis between the ages 8 to 18 come weekly to work with a Mentor and a horse. These individualized sessions are positive and powerful for these hurting kids.

It’s the combination of all three elements – the child, the mentor and the horse – coming together that makes Sessions at Bright Side both unique and impactful. Our Mentors are a vital connecting point, and we are blessed with some amazing people on our team and in training. They help children and teens develop MENTALLY through problem-solving, PHYSICALLY through ranch chores and exercise outdoors, SPIRITUALLY through conversations about God and faith, SOCIALLY through relationships, and EMOTIONALLY through empathy and a connection with a horse.

In this equation of three elements, if the Child is at the heart of what we do and the Mentor is the guide, then the Horse is the hinge-point that ties everything together. Horses are uniquely designed to mirror our emotions and reflect the positive effects of building a relationship founded on trust. They are meant to dwell in community and use body language primarily in expressing and receiving communication. They read our intentions clearly, and there is no way to lie or hide from a horse. They teach us how to be clear, concise, and assertive rather than aggressive, despondent, disconnected or passive. Working with horses provides countless teachable moments that mentors can use to help kids discover more about themselves, other people, relationships, the world around them and the Author of Hope who seeks to give them strength, love, and a future.

And, working with horses is exactly that – work. It’s fun and rewarding, but it certainly isn’t easy. It’s hard work, and often many things associated with horses are HEAVY (i.e. hay, water tanks, feed bags, filled muck tubs, etc.), but it’s not beyond the capacity of an 8-year-old to learn to care for a horse. It’s the kind of labor that may be challenging in the moment, but it becomes so fulfilling to see a picked-up field, an algae-free tank, or a cleaned-up horse. So many children and teens today can benefit from time outside and learn how to see the horse as more than just an animal and more of a partner in their personal growth and development. A recent study found that just simply brushing the horse for 30 minutes once a week for 10 weeks dramatically reduces cortisol (the stress hormone) levels in kids and teens.

So, the part of the Sessions that is so special is working with a horse. And the horses here at the Ranch are precious to us. They each have a story of their own and an individual personality that connects with various personalities of the children they work with. They all (with the exception of one) are on the older side, and they all had previous careers (or multiple owners and multiple careers). They all have a physical ailment that limits a performance career (except for Luna) but by no means keeps them from being able to continue to love, give, and teach.

Alex, previously my horse, once competed in A Show Hunters, jumper classes, and even evented for a time. He’s traveled all over the country with me both for competition and because I was sometimes on the move. He gave me the opportunity to ride at a higher level and taught me so much, including how to trust and be brave. He pulled a suspensory tendon at one point, but bounced back, never wavering from his love of competing and jumping through it all.  Then, he had a career ending bought with EPM and was never quite sound enough to jump or compete again. I was stuck with a horse that could do limited flat work and only do occasional small jumps when the EPM wasn’t flaring up. He taught me that loving and caring for an animal isn’t just when it’s easy and they are fun and producing ribbons and wins but also when it’s difficult and painful and they can no longer compete. He has shown me the beautiful connection of growing old and moving into new phases of life together. And, anywhere else, a horse with EPM would not be wanted – the soundness issues are too iffy and sometimes too costly. But, here he is…at Bright Side Youth Ranch…loving on kids and teens. He is a steady-eddy that handles the more extremes of anger and frustration and distrust like a champ. He is not easily ruffled and will completely ignore negative emotions until the participant learns to work through their feelings and settle. Then, Alex comes through and does exactly what he should. It’s honestly quite interesting and sometimes a little funny when he reads people so well!

And, that’s just Alex’s story. Lexi, the sweetest, kindest soul has a story of her own and offers the best hugs and a listening ear to those who are fragile and hurting. Princess, while sometimes stubborn and a tad lazy, knows her job and absolutely adores children. With her allergies, itchiness, and sometimes gassiness, she can crack a smile from the hardest heart. Luna is a little more of a challenge in the programs, but she reminds us to never give up and to continue to problem solve. And, Evan… well, he’s Evan. He’s the star, the class clown, the entertainer, and a steadfast partner. He makes you laugh, smile, roll your eyes, and even take a big sigh of relief because he’s so trustworthy.

In case you can’t tell, these horses are precious to us at Bright Side. And, we take their care very seriously. We do our best to make sure they stay healthy and happy so that they can give their best in sessions and because they deserve a place to feel loved and cared for, just as our participants do.

There is no higher compliment than to hear from previous owners who have donated their precious gifts to the ranch and have them say, “He/she looks great,” or “I’m so happy they have a home at Bright Side.” It is an honor and privilege to care for these Angels in Horsehair, even as their ages and ailments require more labors of love. Bright Side wouldn’t be Bright Side Youth Ranch without them.

You can help the Ranch keep these horses and ponies feeling their best by giving here.

picture above taken by Alisha McCarthy

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