Horses & Hope: Youth ranch reaches the hearts of the hurtingThe Seeds of Hope Youth Ranch and their equine staff have a special talent for helping troubled youth.
By: June Kallestad, Living North Magazine
Lily was in pathetic condition when she was found nearly starved, wandering rural neighborhoods of Duluth. Her neglected horse hooves, and an especially damaged back hoof, made each step painful. Lily’s escape from her owner, given her poor health, was remarkable and tragic, but her rescue by Russ and Wendy Krook is a blessing beyond Lily’s now-restored health and beyond the Krook’s personal delight in helping her.
Lily is now a full-time equine “counselor” at Seeds of Hope Youth Ranch. She joins the rest of the “staff” – Thunder, Blaze, Bell, Lady, Banjo and other horses – who have a special talent for helping troubled youth take responsibility for themselves, connect and trust.
The Krooks started rescuing horses in 2004 soon after buying their 40-acre ranch. That winter they heard a story on the radio about Kim and Troy Meeder’s Crystal Peaks Youth Ranch in Bend, Ore. – a place to heal horses and people.
“I heard the story in the morning, and Russ heard it later driving home from work,” said Wendy. “We both felt the Lord was telling us that this is why we bought the ranch. This is what we were meant to do.” Other ranch owners heard the story, too, and the Meeders decided to hold a training seminar to help others start youth ranches. Wendy went and learned their techniques and what made it successful.
“She came home with a packet full of stuff,” said Russ. “We sat down, read through it cover-to-cover and then just started walkin’.”
There is an indescribable connection between horse and human. Simply seeing horses graze in a pasture brings peace, and watching their powerful strides at a run is a thrill. But what the Krooks, Meeders and others have witnessed is the horse’s natural healing power that is true physical, mental and emotional therapy for youth who need that.
Perhaps it’s because they are big and often intimidating, yet responsive to human emotion and action. Horses can sense negativity and can mirror that back. If the youth is frustrated, the horse can be equally frustrated and the young person can see how their attitude and emotions can affect others. And horses don’t have hidden agendas, they don’t lie or hold a grudge. They don’t respond well to manipulation, bullying or passive/aggressive behavior, things that humans often do. To work with a horse, a person needs to be in control of their emotions and attitude, use effective body language and be able to problem solve when things aren’t going well.
“I think it’s like how all of us want to be loved and taken care of,” said Wendy. “Somehow the horses relate to humans who will do that for them. They are so forgiving after what some of them have been through. Like Lily, who has been through the most pain is also the most compassionate. She’s forgiven and is full of grace.”
The first year, the Krooks had a handful of kids at the ranch and it’s been growing ever since. This summer they had a full schedule with 34 kids from many different situations – homeschooled, foster kids, referrals from social services – certainly not all have troubled backgrounds. But the ones who make large personal leaps because of their work with the horses warm the souls of the Krooks.
Russ told the story of one girl whose mother was at her wit’s end.
“She was running with street gangs and she didn’t want anything to do with her step-dad. Wouldn’t even talk to him,” said Russ. “But her mother knew she liked horses.”
Over the course of a year at Seeds of Hope, the girl went from a C student to an A student and began interacting with her step-dad. And after two and a half years of going to the ranch, “She told me she was giving her life to Christ,” Russ said with happy tears in his eyes. “We’ve seen quite a few of those.”
Sometimes the horse just knows who needs them. The Krooks tell of a girl who was being stubborn and defiant at home. She was brought out to the ranch and wandered around the pasture looking at the horses. She didn’t see Stormy, a horse who often stands off in a corner, himself a bit defiant and stubborn.
“That horse literally singled her out and followed her all the way back to the gate,” said Russ. “So we put them together and it’s been beautiful music for the past two weeks. The mother says she’s seen a total change in her daughter.”
Kayla is 6 1/2 years old and started coming out to Seeds of Hope in early June this year. What does she like best about working with Barney?
“He likes me and I like him,” she said.
The Krooks don’t charge families for the hour-and-a-half sessions. As a nonprofit organization, they get by on some grant money, but mostly fund-raisers and donations. Their hay bill alone is over $6,000 a year and they hope to raise enough money to build a large indoor arena so the program can go year-round and during bad weather. They’re also trying to raise money to get Lily’s back hoof fixed.
Every child at Seeds of Hope gets a supervisor, so the Krooks hire some assistants. The youth who come to the ranch spend 20 minutes doing a chore. Then they learn how to groom the horses, ride and, most importantly, how to understand the horse. Especially if it’s been through hard times.
“It’s a miracle every time,” said Wendy. “It’s amazing to see how God works through these horses, how He uses them to help the kids learn trust and that things aren’t as bad as they think. It’s a miracle to see the kids smile and laugh again, just gaining the confidence to ride. It’s a special job to be able to do this.”
For information about Seeds of Hope Youth Ranch, visit the Web site at www.seedsofhopeyouthranch.org or call the Krooks at 218-428-8942.