Wildwood Hills Ranch transforms lives of at-risk youth and veterans

Horses Bring Healing at Wildwood Hills

Breaking cycles, building leaders and transforming communities – that’s the ambitious goal of Wildwood Hills Ranch of Iowa. The sprawling 400-acre facility, located in the heart of Iowa’s idyllic Madison County, provides a place of hope and healing for at-risk children and veterans alike – often on the backs of horses.

Founded in 2011, The Ranch initially set out to provide a safe reprieve for vulnerable children through its Next Steps program. Later, the non-profit expanded its mission to address the needs of veterans. In both cases, equine therapy plays a key role, enabling participants to form positive relationships with their horses, while learning critical life skills like accountability, responsibility, self-confidence, problem solving and self control.

Matt Moeckl, who serves as the group’s executive director, recalls one veteran, struggling to escape years of drug and alcohol abuse, who found healing through Wildwood’s “Saddle After Service” program. As the man worked with his horse, he found a safe space to explore his problematic behaviors, choices and relationship patterns, and learned to replace them with healthy alternatives. Today, Matt reports the veteran has achieved 50 months of sobriety, graduated from college and re-established a relationship with his family.

The Ranch’s work with Iowa’s vulnerable youth has been equally life-changing. “What makes us unique,” Matt notes, “is that we make a 10-year commitment to our kids.” Once a child attends a Next Steps camp, they are guaranteed a scholarship to return until they turn 18.

Some, like Wildwood’s Events Director DeLayne Carrington, just keep coming back. She first set foot on the Ranch as an 8-year-old “Rancher,” participating in programming for elementary-aged at-risk children. Now a college graduate, she’s back coordinating group visits and fundraising events. “It really did change my life, developing my leadership skills and putting people in my life who mentored and cared about me,” DeLayne explains. “Now I’ve come full-circle.”

The horses and staff of Wildwood Hills have had a transformative effect on the lives of hundreds of at-risk youth and veterans, but the need remains great. “Growth in our business isn’t good,” Matt laments, noting the 25 percent uptick in childhood abuse cases in Iowa in 2018. “The upside is that we’re better equipped to meet their needs, but we would love for there to be a day when didn’t need to grow.”

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