Ranch therapy: horses supporting mental health

Of course there are horses trotting around at HORSES on the Ranch in Prineville, near Bend. But “HORSES” also stands for Heal, Overcome, Reconnect, Strengthen, Educate and Support. The young nonprofit offers trauma-informed, equine-assisted psychotherapy programs that focus on women, veterans and young people.

HORSES on the Ranch opened in March 2020, just as the pandemic shut down everything else.

“Because we do our work outside, we were able to see people when other people couldn’t,” said Darcy Bedortha, HORSES on the Ranch founder and director. “For a lot of our clients, especially trauma survivors, telehealth just wasn’t serving them. We were able to offer an opportunity for people to come out and be out in nature, with the horses and with licensed counselors, and find some help and support in a time when that was really hard to find.”

Bedortha, a lifelong horse person, has a background in education and worked as a program coordinator with at-risk youth, where she saw the need for a different kind of support.

“Youth, or people in general, who have been hurt by people can have difficulty trusting people, but they can often connect with horses,” Bedortha said. “They need something different than more talking. Sometimes, just learning to ‘be’ is important, and horses connect without judgment.”

Bedortha then spent a few years getting certified with Eagala (Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association), which offers a global model for equine-assisted psychotherapy work and educational support. HORSES on the Ranch started seeing clients after the owners of Wine Down Ranch provided the space.

Why horses?

Working with these large animals can support and facilitate healing for a variety of conditions including depression, anxiety, grief, PTSD, substance abuse and recovery, and behavioral and social difficulties.

“As herd animals, horses regulate heartbeats and breathing with each other, and they have the same impact on people,” Bedortha said. “It’s not a conscious thing. Research is showing that just by being in a space with horses, it helps calm people that need a calm, quiet, safe place. Horses don’t judge, they’re just right in the moment, which can be super powerful for people that are struggling with boundary, connection or social relationship issues.”

People can also practice skills around the horses that are difficult to practice with people.

“Sometimes people want to tell the horse to not get in their boundary. If you can do that with a great big horse, you can do that with a person,” Bedortha said.

photo of a brown horse greeting several children
Marty was born into a family of Olympic jumpers, but he broke his ankle as a baby and was never able to support riders. He is known to steal jackets off of tractors and lids off of coffee cups.

How it works

Under the Eagala model, each client who visits the ranch works with an equine specialist, a licensed mental health professional and a horse or group of horses. The sessions may include simply sharing the space with horses and processing, talking privately, brushing, or doing more active work.

“Sometimes we have client put a halter on the horse and set up an obstacle course that can represent obstacles in life. The client can walk with their friend—a horse—over these challenges. It’s an experiential thing,” Bedortha said. “For people that understand play therapy, we like to say that our sandbox is really big, and our toys are alive.”

HORSES on the Ranch has seven equine partners: six horses and a pony. Surprisingly, clients don’t ride them. All the psychotherapy occurs at ground level. The horses roam the property freely, and they can choose to greet clients, or not. And because each animal has a different personality and history, they connect with different people. Every day is different.

“It’s fascinating to watch,” Bedortha said. “We have a 22-year-old Quarter Horse, Mattie, that was orphaned at a pretty young age, and she’s the one that approaches those clients that are struggling with grief or traumatic loss. We also had a young person dealing with chronic pain who really connected with Sparks, an 8-year-old Paint horse that has some degenerative joint issues and deals with body pain, too.”

But the benefits gained at HORSES on the Ranch don’t come from just the animals.

“A lot of the magic is nature itself, in the beauty, privacy and silence,” Bedortha said. “Just coming out to the ranch, people will breathe and be able to ground themselves in the space that they’re in.”

photo of five horses grazing in a field
equine partners grazing at Wine Down Ranch in Prineville

What’s next?

photo of three woman standing in an indoor horse training facility
Mental health professionals Alia Fern, LPC, (left) and Robyn Loxley, LPC, (right) have been working with Darcy Bedortha (middle) at HORSES on the Ranch since the beginning.

Bedortha hopes to keep expanding their services. Her wish list includes more group opportunities, expanded services for veterans, students and LGBTQ youth. Currently the group works with children as young as 10, and they hope to accommodate younger kids in the future.

It’s also important to keep visits affordable. Most clients have insurance through Oregon Health Plan (Medicaid), which fully covers equine-assisted psychotherapy. For others, with the help of scholarships, donations, grants and an income-based sliding scale, many people pay nothing or very little.

Bedortha also wants the model to spread. “One of my personal goals is to see how we can support other people to start similar programs and in other communities here in Central Oregon, or elsewhere,” Bedortha said. “I just want to get deeper and better at what we do.”