Chelsea had nowhere to go. She’d finally left an abusive relationship, but the only shelter with an open bed wouldn’t allow her dog unless he was vaccinated.
“I wasn’t going to leave him behind,” she recalls. “If we couldn’t stay together, I was going back.”
That’s where Ruthless Kindness stepped in. The California non-profit offers free mobile veterinary care to community members in crisis. Soon the organization’s co-founder, CEO and licensed veterinarian Sarah Reidenbach was at Chelsea’s door. “She gave me a hug and told me it was going to be okay,” Chelsea remembers. “Then she examined and vaccinated my dog, clearing the way for us to get into the shelter together.”
Chelsea’s experience isn’t an outlier. Most homeless shelters won’t allow pets, and those that do require documentation affirming that animals have up-to-date vaccinations and no other medical conditions. Though it sounds simple, this often poses a significant barrier for many escaping an abusive situation.
“We know half of all domestic violence victims won’t leave their abuser unless their pets can escape, too,” Reidenbach explains. “Many of our clients don’t have the money, time or transportation to go to a traditional vet clinic. We provide our services free of charge, using a mobile unit that can travel to them.”
In addition to vet care, Ruthless Kindness also offers free pet food and supplies, conducts animal-assisted empathy education programs for youth impacted by trauma and more.
“There are so many innocent people and animals who are going through unthinkable pain, and we have the power to do something about it,” Reidenbach insists. “We help the vulnerable — people who are without a home or are housing insecure, people trying to survive in extreme poverty, people who have been victimized and abused – and the animals they love.”
Raven Rock Ranch
When Irene* arrived at Raven Rock Ranch, she’d given up on life. She was failing high school, choosing the wrong kind of friends and had attempted suicide. Then along came Rooney, a gentle bay gelding who fell in love with the troubled teen.
“Rooney would follow her around wherever she went,” recalls Sandy Matts, chief mental health officer and director of Raven Rock Ranch. “The feeling was mutual. With Rooney, Irene felt alive and happy.”
Slowly, the grip of depression loosened, and Irene began to make better choices. She graduated from high school on time – a feat her mom called a “miracle” – and is now attending college. According to Matts, the rescued thoroughbred gelding, once destined for the kill pen, is a big reason for Irene’s transformation.
Sandy founded Raven Rock specifically for kids like Irene, drawing on her own experience as an at-risk teen positively impacted by her childhood horse. The nonprofit, which rescues horses and pairs them with troubled kids, started with just one horse and a single client. Today, nine horses call Raven Rock home and the organization reports helping scores of children and families in its decade-plus run.
“Ninety-eight percent of our clients come in with suicidal ideation, but after one year of treatment, that number drops to less than two percent,” Matts explains, but it’s the stories behind the statistics that drive home the importance of Raven Rock Ranch. She adds, “I have countless notes and emails from kids and their parents telling me that they would not be alive if not for the ranch.”
*Client name changed for privacy reasons.
Paws for Purple Hearts
Booth is a two-year-old black lab with a smile that makes your heart bubble and a helicopter tail that looks about ready to take off. She’s also a service dog, with a mission to help veterans struggling with Post-Traumatic Stress disorder (PTSD), traumatic brain injuries and similar trauma-related conditions.
Booth is part of Paws for Purple Hearts (PPH), a first-of-its-kind program offering Canine Assisted Warrior Therapy® for wounded service members and veterans. The non-profit was founded and continues to be led by Dr. Bonnie Bergin, one of the world’s leading researchers in service dog therapy.
Today, PPH is a national organization with seven facilities across the country. It is accredited by Assistance Dog International and is one of three programs invited to participate in the Puppies Assisting Wounded Service Members Act pilot program – an initiative launched by the Department of Veterans Affairs.
“Dogs are far more intuitive than people often give them credit for,” notes Danielle Stockbridge, a marketing and communication specialist with PPH. “They can pick up on the emotional state of a Warrior before the Warrior can sort out how they’re feeling themselves. The dogs provide comfort without judgment.”
A recent session with Booth offers a prime example. The black lab had taken a liking to one of PPH’s clients. While the veteran has worked with several dogs, her connection with Booth is special. “Booth makes her feel calmer and less anxious,” Stockbridge explains, recalling a recent incident where the intuitive canine put her training into action. “The veteran was having intrusive thoughts. Booth picked up on it, nudged her and laid across her lap to provide stress-reducing pressure.” With a little help from the canine, the veteran was able to break free from dark thoughts.
These moments – big and small – are daily occurrences at PPH. “Through our canine-assisted therapeutic programs and Assistance Dog placements, I get to see Warriors lives changed every day,” Stockbridge adds. It’s a program she wishes had been available to her grandfather, a veteran who struggled with flashbacks, anger and alcoholism. “It’s my goal that no family has to suffer the way my mother’s family did, and that every Warrior is able to get the help they need.”
Portland Animal Welfare Team
James and his beloved dog Roscoe are indicative of the clients that the Portland Animal Welfare (PAW) team serve. A degenerative arthritic condition left James out of work and unhoused. But when his four-legged best friend Roscoe developed chronically infected ears and skin irritations, the PAW Team stepped in to provide the medication and prescription diet he needed – all free of charge. Their story has a happy ending; not only are Roscoe’s skin and ear conditions well managed, the two found housing through a local organization.
James and Roscoe’s experience illustrates PAW Team’s mission: saving lives, alleviating suffering and keeping pets and people together by providing free and low-cost veterinary care. “Anyone who has an animal knows the pain of watching that pet suffer,” says Nicole Perkins, the non-profit’s Executive Director of Development and Operations. “PAW Team offers our clients access to the services they need to keep their beloved pets healthy and happy.”
The Portland, Oregon, non-profit’s roots extend to the early 1990’s, long before it became an official organization in 2003. Then, a small, grassroots network of volunteer veterinarians set out to help a growing population of homeless pet owners who were unable to access veterinary care for their four-legged companions. In the following decades, the PAW Team has grown to provide more comprehensive services and support countless families in need.
“I think the PAW Team’s beginnings explain it all,” Perkins emphasizes. “People saw a need, they wanted to help and so they did.” Today, that legacy continues as the volunteer-powered nonprofit continues to provide vital veterinary services for more than 1,000 Portland-area families annually, aiding individuals living on the streets, in transitional shelters or government housing, as well as those faced with temporary financial hardship.
“Our tagline is that we ‘heal pets and the hearts of their people’ through veterinary care, and we see this reality every day,” Perkins says. “Our clients face many obstacles in their lives, but they still prioritize their pets needs above all else. Their pets are their family, and we help them keep them together, despite financial hardship.”
Assistance Dogs of the West
For Marcie, service dog Fenway is a beacon of independence.
“He never gets tired of helping me, no matter how many times I drop my cell phone,” she explains. “He’s as excited as if it is the first time he’s ever assisted me, and the look of joy and satisfaction on his face is priceless.”
Marcie and Fenway are just one of the hundreds of success stories made possible by Assistance Dogs of the West (ADW). Since 1995, the New Mexico non-profit has paired service dogs with clients requiring support for mobility impairments, autism spectrum disorders, developmental disabilities and more.
More recently, ADW added a courthouse dog program, which places canines in criminal justice settings. In this role, the service dogs work with crime victims, predominantly children, offering comfort and security as they provide depositions and give testimony in court.
“Our service dogs open so many opportunities for the clients they support,” says ADW volunteer Susan Rivenbark. As a Puppy Raiser, Susan has raised and trained five ADW dogs, witnessing first-hand the transformative impact they can have – whether partnered with a single client or selected for ADW’s courthouse dog program.
Long-time client Marcie concurs, noting, “ADW has made a tremendous impact on the overall quality of my life. They breed and train the most incredible dogs that are tailored to my disability-related needs. Fenway and ADW are the rainbow in what could have been a dark cloud.”
Pegasus Therapeutic Riding
Founded in 1982, Pegasus Therapeutic Riding Center helps children and adults with disabilities build strength, balance, and confidence atop a horse. Now entering its fourth decade, the California-based equine therapy program serves some 500 clients each year, including children with special needs, adults with developmental disabilities, and military veterans.
The nonprofit’s approach is guided by science. Medical studies suggest therapeutic riding programs provide significant benefits, from physical improvements such as strength, balance, coordination, and mobility, to social and emotional gains like self-confidence, self-control, peer interaction, social skills, and independence. Best of all, the half-hour sessions are free, fun and open to all special needs, and all ages, and offered at no cost to participants.
Make no mistake, this is no pony ride. Participants work hard, developing and strengthening muscles and building core muscles, while at the same time learning trust and confidence as they sit tall in the saddle. It takes an army of volunteers and a deep-seeded commitment to elevating the capabilities of kids and adults to keep the non-profit going. But at Pegasus, the goal is to help clients soar.
Rainhorse Equine Assisted Services
Nestled along the Nowood River, surrounded by hay meadows and lush grazing land, you’ll find a special place where horses and humans find peace and hope – Rainhorse Equine Assisted Services.
Founded by Maria Lisa Eastman, the novel therapy program partners equine “staff” with mental health professionals. Together, they help people from all walks of life regain physical, mental, and emotional health.
“We believe healing is most powerful when it is reciprocal, so we invite people who are struggling with life’s challenges to partner with horses who have also had their own troubles,” Maria explains.
Most of the non-profit’s four-legged counselors suffered neglect and mistreatment before being rescued and rehabilitated by Rainhorse. These once-discarded horses find new purpose, enabling the Wyoming-based non-profit’s unique brand of equine-assisted counseling, hippotherapy, and therapeutic riding.
For program participant Robin, who was entangled in a toxic marriage, the horses provided a beacon of light, as she struggled with low self-esteem, anxiety, and depression. “Every time I participated in a therapy session, I gained back a bit of dignity and self-confidence,” she explains.
Robin’s story of healing and hope is shared by many Rainhorse clients. “Not everyone responds to traditional ‘talk’ therapies,” Maria explains. “Horses have a special ability to inspire self-awareness, confidence, and trust, all ingredients to mental and emotional health. As a result, we’ve seen profound positive changes in our program participants.”
Volunteer Sydnee concurs with Maria’s assessment. “There is nothing like Rainhorse. It’s a place full of patience, resilience, care, compassion, hardship, and growth,” she insists. “It’s not about just you or the horses – it’s about connection, support, understanding, freedom from within, and so much more. Blessed are those who experience what this organization and these animals have to offer.”
Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation
Joey arrived at the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation (TRF) severely malnourished, covered in fleas, and nursing an old ankle injury sustained at the racetrack. No longer fit for racing, he was abandoned in a field with no access to food, water or basic care. Volunteers at TRF, the nation’s oldest and largest equine sanctuary, gave Joey a second chance – just as they’ve done for thousands of other retired and discarded racehorses.
Founded in 1983, TRF initially set out to save horses like Joey. That’s still core to its mission, but along the way, founder Monique Koehler saw an opportunity to help inmates in need of a second chance, too. She teamed up with the State of New York’s Department of Correctional Services to design, staff and maintain a vocational equine care training program for inmates. Today, the TRF Second Chances Program operates eight such initiatives, spread across seven states.
“This program has been very successful in reducing recidivism and providing inmate students with the skills they need to find gainful employment upon their release,” says Patricia Stickney, executive director for the non-profit. In addition, program participants also gain confidence, compassion and a sense of empathy.
Testimonials tell the story best. “The biggest, most important take away for me was the sense of empowerment and courage I found at Second Chances Farm,” explains Jamie, a graduate from TRF’s Ocala, Florida, program. “So much so, that if I were released tomorrow, I could walk out into the world knowing I can take on any challenge or hurdle I may experience in life.”
While not every TRF rescue horse becomes part of the Second Chances program, all are assured a loving, lifetime home. Some find new forever homes through adoption; others enjoy a dignified retirement at TRF. As the TRF team emphasizes, it’s all about giving horses and humans second chances, living out their motto: “Saving horses, saving lives. Every day.”
Ohlone Humane Society
Founded in 1983, Ohlone Humane Society (OHS) aims to care for all animals – from family pets to local wildlife. It’s not a shelter, but the volunteer group has a major impact on the communities it serves, offering assistance for struggling pet owners, organizing foster care for kittens, rehabilitating injured wildlife, and spreading joy (and education) through its therapy-animal programs.
“Helping animals and people in the community is hard work, but so very rewarding,” insists Natalia Lebedeva, who serves on the group’s Board of Directors. Through her work, and that of OHS’s many dedicated volunteers, the non-profit strives to better the lives of all animals with a full-circle approach to community animal welfare.
The group’s Meals-on-Wheels program distributes 200-250 pounds of pet food each week and OHS’s wide-ranging animal-assisted interventions bring activities, therapy, education and fun to schools, senior care facilities, hospitals and similar organizations. They even offer regular “Read-to-a-Dog” sessions at the local library.
“The dogs are such good listeners,” says Raj, the father of a once-struggling reader. “They never corrected our son’s pronunciation or point out mistakes.” Instead, Raj says the canines’ happy attitudes rubbed off on the whole family, reducing anxiety and helping to transform a reluctant student into a voracious reader.
But OHS isn’t just for domestic animals. Each year, the non-profit cares for more than 800 injured, orphaned and displaced urban wildlife at its Wildlife Rehabilitation Center. Here trained volunteers nurse raccoons, rabbits, foxes, squirrels, birds, reptiles and more back to health. It’s just one more way OHS lives out its mission to advocate for all creatures, big and small.
Heroes and Horses
Many veterans struggle with the transition from soldier to civilian. Heroes and Horses, a Montana-based nonprofit founded by former Navy SEAL Micah Fink, helps veterans regain their footing, find new purpose, and test their strength in the wild.
The equine-centered program takes a novel approach to therapy, using expedition-style horse pack trips to teach self-reliance, teamwork and perseverance. This is combined with a leadership program, required reading, physical fitness and nutrition. In other words, it is a true 360-degree approach to addressing the physical and mental obstacles that many veterans face.
“This program is unlike any other,” says Karynne Anderson, the group’s development manager. “While we don’t have the magic answer, we believe time, space, wilderness exposure, and equine experience can be a very powerful mixture.”
During the 41-day program, participants are paired with a horse to feed, care for and learn from. It’s no vacation. After a five-day introduction to horsemanship, they set out to explore Montana’s backcountry, led by experienced guides. Weather, rugged terrain, physical challenges and other frustrations push veterans. And this is what enables them to open up in ways traditional talk therapy often can’t.
“It’s obvious that the current model of treatment for veterans isn’t working,” Anderson explains, pointing to high rates of suicide, unemployment, and prescription drug abuse. “Our comprehensive, all-encompassing 41-day program challenges veterans to look inward for positive change. In addition, we provide the space and time for individuals to understand what is truly important and what is the right move for them.”
Horses Know Your Truth
Equine therapy uses the intuitive power of horses to heal wounded people. Because horses are always honest and hyper-alert to their surroundings, they can communicate what’s really going on internally with people, even if the person is trying to hide it.
Savannah, from Rescued to Rescuer
The founder of Rise Canyon Ranch, Theresa, met a horse named Savannah at a rescue farm and fell in love with her at first sight. Savannah has overcome a lot of hardship in her life. She has had to do a lot of healing of her own, so she understands deep trauma and is able to help others overcome their troubled pasts, too.
Making Mental Space to Learn
The staff at Rise Canyon Ranch know: when a child has mental health struggles or other issues going on in their lives, they don’t have enough mental energy left for learning. So they developed a program called Rising Readers, to create a much-needed foundation for learning. There, they teach kids how to read, alongside animals in their arena. And they say it’s incredible to see the confidence grow in kids who participate in the program.
The Herd Dynamic in Therapy
The herd dynamic is a powerful tool in equine therapy because it’s a reflection of group dynamics with people. An equine specialist is there for every therapy session, translating the horse’s actions as it communicates honestly what it sees in front of them. The magic happens as the horses bring things out in participants that they didn’t even realize about themselves.
Rise Canyon Ranch
At Rise Canyon Ranch, changing people’s lives is an everyday occurrence. As an equine-assisted psychotherapy organization, they provide mental health support and healing for children, adults, and families alike. Equine therapy is seen as a great alternative option for those who aren’t comfortable with traditional therapy, allowing more people to get the support they need.
The staff implements a variety of techniques in the work they do in order to maximize the potential for better responses. But there are always two constants: a mental health specialist working directly with patients and an equine specialist keeping patients safe and “translating” the horses’ actions.
Psychotherapist and founder, Theresa DuBois, explains why horses and therapy are a surprisingly natural pair, saying “horses are prey animals that are hyper alert to the world around them. It has kept them alive generationally and helped them survive. So they pick up on our internal world before we do.”
Theresa has seen incredible transformations in both clients and horses since founding the organization. She says “I believe with patience, love, and acceptance, you can change.”
Rise Canyon Ranch believes everyone needs encouragement and support at times. And that it should always be equitable and accessible, regardless of your ability to pay.
It’s hard to know who benefits more at Headin’ Home – the horses or the humans. Created by Tony and Esther Pistone, the Utah-based non-profit serves as both a horse rescue and equine-assisted therapy facility.
As a horse rescue, Headin’ Home provides a safe haven for both domestic and wild horses, working to gentle, rehabilitate and ready them for adoption to loving homes. At the same time, the non-profit provides equine-assisted therapy to veterans, first responders, victims of domestic abuse and others in need of help.
Board member Karina Redweik, a veteran herself, says Headin’ Home transformed her life. Today, through her work with organization, she’s paying it forward. “My job in the military was to provide the necessary supplies to the soldiers in my unit,” she explains. “Now, my position with Headin’ Home is to supply the necessary resources to support my brothers and sisters in arms when they return home.”
The group’s motto – humans helping horses helping humans – illustrates their approach to equine-focused therapy through a program they’ve dubbed Healin’ Journey. While many equine therapy programs help participants build bonds and nurture emotional growth through guided interactions with domestic horses, Headin’ Home has the added advantage of using the process of gentling wild and rescued horses to facilitate healing.
According to Tony, veterans and first responders have a lot in common with the often abused and neglected horses who find refuge at Headin’ Home. “We take in horses that are broken and humans that are broken, then work to help make them whole,” he explains. “A lot of folks are on their last legs because they’ve given up hope. We try to help them find their way back home.”
Demi’s Animal Rescue
Lots of teens love animals, but few go to the lengths that Demi Merritt did. As a 14-year-old, she founded Demi’s Animal Rescue (DAR), transforming her family’s basement into a no-kill animal shelter. Ten-years later, she’s extended the Denver non-profit’s reach well-beyond the family home, with a large network of fosters, donors and volunteers.
Demi’s mission – helping to solve pet homelessness through adoption, spay/neuter programs and pet retention – has never wavered. She and her team of volunteers work tirelessly to keep pets safe and loved. Sometimes, that means supporting pet owners in need of a helping hand.
Demi recalls one such client, a homeless woman who needed a safe home for her cat Geo, until she got back on her feet. The woman called regularly to check on Geo, and ultimately found a stable place to live. “I will never forget the warmth I felt by helping keep them together,” Demi recalls. “It was so clear that Geo was dearly loved.”
Pet retention is a priority for DAR, as a first line of defense to lower Colorado’s euthanization numbers. In addition to providing temporary housing, the non-profit offers coaching, assistance with pet supplies, behavior modification and training, and veterinary help. Of course, as a rescue, DAR also takes in animals in need of new homes.
“We don’t discriminate against any animal in need,” Demi emphasizes. “Once an animal reaches us, our tagline says it all: It only gets better from here.”
Blue River Horse Center
John Longhill insists there’s something magical about horses and their ability to help humans. The founder of Blue River Horse Center (BRHC) should know. He’s spent the last three decades connecting horses and people, witnessing the resulting transformations.
Located on a 300-acre ranch along Colorado’s scenic Lower Blue River, BRHC serves as a rescue for abused and abandoned horses, while also empowering children and adults through leadership and self-awareness programs.
To live out the first part of its mission, the non-profit partners with other horse rescue agencies, fostering their hard-to-adopt horses. At BRCH, the horses receive the love and training they need to become “adoptable,” developing improved ground manners, rideability and reliability.
For the second, BRCH relies on those same rehabilitated horses to teach critical life skills. Thousands of children have participated in the center’s programs, each with a story to tell. But John’s favorite anecdote centers on a young boy named Danny. He’d bounced around foster homes, been in detention homes for criminal behavior, and seemed to be on a bad track. Danny arrived at BRCH for a week-long camp with a lot of anger, but after a rough start, he ended up having a great week.
“We sent him off hoping that we had given him some tools to redirect his life in a more positive way,” John says. Ten years later, out of the blue, Danny reconnected with BRCH via email, attributing his time at the ranch with turning his life around.
“Successful behavior in life is dependent on our thoughts, attitudes and action,” John emphasizes. “Horses help us to see our unconscious behavior. They have an uncanny ability to raise our awareness about ourselves, helping children like Danny to take charge of their thoughts and chart a whole new course with their life.”
Sundance Circle Hippotherapy
John Payne, founder of Sundance Circle Hippotherapy, calls Montana, a patient Quarter Horse with a heart of gold, his “steady Eddy.” “She’s a fantastic horse that is gentle with anyone,” he explains. But she’s not just a great physical therapy partner, she’s also a great life-skills teacher.
John recalls one session in particular. A young girl with epilepsy and autism had a massive meltdown as she was getting ready to ride Montana. She ended up kicking the horse several times. “Montana was patient and calm,” John says, never flinching. Eventually, the girl regained control of her emotions and was able to complete her therapy session. But as she was leaving, Montana decided to teach her some manners. “The mare gave a huge sneeze, right in the girl’s face,” John remembers. “The girl wasn’t impressed, but we told her paybacks occur!”
Those real-world lessons are an added benefit to therapy sessions at Sundance, where children and adults come for speech, occupational and physical therapy in a decidedly non-traditional setting. Patients are paired with a therapist and a trained therapy horse, and together, they work to improve coordination, balance and strength. It’s a model that volunteer Dar Nottage says delivers clear results.
“I have witnessed a wide range of improvements in patients, including improved muscle strength, greater confidence, increased social awareness and enhanced empathy for others,” she explains. Plus, she adds, clients learn that therapy can be fun.
That last point just might be the biggest key to the program’s success and rapid growth. Three years ago, John launched Sundance Circle with little more than a vision and a lone horse. However, as word spread and his patient list grew, so did the Sundance herd. Today, the non-profit has seven therapy horses, seven therapists and sees more than 100 patient visits every month.
“The patients love their therapy and time with the horses,” John explains, as do the therapists and the volunteers. “It’s a win for everyone.”
Therapeutic Horsemanship Equestrian Center, Inc.
Cassie doesn’t care that Harley sometimes flaps his hands or engages in other repetitive movements. She’s always patient, calm and sweet – even if Harley, who has autism, is having a hard day.
As one of the 11 therapy horses at Therapeutic Horsemanship Equestrian Center, Inc. (T.H.E. Center), Cassie is tasked with an important job – helping individuals with special needs and disabilities reach their full potential. Harley’s mom, Maria, says Cassie delivers on that mission every week. “In the beginning, he could only tolerate the sensory stimulation that came from riding for about five minutes,” she recalls. Fast forward to today, and Harley can ride for the entire 45-minute session and even participates in group lessons.
With Cassie’s help, Harley has learned to follow instructions and developed his speech skills so he can verbally command and steer his mount. He’s even learning how to groom and care for Cassie. “She’s the perfect support for Harley as he challenges himself to reach his full potential,” Maria emphasizes.
According to Miguel Sarasa, executive director at T.H.E. Center, Harley’s story isn’t unique. Since opening in 1984, T.H.E. Center has served over 16,000 individuals and their families. “We see it time and time again, how our horses dramatically impact individuals of all ages and severity of diagnosis,” Miguel says, explaining that through the activities done in lessons, students improve communication skills, social cues, sensory processing, self-confidence and more. “Seeing our students thrive and challenge expectations has taught me that nothing is impossible – life challenges can be overcome, no matter how big they may seem,” he concludes.
Idaho Youth Ranch
For decades, horses have played an integral role in the success of Idaho Youth Ranch, a multi-service agency serving at-risk boys, girls and their families.
Kids who act out are often reacting from deep pain or anger they don’t understand and can’t explain. For abused or neglected kids, trusting anyone—especially an adult—is too great a risk. They learn to protect themselves by shutting out people, making it difficult for a clinician to help a child who can’t or won’t talk about their feelings.
That’s where the Ranch’s horses come in. Interacting with a horse—a sympathetic, gentle giant who doesn’t lie, doesn’t judge, sees through pretense, and communicates without words—can be transformative. At Idaho Youth Ranch, time spent with horses has helped hundreds of kids through a special treatment model called Equine Assisted Psychotherapy (EAP).
In EAP, the horse is part of the treatment team, working alongside an equine specialist and a licensed mental health professional, certified in EAP. The youth don’t saddle up and ride, rather these therapy sessions take place on the ground, as the client and his horse partner work through a series of therapeutic activities together.
Consider Koda, a young teen prone to violent outbursts. He credits the Ranch’s equine therapy program with helping him learn to control his anger. With guidance from the Ranch’s professional staff and its intuitive horses, Koda learned to transform his trauma into something positive. “It took a while,” he admits, “but I learned. To be good with horses you have to keep a cool head, work with them patiently, and keep your temper under control.”
Those Left Behind Foundation
Rae Erickson says it started with a single, heartbreaking conversation. A young woman entering hospice care was afraid her beloved cats would end up in a shelter.
It got Rae thinking: “What happens to the pets when their owners can no longer care for them?” From that seed, Rae eventually launched “Those Left Behind Foundation,” a Las Vegas-based nonprofit that has been helping pets – and their families – since 2010.
What started as program to provide loving homes to those “left-behind” pets, today encompasses so much more. The nonprofit offers programs to help low-income families with pet care expenses, provides pet care education, engages in community service activities through schools and local senior care facilities, and operates foster programs that retrain and rehome abused and abandoned pets. But it’s the foundation’s newest effort, dubbed Pups, Prisoners and Patriots, that hits closest to home for Rae.
After serving in the Air Force for six years, her son returned, crippled with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. She credits a service dog with helping him regain his life, and soon set to work developing a program to bring that same healing power to others.
“We take unwanted dogs from high-kill shelters and pair them with non-violent prisoners, who train the pups,” Rae explains. From there, the dogs are placed with veterans and begin their new career as service dogs and beloved family companions. “With each dog saved, the life of a prisoner and the life of a veteran are changed forever,” she emphasizes. “We’re not just rescuing dogs; we’re rescuing people too.”
Canine Partners of the Rockies
In Colorado alone, it’s estimated that more than 275,000 people live with disabilities. For this often-overlooked population, simple tasks like opening doors, picking up dropped objects, doing the laundry – even going outside – represent challenges that can seem insurmountable. Without a way to live more independently, those with disabilities can find themselves isolated from friends, family and everyday life.
Enter Canine Partners of the Rockies (CaPR). This non-profit group strives to create a world where highly trained dogs help individuals with mobility-limiting disabilities lead more fulfilling and independent lives. CaPR’s canines retrieve objects, pay at the checkout counter, assist with dressing, open and close doors, and turn lights on and off. All important tasks to be sure, but they do so much more.
Consider Jason, who as a teenager was in automobile accident that left him a quadriplegic. After the accident, Justin felt isolated and alone, since many people are hesitant to start up a conversation with someone in a wheelchair. That changed when CaPR paired Justin with Rocky. The black Lab was a huge help with daily tasks, but equally important, he served as an icebreaker and conversation starter when the duo was out in public. Rocky truly transformed Jason’s life, helping him gain independence and sparking increased social connections.
BIG Heart Ranch
Thirteen years ago, Suzi Landolphi set out to create a program that would support animals and humans. BIG Heart Ranch (BHR) is the result of her efforts – a place to help disadvantaged children and families recover from trauma, using therapeutic interactions with rescued animals. Along the way, the organization has rescued and rehabilitated dozens of chickens, bunnies, goats, pigs, horses, donkeys, and even a couple of alpacas.
Personal experience served as her inspiration, as Suzie discovered working with horses helped her overcome her own childhood trauma. She became a licensed psychotherapist and soon put her training to work, pairing rescued horses with humans struggling with addition and other mental health issues.
“Animals are non-judgmental and relate to all, regardless of mental health diagnoses, and physical, emotional and intellectual abilities,” she explains, noting that participants with the most challenges often experience the greatest sense of wellbeing at BHR.
The ranch’s certified facilitators and licensed clinicians use experiential learning and therapy models to help clients practice kindness, honesty and integrity. Participants start by interacting with the farm’s horses and other animals, then learn to transfer those qualities to their human relationships.
But it’s not just the humans who find healing at BHR. “Many of our animals were neglected and abused,” Suzie explains. “At BHR, they live in a calm, caring environment where the caretakers help the animals regain trust. As their emotional health improves, so does their physical wellbeing.”
Blue Star Ranch
Post-traumatic-stress disorder (PTSD) can have a crippling effect, destroying the marriages, families and lives of military veterans. But Nancy and John Zhe knew they could help. Together, they founded Blue Star Ranch, a unique program that combines Nancy’s 27 years’ experience designing equine therapy programs with John’s military service.
“The VA is overwhelmed with these cases,” Nancy explains, noting that more than 10,000 veterans reside in her hometown of Santa Clarita, Calif., alone. For local veterans struggling with PTSD and other mental health challenges, Blue Star Ranch is often the last resort.
“The veterans who come to us have often been through every kind of traditional therapy to no avail,” she adds. That reality makes Blue Star’s success even more incredible. After just 10 weeks of sessions, program graduates report achieving 35-to 45-percent improvements in anger, anxiety, sleeplessness, nightmares, coping skills and communication.
“After numerous attempts at treatment…I gave up all hope,” recalls one recent graduate. “Then I met the team at Blue Star Ranch and learned about this unique approach to deal with my inner demons.” Like countless others, the army veteran learned to face his fears head on, with the help of his support team – a mental health professional, equine specialist and of course, his therapy horse partner. “I may have trauma forever, but I have learned a lot about how to manage my PTSD,” he continues. “The horses brought and restored hope.”
Unlike many horse-therapy programs, clients don’t ride the horses at Blue Star. Instead, they lead them through a series of exercises designed to improve communication and collaboration skills. “Horses sense emotions and react accordingly,” Nancy says, explaining that those reactions help bring emotional problems to the surface for examination. Perhaps most importantly, the horses give comfort, support and unconditional love. “Animals are some of the best people I know,” she insists.
Charis Youth Ranch
Situated on 35 picturesque acres, Charis Youth Ranch serves as a sanctuary for both children and horses in need of respite and healing. The all-volunteer effort currently cares for 28 rescued horses, many saved from slaughter or removed from neglectful or abusive homes.
Once the horses are sufficiently rehabilitated, they find new purpose at Charis, helping at-risk children through individual and group interactive sessions. Even horses no longer able to be ridden have value at Charis. Their unique story of loss or neglect may connect with a child in a way no therapist can.
The ranch offers three youth-focused efforts, including a 12-week program run in partnership with a local residential treatment facility that serves youth with mental, behavior and substance abuse issues. Through working with the horses, these program participants learn patience, love and respect. They gain self-confidence and begin to make positive behavior changes.
For the youth who come to Charis, the horses provide a shoulder to cry on, a place to learn to trust, a friend to love and so much more. As the Ranch explains on its website: “Horses have a way of breaking down barriers and bringing out the individual where traditional therapy and counseling failed.”
Funky Chicken Rescue
Darcy Smith admits she’s always harbored a secret affinity for chickens, but it wasn’t until the retired police officer moved to the country that she realized the depth of her love affair.
It started with Funky Chicken, a scrawny little rooster she adopted from the Sacramento SPCA. “He was the sweetest chicken I’d ever met,” she insists. Darcy soon created a Facebook page for Funky, documenting his adventures, and fully smitten with the feathered creature, she found herself taking in more rescue birds.
Fortunately, her family shared her passion for helping animals, and together, they founded Funky Chicken Rescue. Today, the non-profit is home to more than 150 rescue chickens – along with a few rescued dogs, cats and horses. Darcy loves them all – but it’s her work with disabled chickens that has garnered the most attention. Blind chickens, cross-beak chickens and even chickens in wheelchairs live out their days on the idyllic 20-acre ranch.
Among her flock, you’ll even find survivors from California’s devastating Camp Fire. Their coop burned to the ground, but the chickens somehow made it out alive. “We call them our miracle chickens,” Darcy says.
Running a rescue is a lot of work, but Darcy says it’s worth every minute. “It’s a labor of love for animals, too many of which have been discarded by society,” she explains. “Chickens have their own personalities and they’re very smart. I just don’t think people realize how wonderful they are.”
Freedom Service Dogs
Solar only had hours left before he was to be put down; the shelter he called home was simply out of space. But just as he was running out of time, a prison K-9 training program came to his rescue. After completing initial training at the prison, Freedom Service Dogs (FSD) acquired the young dog, hoping he’d be a fit for their service dog program.
Jon came to FSD hoping a service dog could help him maintain his independent life. Muscular dystrophy left him unable to walk, reliant on a power wheelchair for mobility. He needed help opening and closing doors, picking up items on the floor and similar activities. FSD brought Jon and Solar together, one more perfect match.
“My biggest hope was that a service dog could eliminate the need for asking people to help with things I can’t do,” Jon says. It was quickly apparent that Solar would do that and more. “I can rely on Solar to open heavy doors and pick up things I drop,” he explains. “But more than that, he is my devoted best friend, my constant companion, my lifeline and my infinite power source.”
Jon and Solar’s story is just one of many since FSD first opened its doors in 1987. Founded by PJ and Michael Roche, the non-profit’s mission is to unleash the potential of dogs by transforming them into custom-trained, life-changing assistance dogs for people in need.
“Our dogs truly change the lives of their clients, and impact everything from improved physical and mental health, to quality of life, community integration and independence,” explains Karen Moldovan, grants and foundation relations manager for FSD. “Navigating the world with a disability can be very challenging, but receiving a custom-trained service dog at no cost can literally and figuratively open so many doors.”
Unlike many service dog organizations, FSD relies exclusively on rescue dogs. In 2017 alone, FSD welcomed 198 dogs from shelters and rescue groups into its training center. Following comprehensive medical and behavioral evaluations, those dogs not deemed suitable for a career in service are adopted to loving, forever homes through FSD’s adoption program.
FSD relies on a dedicated team of volunteers to help care for the dogs on site, foster dogs on the weekends, and assist with training. Ann Pollock, a regular FSD helper, sums up the organization’s work like this: “At FSD, we take dogs who have been thrown away and give them a chance to shine as a well-trained pet, therapy canine or service dog.”
When Ginger Salido started Exodus Farms, she imagined a place where troubled kids could find hope and healing in a safe, accepting farm environment. Sixteen years later, her vision impacts the lives of 90 to 100 children every week.
“We use horses that have been discarded and rehabilitate and retrain them so that they can help the children in our community who have also been cast aside,” Ginger explains. “Always, we strive to give value and purpose to both the horse and the human.”
Jenni Patterson, who now serves as the farm’s “head wrangler,” recalls the first time she visited the farm, two teenage girls in tow. Ginger put them to work with Missy, an anxious mare who’d bounced through a long string of neglectful owners before arriving at Exodus Farms. “Both of those girls had been through several homes themselves, and they immediately connected with Missy’s story,” Jenni explains.
In the ensuing years, hundreds of children have made similar connections with the farm’s herd of rescued horses. They come to learn the basics of horsemanship and riding. Along the way, they rebuild self-esteem, overcome fear, learn responsibility and accountability, and develop respect for themselves and others. The results, says Jenni, are easy to see.
“Kids who were withdrawn and shut down run to our volunteers for hugs; kids who were angry and out of control spend a whole session calmly following instructions and being patient with their horse; kids who were terrified to walk the horse by themselves canter confidently across the arena,” she explains. “Success looks different for each one, but at Exodus Farms, everyone’s success is celebrated.”
Taking it to the Streets
Lori Rich says it started with a simple question from her daughter, Shira. “Who helps the dogs living with the homeless?” she asked. Seven years later, the answer is clear: Lori and Shira.
The organization they founded, “Taking it to the Streets with Lori and Shira,” helps homeless and low-income veterans care for their pets, striving to spay or neuter, microchip and vaccinate as many of the four-legged companions as possible. Lori and her small team of volunteers also provide donated pet food and supplies, and help secure proper licenses for the street pets they encounter. To date, more than 1,000 cats and dogs in the Riverside, Calif., area have been spayed or neutered thanks to their determination.
“People don’t always realize it, but pet overpopulation is a huge issue,” Lori explains. According to the Humane Society of the United States, each year, 2.7 million adoptable dogs and cats are euthanized in the United States. It’s a staggering number, and part of what drives Lori to continue the work.
To accomplish her mission, the stay-at-home mom turned animal advocate heads out each day, sometimes logging up to 70 miles in search of homeless pets in need. “It may sound cliché, but I feel I’ve found my purpose,” Lori says. “I’m on the streets seven days a week, but this work fuels my spirit.”
While Shira, now graduated from college, no longer accompanies her mother on these daily journeys, Lori says she’s still a vital part of the non-profit. “After all, without her, Taking it to the Streets wouldn’t even exist,” Lori notes.
Thousands track the non-profit’s work through the organization’s Facebook page, where Lori documents her daily outings. The page is filled with heart-warming stories of the pets – and owners – she helps each day. “We don’t judge and we’re not trying to solve homelessness,” Lori emphasizes, noting that for too many, their pet is all they have. “We’re simply looking out for the health and welfare of the cats and dogs on the street.”
Paws & Hearts
For nearly two decades, Richard Waxman and his team of volunteers and their therapy dogs have been spreading joy to local hospitals, long-term care facilities and senior care centers. But the real credit, he says, belongs to his dog Lucky.
It’s been 19 years since the duo made their first visit to a local nursing. Lucky, though just a puppy, made a huge impact on the residents, sparking the local paper to write a human-interest story. “The phone hasn’t stopped ringing,” Richard says with a laugh. While the spunky poodle-terrier mix has been gone for eight years, his legacy lives on. “Lucky is the true founder,” Richard insists. “If it weren’t for him, Paws & Hearts would have never happened.”
The non-profit has grown since those early days. Now, seven days a week, the organization’s 35 teams of volunteers and their four-legged “Canine Ambassadors” make the rounds to care facilities all over California’s Coachella Valley. Together, they work to fulfill Paws & Hearts mission, enriching the lives of frail and special care cases by spreading the unconditional love that only a furry healer can provide.
Richard says the benefits are clear. He’s seen animals motivate people to participate in their therapies, brighten patients’ days and spark conversations about the animals in their lives. He’s also found the visits can have long lasting effects, recalling a chance meeting with one such man, who remembered Richard and Lucky from hospital visits two years prior. “The gentleman said he’d been terribly ill, but when Lucky curled up on his chest, he couldn’t believe how much better he felt,” Richard explains. “He went on to say that he worked hard to get better, so he could see us the following week.”
It’s stories like those that keep Richard and all the volunteers at Paws & Hearts coming back each week. “We make thousands of bedside visits every year,” Richard says. “When we hear things like ‘you made my day’ or ‘I waited all week to see you,’ you know you’ve made a difference for the person you can to visit.”
Farm Animals Facilitate Learning
For Elisa Peskin, Back in the Saddle (BITS) is the realization of a lifelong goal, bringing individuals – especially those with special needs – together with horses and other farm animals. In this unique program, animals facilitate the learning, helping participants improve their social, emotional and physical well being – in a fun and supportive environment.
Since launching the program in 2016, she’s watched as children with special needs and behavior challenges overcome obstacles, achieve goals and form meaningful relationships with their animals. “They help develop confidence, self-esteem and leadership skills, and teach patience and compassion,” she explains. “But perhaps most importantly, the animals help bring out love and show us how to build relationships.”
At BITS, it’s not just a fun pony ride. Learning begins the moment an individual sets foot on the farm, starting with how to properly greet a horse. “Through a range of activities, we work on developing relationships not just with their horse, but also the other volunteers, peers and caregivers present,” Elisa notes. Hands-on activities, from catching their horse to opening a gate latch, allow participants to practice fine and large motor skills. Other life skills, like cooperation, self-confidence and responsibility, are also woven into each session.
She attributes much of the program’s success to her animals’ nonjudgmental nature. “Animals don’t care if a kid’s in a wheelchair or has limited verbal skills,” she adds. “It’s truly humbling to watch a non-verbal child form a bond with an animal; I get goosebumps every time.”
In the two years since its inception, Back in the Saddle has grown to include a mobile outreach effort, which brings Elisa’s animals into the community. “When we started, we knew there would be individuals who couldn’t come to our facility,” she explains. Through her Farm Friends Therapy Animals program, Elisa brings roosters, ducks, goats, pigs, chinchillas, miniature horses and donkeys to libraries, school classrooms, group homes, assisted living facilities and more. In these settings, participants practice social skills, while benefiting from emotional and physical interactions with animals.
Whether on the farm, or as part of the mobile outreach, the goal is the same: creating a positive impact on individual’s lives. “I often think of it as “non-therapy” therapy,” Elisa explains, “because while the kids are focused on the animals, they accomplish so much more.”
It’s a New Day for the Horses at Sunrise
In their previous life, the horses that call Sunrise home were often severely neglected, abused and abandoned, sometimes found starving and alone. But once they arrive at Sunrise Horse Rescue, they begin a new chapter — one where they receive plenty of food, high-quality veterinary care and perhaps most important, boundless love.
Each horse has its own heart-wrenching story. Pace was a packhorse used to carry tourists’ gear in and out of the Grand Canyon under appalling conditions of abuse and starvation. “When we got him, he was skin and bone, hundreds of pounds underweight, covered in terrible sores, infected with parasites and pneumonia,” recalls Lindsay Merget, managing director for Sunrise Horse Rescue. Once well enough to travel, Pace was transported to his new home at the Napa, Calif., stable. “Despite everything he went through at the hands of humans, Pace will greet anyone who comes to his stall,” Lindsay says. “It’s a testament to his forgiving nature that he gave us a second chance to do right by him.”
Sunrise Horse Rescue was founded to save horses like Pace, but along the way its mission grew. Now the non-profit also provides a place where community members of all ages can learn life-enhancing skills, all while caring for the rescued horses. “Our primary goal is to save these horses, but what ends up happening is they save us,” Lindsay says.
Highly intuitive by nature, horses are quick to recognize and react to human’s nonverbal cues. “If a person is anxious and nervous, the horse will mirror that back,” Lindsay explains, noting the growing use of horses as therapy animals.
Groups from around the region come to visit the non-profit, from developmentally disabled adults to Boy and Girl Scout troops. At Sunrise, they learn to care for, groom and walk the rescued horses – and along the way, gain firsthand appreciation for the magnificent animals. “Horses have so much more value than what society has historically assigned them,” Lindsay insists. At Sunrise, volunteers and visitors experience that value every day.
Horses and Humans Find Healing at Full Circle Rescue
Cris Pemberton has loved all things equine since she first learned to talk. She took her first riding lesson at age six, and grew up to own a farm, riding school and boarding facility. Still, she wanted to give back to the creatures that had done so much for her. In 2014, she launched Full Circle Rescue, a program to rescue abused horses. What she didn’t realize was that the organization she founded would evolve to rescue people, too.
“My intention was to just save horses,” she admits, “but along the way, I gained a bigger appreciation for what people are going through and how their stories mirror those of the abused horses that find their way into our program.”
Today, Full Circle Rescue provides rehabilitation services for both horses and humans, creating an opportunity for them to heal together. “When people help care for our animals, they develop the skills to heal themselves,” Cris explains, noting that participants learn to accept responsibility, gain confidence, improve communication skills, and develop patience and empathy towards others.
Full Circle’s equine-assisted therapy program works with a wide-range of groups, from developmentally disabled young adults to clients in addiction recovery programs. For many, their time at Full Circle represents a break from the pressures of everyday life and a chance to relax and reconnect with the world around them.
“A big piece of Full Circle is to allow people to bond with the horses, to just realize how inclusive, kind, intelligent and compassionate they are,” Cris explains. In that way, she hopes people will find value in investing in horses’ well-being for the long haul. “Horses have done so much for us for so long,” she explains. “They deserve our care.” In return, she’s found that horses can touch, uplift and enrich individuals and communities.
As Cris puts it, “What we do here is create a circle of people and horses, all working to help each other find their purpose, feel better and be part of something bigger.”