By KATHRYN ACREE
After reading Hope Rising by Kim Meeder, Birmingham’s Joy O’Neal felt inspired by her story of youth finding a connection with abused horses. Friends of O’Neal felt the same about the story’s setting at Crystal Peak Youth Ranch in Oregon and were determined to open a similar youth ranch in central Alabama.
Since 2006 Spirit of Hope Youth Ranch has connected children from group foster care or at-risk counseling with rescued horses who have suffered abuse. The ranch is located at the former King’s Ranch just outside the city limits of Chelsea near County Roads 109 and 55.
“It is amazing how quickly children connect to the horses,” said O’Neal, the executive director. “It gives us opportunities to talk about communication skills like reading body language in the horse and how often humans give out the same cues. Children show real empathy and compassion to the horses.”
Studies have shown that children who participate in a program like this can significantly improve their self-esteem, empathy, tolerance for stress, problem-solving skills, impulse control and interpersonal relationships. When working with the horses, children at the ranch are encouraged to draw conclusions and metaphors about how these experiences relate to their own lives.
Groups generally visit the ranch for about two hours. Visitors help care for the horses and are given a chance to form a bond with them.
The ranch is home to seven horses, four of which can be ridden. They are not a horse rescue operation, but rather they adopt horses that come from rescue situations. The horses are evaluated by equine veterinarians to determine that they are suitable for life at the ranch.
The ranch is a non-profit, faith-based organization and not a part of any religious denomination. They are sustained by private donations and do not receive state or federal funding. They offer their services at no charge to a variety of children and youth that benefit from an equine assistance program.
Spirit of Hope Youth Ranch is hosting a Pony Express 5K Race this fall to raise much-needed funds for the organization. “Care and upkeep of the ranch and horses costs a minimum of $5000 a month,” O’Neal said. “Our board had received the suggestion of doing a 5K, and so we’re planning our first event for October 1 in Crestline.”
Other opportunities to volunteer time and services for the Spirit of Hope Youth Ranch are available. Scout troops can help with maintenance such as building and mending fences, and volunteers or older students needing service hours can provide work for the ranch as well. More information on the ranch, the Pony Express 5K and making donations is online at www.SOHYR.org.