By Perry Smith
Over the last seven years, Straightening Reins, the nonprofit organization run by Debbie Rocha, has been housed by several locations in the Santa Clarita Valley.
The was the first spot on Quail Trail, near Vasquez Canyon Road; then more recently on San Francisquito Canyon Road, off Seco Canyon Road; and then there was the spot at Sand Canyon and Lost Canyon Road, which was a temporary place.
But it’s hoping its latest location in Agua Dulce, off Davenport Road, will serve as a home for a little bit longer.
“We are very blessed to have found a family that is retiring out of state,” Rocha said this week. “They were trying to sell the house, and they decided they would work out a rental agreement with us.”
Nothing about SRD—Straightening Reins has come easy for Rocha — her inspiration for the organization, the initials, SRD, refer to Samantha Rocha-Dyer, Rocha’s daughter, who killed herself by jumping onto a stretch of Highway 14, north of Santiago Road. In fact, it’s still too painful for Debbie navigate that stretch of highway. The memories and the pain from the day she learned of her tragic loss in April of 2011 still feel too real.
From that pain and loss came the inspiration for Straightening Reins, and Rocha honors her daughter’s memory by providing equine therapy in the community to child who might have behavioral challenges, live within the spectrum of autism or might be part of an at-risk population — Rocha is unlikely to turn someone away.
Community involvement has been a hallmark of the program, Rocha said, and the reason that Straightening Reins has continued to be available to help SCV residents.
“I think the biggest part is that the community really did come together to make this happen,” Rocha said of the new facility. “This isn’t a corporate company.”
Rocha, a Saugus Union School District teacher at Helmers Elementary, loves working with children, and her after-work job, taking care of a nonprofit organization that helps children throughout the SCV, allows her to do just that.
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.
During a trip to Straightening Reins last winter, before the latest move, volunteer Haley Moore, a volunteer who lives in the area but attends college out of state and was helping out while on break from classes, shared about how much she learned and realized through working with animals to improve mental health, and how much it means to those who visit the ranch, as well.
“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,” she said. “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.”
For Rocha, it’s a primary goal, to provide children a space to talk about and work through some of the challenges kids face, whether it’s being different, being cyber-bullied or being afraid to ask for help.
“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.”
Growing needs, and services
In 2018, Rocha continued to grow the services offered by Straightening Reins’ herd — which includes rescue goats and a couple donkeys in addition to the horses — through partnerships with the William S. Hart Union High School District and involvement from College of the Canyons students.
“We are expanding our services at the ranch, with our foster kids population, specifically who are in the transitional youth program,” Rocha said, noting that the latest partnership is with Golden Oaks Adult School.
SRD allows ranch visitors 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, Rocha said, which is such an important thing for kids to have.
“I firmly believe the that the community has come together and put us here,” she said, thankful for SRD’s new home, and mentioning how the process of struggling to find a new location actually turned into an outreach opportunity because local residents have been so supportive.
As a result, she’s even made friends and found new supporters for the ranch, such as Norris Frederick, a two-time track and field Olympian, and his brother John Anthony, owner and manager of Redemption Road, a K9 dog-training facility.
“They use therapy horses and we use dogs, so I was very excited when I heard about their organization,” Anthony said, discussing how he met his new neighbor. “She was looking for some support that could bring some additional support and exposure to her project and what she’s doing, and we told her we’d love to help.”
Anthony is also new to the area, having recently moved their facility from Seattle to the 10-acre property in Agua Dulce about a month ago.
Rocha said she’s been so grateful with how the community has supported the cause when the organization is in its hour of need.
“We’ve actually picked up a few families I think that’s a huge piece,” she said, “I mean, we.ve raised awareness — I think that’s because our client numbers are growing.”