By: Mike DeWitt
From a new roof to a brand new smile, 3 two Ranch and Equine Assisted Development are creating new beginnings.
As Karen Strayer stood on the property and evaluated the future site of 3 two Ranch, she recognized the staggering need for immediate renovation. The old Tassell Ranch in Kentwood, once filled with exotic animals such as zebras and cheetahs, had been abandoned for 25 years and the neglect was evident in the damaged and dilapidated state of the barns.
The exteriors of the barns were wasted and worn away, the roofs worked better as sieves, and an unseemly pink and turquoise color scheme from the previous regime insulted the walls.
In only four short months, the improvements to the old property have been moving forward steadily. Along with much-needed manual upkeep, a new roof on the stall barn was installed to keep the water out, and the pink and turquoise came off the walls to bare the beautiful wood hidden underneath. As renovations continue, 3 two Ranch will bring in more organizations to help aid in its mission.
“The organizations we want involved here at 3 two Ranch will have a mission focused on helping people,” said Strayer, director of 3 two Ranch.
In addition to the physical renovations, 3 two Ranch acquired its first partner organization — Equine Assisted Development of the Great Lakes (EAD). EAD was founded in 2009 with a focus on using non-riding horses to help people, especially children, grow and heal from damaged and warped views of themselves — the organization works with alternative high schools, human trafficking victims and other troubled youth. EAD also works with a number of other organizations and groups.
Deb VanderBand, co-founder of EAD and an equine specialist, noticed that kids could get lost amongst the shuffle of everyday life. They needed help and a purpose. She can relate. “I was a misfit and an outcast as a child. I was always struggling to find a way to fit in. I knew in life that I needed to find a way to help kids who feel that everyday.”
While it may seem unconventional to use horses for therapy, horses have the same emotion base that humans do. When it comes to connecting with kids, these animals can break down walls and make strides where adults can’t. A horse’s memory only lasts six seconds, which allows the animal to see a child for who he or she is in that particular moment, whether positive or negative.
Deb gave me a personal therapy session so I could better understand.
As I walked into the 140-foot barn better known as “The Office,” Deb brought in three horses — Coe, Cora and Smartie — behind me.
Coe owned the place and he knew it. His laid-back demeanor wasn’t going to be affected by the new face in the room, and his control over the situation and the other horses didn’t waiver.
Cora was a follower and stayed close to Coe, finding comfort in being a friend to the leader. Smartie was the smallest of the three and easily the most spastic. He never seemed comfortable.
The therapy began with an outward analysis of the horses.
“Which one is your least favorite?” asked Deb.
Smartie, him being uncomfortable made me uncomfortable.
Deb followed up quickly, “Which one is your favorite?”
Deb dug deeper, “Is Coe your favorite because you see yourself in him or because you wish you were more like him?”
Three questions in and I’m already in deep thought… I don’t know, maybe a little bit of both?
As I stood there answering followup questions, the horses accepted the vibe I was putting off and started to make their way from one end of the barn to the other.
“I’ve never seen them do this before, you give off a very calming presence,” said Deb. “They feel comfortable.”
I could feel the confidence rise and I started to puff out my chest. The horses weren’t a fan of the ego as they quickly removed themselves from the situation. That six-second memory wiped clear any positive vibes I was giving off earlier.
After the self-evaluation, it was time to jump into action. Along with Karen and Deb’s son Kade, we were to build an obstacle course for the horses to walk through. Sounds easy enough. However, the horses had to walk through the obstacle course with us and we weren’t allowed to touch them.
Teamwork and communication would be paramount.
Armed with our creativity, imagination, lawn chairs, trash bins, and pool noodles, we set forth on building an obstacle course. Initially, as the course was being artfully crafted, the horses kept their distance. The tide began to turn once the horses felt like they were missing out on the positive environment we were creating by working together and enjoying the task at hand.
In fact, all three horses lined up unprompted at the beginning of the course, and I now had some new skills to bring back to the station here at WKTV.
One of Deb’s favorite moments involves one student in particular from Kentwood’s Crossroads Alternative High School.
“The young man bonded with one of the horses and was having a blast,” recounts Deb as if the event happened just an hour ago. “One of the teachers walked up to me and said, ‘We have never seen his teeth before. We have never seen a face other than anger.’ That’s the power these horses can have on a child.”