Riding the range
Wild Horse Mountain Ranch allows people from all walks of life to benefit from working with horses
The name 'Wild Horse Mountain Ranch, Rescue and Therapeutic Learning Center' is a bit of a mouthful, but every word is needed to explain this magical place on Ladd Hill where rescued Mustangs are trained for use in therapy riding lessons.
'We certainly work with folks with special needs, both physical and emotional,' said founder Stacey Harnew-Swanson. 'The cadence of the horse, the feeling of height, the need to learn to direct the horse - all help those with special needs. It is fascinating to watch the various ways people benefit.
'I heard a 4-year-old girl say her first word here, 'Trot.' She learned that when we said that the horse would go fast, and fast was fun. Having had a daughter with special needs, I really enjoy working with these folks.'
However, Harnew-Swanson pointed out that she also offers riding lessons to those without designated special needs 'because people from all walks of life can benefit from working with horses.'
She added, 'And many folks volunteer and reap the same benefits.'
Clearly, Harnew-Swanson loves working with both people and horses, and for her, the No. 1 horse is the Mustang.
The Bureau of Land Management manages wild horses and burros on public rangelands, including 17 Herd Management Areas (HMA) in southeast Oregon, plus it co-manages the animals in a couple of other areas in Oregon.
Oregon herd numbers increase annually by about 20 percent, and based on rangeland monitoring studies and wild horse census numbers, the bureau annually gathers three to five of Oregon's herds to remove some animals and balance the population numbers with their area's ability to sustain them.
'We currently have horses from the Kiger herd, Jackie's Butte herd, Palomino Butte herd, and our rock star - Rocky, who is from the Cold Springs herd and is representing Mustangs this summer at Bend's High Desert Museum,' said Harnew-Swanson, who with the help of many volunteers has rescued and trained 20 Mustangs.
Part of her mission is to educate people about Oregon's unique herds that include those with Appaloosa markings, pintos, palominos, tall Calvary remount horses and the unusual heritage breed, the Kiger, which is related to the horses of the conquistadors.
Right now, Harnew-Swanson and her husband, Greg Swanson, own 12 horses at their 8-acre Ladd Hill Road spread, where they have lived for 2 ½ years.
'I had horses as a kid, and I used to volunteer at this ranch,' Harnew-Swanson said. 'In 2004, they had a little Kiger Mustang mare. I decided to go to the corrals in Burns to check out the Mustangs. I really was just going to check them out, but somehow I bought a horse. I had it delivered, and I was off and working with wild horses.'
Harnew-Swanson has delved into horses' psyches as much as she has humans', noting, 'Mustangs want to hang out with their leader, and they pick out their favorite person. They don't let you get away with anything, and you have to respect them. We have personal relationships with them.'
As for the people she helps, 'From the get-go, we worked with teens with anxiety disorders and assertiveness issues,' she said. 'My background and my love is people with special needs - both physical and mental.'
Harnew-Swanson said over and over that she could not do what she does without a cadre of loyal volunteers. Right now, she has about 20, with 12 of them coming twice a week to the ranch.
Harnew-Swanson has been offering private, one-on-one lessons free of charge to those with disabilities, although now she must start charging for lessons and will ask $25 per hour or use a sliding-fee scale.
Each lesson requires three volunteers, according to Harnew-Swanson.
'There is one on each side of the horse, plus another one leading it and me instructing,' she said. 'I like to do it one-on-one, but I am getting certified with PATH, and they want me to teach two students at a time for their certification. But we will still offer one-on-one because for some folks, it works best, and I like it best.'
PATH International is the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship, and its registered instructors are qualified to conduct safe, basic-equestrian lessons to individuals with disabilities, according to its website.
However, Harnew-Swanson wants to do more than teach people how to ride - she wants then to learn to understand horses and work with them rather than against them.
'I don't teach 'riding lessons,'' she said. 'That is like treating horses like motorcycles. Students have to learn about horses first and how they think. A horse might have the attitude of 'I've got your number, and I'm not doing that,' so you have to have a bag of tricks up your sleeve."
'Much of our knowledge base comes from the work of a few amazing Great Basin cowboys,' she added. 'Buck Brannaman is perhaps the most famous, but his mentors Ray Hunt plus Tom and Bill Dorrance are others we study very closely. We then try to pass this on to the students who study here.
'This style of horsemanship teaches fairness in leadership as well as assertiveness and balance. Many life skills are learned even if our students never work with horses again, and they will learn many patterns of thinking that will help them in other aspects of their lives.'
Watching Harnew-Swanson feed a wild mare she purchased last October with a 5-day-old foul at her side, it's hard to tell whether she or the horses are enjoying the moment the most.
'I feel that we all have special needs, and people from all walks of life can benefit from working with horses,' she said.
For more information, visit www.infowildhorsemountain.org .
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