As the small white horse became “annoyed,” she backed up, shook her head and expressed clear displeasure as Sydney, 13, tried to figure out what was wrong.
Haley Moore, 18, and Hailey Hartigan, 14, were waiting, watching and then sprung into action to gently calm the horse down, while Debbie Rocha explained the lesson to be learned.
At SRD~Straightening Reins, the horses are just as valuable for the students there as the counselors, who take advantage of the horses’ usually innate calm,graceful way and ability to pick up on people’s moods to teach to the Ranch Crew and offer therapeutic healing to SRD-Straightening Reins’ clients.
The Ranch Crew is a weekend volunteer group who pay a small per-visit fee that helps support the organization. But it’s an educational experience for everyone involved.
“The idea of the Ranch Crew is to really have a safe place for the kids to be,” Rocha said. “This is about them exploring, about them learning what they want to do — really kind of checking things out.”
Afterschool and on the weekends, SRD’s Ranch Crew not only teaches the students, but it also prepares the animals, which are mostly horses, but there are also a few rescue goats and a couple donkeys, Rocha said.
“So that when we have therapy with those animals, they’re safe to be around people,” Rocha said. The other “blessing” is that the ranch’s ability to pair one of the student volunteers with a special needs child, “And they really work on modeling and mentoring what’s going on. … This is about a ranch family.”
The facility recently moved from Saugus to its new home, just east of the intersection of Sand Canyon Road and Lost Canyon Road in Sand Canyon. The facility had an open house last month, but its staff and volunteers are always looking to spread information about mental health resources in the Santa Clarita Valley.
Moore, a freshman at Belmont University, a Hart High grad and former hurdler saw her track career ended after an unfortunate accident at Straightening Reins. A horse stepped on her foot, shattering it, but after it healed, the experience galvanized her desire to work with horses, which she’d always been around, and led her to discover a passion in equine therapy.
“I started last year, and long story short I fell in love with this guy,” Moore said, stroking the mane of Mufasa, or Muffy, for short. “He’s a lot like me, where he’s tries to be Alpha and run (the ranch),” she said, analyzing the 27-year-old former racehorse as though it were one of the facility’s clients.
She joked that after Muffy stepped on her foot, “I thought, ‘Maybe (the love) was a one-way street.’” But the accident didn’t change the way she felt about the horse, or her desire to want to work with horses to help others.
She sees the impact it has on children who feel completely comfortable around the horses in a way they never have around people.
“It’s such a life-changing experience,” said Moore, who gained an appreciation for helping the special needs community through her father’s work with the Special Olympics. “Mental health is such a big thing in our community that totally gets swiped under the mat. And especially with the recent (reported suicide) with Keira (Boyd). I went to Hart, and I mean, that hit home,” she said, referring to the report of a teen’s suicide last week.
“There’s such a big world in mental health, and so many people are just like, ‘You know, it’s there, but I don’t want to talk about it.’ It’s like religion and politics. You don’t talk about it at the table. We’re not talking about mental health. And it’s something that, unfortunately, in this day and age, it needs to be talked about.”
Mike Keesler was there on Saturday to work on his intern hours necessary while working to obtain his LMFT certification.
One thing that stands out for him is how for many of the children, it accelerates their ability to open up, and in a way, it takes some of the pressure off of clients who might feel apprehensive or shy about verbalizing what they’re going through in the traditional therapeutic setting.
The students are able to explore, problem solve and share their love with the animals, which is mutually beneficial.
Rocha started the ranch after her daughter Samantha Rocha-Dyer, a Vasquez High student, killed herself in 2011, to provide a safe space for teens in peaceful, supportive surroundings. SRD allows children to talk about things they might be struggling with or have feelings about, such as depression or anxiety without judgment from their peers and in a healthy environment.
The parents who take their kids there were quick to sing the praises of the work Rocha is trying to do for the community’s mental health.
Dana Bradford said her son, who’s special needs, and her daughter, who is not, have become much closer through the Siblings program, which is geared toward creating a better understanding in those scenarios.
“Right away, because of the therapy and the empathy that draws, they can relate to different behaviors that they saw in the horses to themselves,” Bradford said. “And there’s a lot more teamwork happening in our house — yeah, they fight, they’re siblings — but they’re so much more loving outwardly toward each other.”
One of the consistent areas that parents, clients and volunteers mentioned Saturday was the way horses tend to have a manner about them that soothes anxiety in the clients, in addition to a variety of social troubles that are helped.
And the situation is beneficial to not just the children who are clients, but the animals, as well.
“One of the things I heard,” Bradford said, “was, ‘We don’t rescue animals here, we take care of them — we rescue children.”
The Ranch Crew operates after school from 4-6 p.m. on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays and on Saturday from 9 a.m. to noon. For more information about the program, call 661-803-1641.
If you or someone you know needs help, take action now by calling the National Suicide Hotline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), The Los Angeles county Department of Mental Health’s Access Center Helpline at 800-854-7771 or 911. All services are available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Mental Health and other resources for Santa Clarita Valley
Mental Health: It’s Part of All Our Lives 1-800- 789-2647
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800- 273-TALK
SCV Youth Project (661) 257.YOUTH (9688)
SRD~Straightening Reins – equine therapy 661-803-1641