Local non-profit uses rehabilitated horses to educate, heal community

Pana Iliopoulos works with mare Snickers to demonstrate training exercises at the Swan Center on Friday, June 30, 2017. Katharine Lotze/The Signal
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Tucked away in Castaic, sits a horse rehabilitation and restoration center that works to educate the community about the therapeutic and spiritual value of animals.

The Swan Center Outreach moved to Hasley Canyon Road a little more than a year ago to bring its programs for children, adults and groups to the Santa Clarita Valley.

After rescuing and rehabilitating animals, the non-profit outreach center focusing on the healing powers of horses, increased personal awareness and animal communication and.

“Almost all of these horses came from backgrounds of abuse, neglect or improper training and some of them have been with us for 30 years,” Swan Center Outreach Director Rose Ashely said.  “These guys have had a long road but they ended up doing all this amazing therapy work and these incredible programs.”

The motto for the non-profit is seeing “animals as teachers, healers and friends” to serve others through kindness, compassion, education and fun.

“Once their needs are met they will 100 percent respond to your needs and that’s why they’re most effective with therapy programs,” Ashley said.

Rose Ashley walks past horse pens outside of the barn at the Swan Center on Friday, June 30, 2017. Katharine Lotze/The Signal

History of the Swan Center

Ashley began the Swan Center Outreach after working as a professional psychic and counselor in Atlanta for 15 years.

As a professional psychic, Ashley worked with police agencies, animal agencies and individuals while she continued her work as a counselor at the Swan Center for Intuitive Living.

“While I was doing my counseling I was working with the animals and teaching animal communication,” she said.  “At one point I started bringing people from my workshops out to do horse programs and they started to have amazing growth experiences when I combined them.”

After bringing together horses and people, Ashley said “magic happened” with those involved in her “Inventing Your Life” workshop, focused on helping people grow and succeed.

“When I combined that workshop with horse work, it was phenomenal what was happening with people,” she said.

Ashely later brought her program to Colorado for a few years before moving to Castaic in 2016.

Horse Rehabilitation

Almost all of the horses at the Swan Center come from backgrounds of abuse or neglect that were given to the center from rescue organizations in Georgia and Colorado.

“When we were in Georgia we would be contacted by rescue organizations because we specialize in rehabilitation,” Ashley said.  “They would have horses they couldn’t adopt out because they needed special care or they were too dangerous.”

Once the center adopts horses, it keeps them for life to integrate into its programs and to rehabilitate.

“Some of horses were so abused and psychologically damaged it would take up to three years to put a halter on them without them falling apart,” Ashley said.

The non-profit has a routine in restoring its horses.  It first gives each horse a couple weeks to get use to the environment and to develop consistency through feeding and touching.

Pano Iliopoulos pets mare Snickers after demonstrating training exercises at the Swan Center in Castaic on Friday, June 30, 2017. Katharine Lotze/The Signal

Ashley and her team then take each horse to the round pen, a 65-foot circle, to mimic herd behavior and mentality.  The horse is slowly trained how to follow an individual in the middle of the pen, move faster or slower based on energy and follow simple cues.

“You put a horse in there and you basically move the horse and that’s emulating that lead mare behavior,” Ashely said.  “If the horse accepts you then it will follow you.”

The team also performs desensitization exercises using a wand with a string on end to touch the horse and swing and slap on ground, which can take up to months to achieve.

After a horse has successfully completed its rehabilitation, it then follows a daily routine of 11 training exercises and feeding near the facility’s main barn.

Community Programs

A lot of the focus at the Swan Center is on education, to teach people how to properly handle and care for horses so they do not need rehabilitation.

Another major aspect of the non-profit is to familiarize people with the impact energy makes on communication with one another and with animals.

“What makes horses such incredible mirrors is that humans and animals communicate in three ways: vocally, body language and energetically,” Ashely said.  “Horses are all about your energy… they’re just reflecting who you are and what you’re doing.”

Snicker, a mare at the Swan Center, relaxes after demonstrating training exercises in a round pen on June 30, 2017. Katharine Lotze/The Signal

In its new facility, the Swan Center is working on building up its programs and sharing its mission with the community.

Currently, the center offers programs called Leadership and Horses for children, Teambuilding and Horses and Spirituality and Horses.

“To me spirituality is the discovery and development of that part of you that isn’t the body or the personality and becoming more and more aware of that,” Ashley said.  “People come and they work with the horses and learn things about themselves or they come for fear resolution or they are moving through grief.”

With its teambuilding programs, the Swan Center has worked with companies like UPS to teach workers about their management style and personal behavior.

“We’ve had some really good success there because horses really serve as mirrors,” Ashley said.  “By working with the horses you get how you really are that you don’t get any other way.”

The shadows of Snickers, left, and Pana Iliopoulos, right, fall on the ground inside the round pen after demonstrating training exercises on Friday, June 30, 2017. Katharine Lotze/The Signal

In the past the center also did therapy work with special needs children, disadvantaged youth, children with traumatic home experiences and children with family members in hospice care.

“When they find out the horses have been abused, that they haven’t been treated well, they haven’t been understood, the kids connect right away,” Ashley said.

In one case, a boy who was terrified of horses was able to overcome his fear of the animals and his fear of the future with his mother in hospice care.

“He said ‘I was so afraid of what was going to come with my mother and now I’m not as afraid because I saw how afraid I was of the horse and now I’m not,'” Ashley said.  “We felt like that was a success story right there, not that we did it but that the horse gave him the confidence to bear what was coming.”

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On Twitter as @_ChristinaCox_

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