I've been debating about what to post here the last week, but this feature appeared over the weekend, and I thought I would share this woman's story. It's a remarkable place, full of promise and hope. This is the first installment, which appeared in The Times Leader on Saturday, July 26. I am still deciding on whether to post my series on heroin, which isn't nearly so uplifting.
JACOBSBURG—Julie Larish promised herself—and God—that if her family got away from the abusive situation in which they lived and into safety, she would try to provide sanctuary to others. She fled to the West Coast and built a new life, the foundation for her venture, R. J. Ranch & Riding Center, now that she’s returned to her hometown.
Larish’s training in medical assisting got her a position in the California mental health system. A local sheriff set her up with a horse ranch--a lifelong interest—where Larish saw her own daughter develop confidence and self-esteem as she spent time with the horses. Another little girl also inspired Larish’s pursuit of equine therapy programs. She was wheelchair-bound and not communicative, but began riding and interacting with the horses on the ranch. Larish says this girl not only walks and talks now, but shares her story of recovery through equine therapy with others.
Larish eventually moved to Idaho to start her own ranch with equine therapy programs and teach college courses in horse behavior, horse nutrition and horseback riding. One of her clients had to get rid of her horses and told Larish about her Arabian left with a trainer who was starving the animal. Rescuing Berica was an important move for Larish.
“I was leery of Arabians because they aren’t like other horses,” Larish explains. “You can tell other horses what to do. After working with Berica, it came to me: other horses react; Arabians think. Once I realized that they have this special connection with humans, training was easier. She was one of the best horses I ever had. I miss her every day.”
Berica, who passed away a few months ago, not only lived out her life as a top therapy horse, but was named the “2008 4-H Horse of the Year” in the state of Idaho for her therapy work.
How does equine therapy, or equine assisted therapy (EAT,) work? As early as 600 BC the Greeks were riding horses as a means of therapy, and it came to the United States in the 1960s from Europe. While other animals have been used in treatments, horses have been found very effective because of their size, non-judgmental attitudes, their ability to respond immediately to direction and their characteristic “mirroring” of their riders’ emotions. This provides quick feedback to the rider, to the instructor and to the therapist.
Generally speaking, a therapist (psychological, occupational or speech) determines the patient’s primary needs. They may stem from an illness, an injury, an impairment or abuse. Patients may not even touch the horse at first. With the help of an equine instructor, he or she may need to get comfortable with the horse’s size or even being in a farm environment. The patient may take the reins and walk the horse around the arena, then work up to feeding, brushing and grooming the horse. This is good for patients who need to work on trust, self-esteem and motor skills.
Riding a horse builds confidence and helps muscular illnesses by working, stretching and strengthening the body’s muscular-skeletal systems. At RJ Ranch riders have up to three attendants with them—one leading the horse and one on each side of the rider to ensure the rider is stable. Larish also has riders not use saddles when possible to further work the muscles and get to know the horse’s muscular responses to commands. Patients involved with EAT often show marked improvement quickly, sometimes at many levels, because they are focusing on the relationship with the horse rather than the therapy.
“It psychologically boosts confidence. If you can control a 1,200 pound horse with your pinkies, what can you do with the rest of your life?” Larish adds.
Larish was running her successful ranch in Idaho when her mother called asking if she could “come back home.” She decided to make the move and bring her ranch with her. Restoring a 200-year old farm wasn’t exactly part of the plan, but Larish says, “I called the owner about using the fields, and I bought it.”
One building, a garage, had to come down right away, but bringing back the farmhouse and barn and re-working 88 acres along historic Drover’s Trail (State Route 147) has become another rescue mission.
The property was rented for 12 years prior and had fallen into neglect. The barn had to be shored up, adding new beams, a floor, electric and water to the building. They built stalls and a tack room downstairs—after cleaning out “about two feet” of old, hardened manure on the floors. The house was no better. The tenants had left rooms full of beer cans and dirty diapers, and, in an upstairs bedroom, the carpet was still wet with dog urine. In all, Larish and her crew—family, friends and volunteers—removed eight dump truck loads of garbage and debris from the three buildings before they could begin any renovations. They are now working room by room in the house as they get the riding business up and running.
And there are 19 horses that need care, one boarder and 18 of the ranch’s. Some Larish has acquired through riding clients, but eight have been rescued. Friend Lillian Siebieda talks about rescuing four horses after a desperate phone call. The man’s ex-son-in-law planned to shoot the horses at the end of the day if they were still on the farm. Larish and Siebeda scrambled to get a trailer ready and travel several counties away.
“It was January and snowing and cold,” she recalls. “We pulled up and opened the trailer door. I was holding the reins and trying to get my footing because of the ice, but the horses were just about running to that trailer. When they saw it, it was like they knew this was their one chance to make it out. All of them jumped right in.”
They also rescued two emaciated colts from an elderly man who had 47 horses but was too old to care for them. One of the colts was so sick he couldn’t stand on his own. Workers at RJ Ranch gave him the nutrition and physical therapy necessary to have him standing on his own, and now he walks in the pastures.
“We just try to give them the best life we can and condition them for therapy,” adds Larish.