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Mane magic at Beavercreek horse therapy center

Big Star Ranch helps teens navigate bumps in road of life
by: submitted photo Hope Shoemate shares a moment with Zena at Big Star Ranch in Beavercreek.

Can horses actually help an 11-year-old girl overcome difficulties with homework and fitting in at school?

Just ask Vicki Watson about the magic horses at Big Star Ranch in Beavercreek. About a year ago, her daughter Alaina had such low self-esteem that she let her peers mistreat her without ever standing up for herself. Since she had often asked if she could take riding lessons, Big Star seemed worth a try.

'It was what I was looking for - they provided riding lessons, but also provided what Alaina needed at that time - leadership, problem solving skills and esteem building methods,' Watson said.

During the past 12 months, Watson gushes, working with the horses has helped improve Alaina's communication skills, her ability to follow directions and her motor skills. She's now able to challenge herself to move past her fears and self-doubt.

The human mastermind behind such unbelievable effects is Barbara Knudsen, a former real estate agent. Knudsen, 53, has no formal training in psychology or child development. While the eight horses at Big Star require an incredible amount of feeding and other types of care, Knudsen lets them do the psychological work for her.

Many students come to Big Star with a history that includes molestation, broken families or learning disabilities.

Program participant Karen Sasin, now graduating from Clackamas Middle College, said her life wouldn't have been the same if she hadn't come to Big Star four and a half years ago to build trust and a relationship with a horse.

'You learn to work hard and never give up even when it seems like you're getting nowhere,' Sasin said.

Meet the horses

Initially looking anxiously down the street until Knudsen told her she was home, a jittery orphan became Big Star's 'rock' and top mare soon after arriving. Sierra, a registered quarter horse who is now shaken by nothing, gave a surprise birth in May 1, 2010, to appropriately named May.

Some of Big Star's most troubled students relate to Jasmine, an 18-year-old paint Knudsen's daughter purchased in 1999. From early photographs, it appeared that the horse had been ridden and forced to breed at ages much too early than appropriate, which provides parallels to many situations that young teen students find themselves in.

Licensed therapists and counselors have seen how Big Star can really open up students to work on themselves and turn things around in their lives. Adam Peterson, who calls Big Star 'a great program,' works for Trillium Family Services and is based as a social worker at Rex Putnam High School.

'Some of our students said being adopted can feel like being thrown in as being part of the pack, and a student who was herself adopted really related to the horses at Big Star,' Peterson said.

You'd think that these Big Star horses would be more valuable than gold. But the typical story is much more like 13-year-old Zena, a horse that was branded when she was captured from her herd.

Many horses that are donated need worming, hoof care and veterinary visits.

Zena and Buddy were donated in February of this year, and Buddy thinks of himself as Zena's protector even though she'll have none of it.

Molly the miniature horse allows students to pet her freely as if she were a big stuffed animal, and she even helps more timid students to practice their approach and haltering techniques, although she's too small for riding. Sir Lancelot the pony, meanwhile, thinks he's a big horse, and provides a better illustration of the dangers of hubris.

It's 30-year-old quarter horse Jake, the seasoned alpha of the pack, who melts everyone's hearts. But despite his domineering attitude to the other horses, he'll put his head to the ground so gentle students can easily halter him, Knudsen said.

'These are not show horses - these are horses with heart and imperfections, and we use those imperfections to show that everyone is a snowflake and it's OK to be unique,' she said.

Dream come true

Twenty-eight years ago Knudsen had a vision while driving to Seattle in which she saw someone disabled riding a horse.

After volunteering for more than 25 years with equine-assisted therapy programs, she began in 2008 working on her own with two horses and two ponies, training them for the special work. The first students were able to build their self-esteem and physical endurance, giving her hope to continue on.

Knudsen said, 'You're teaching students how to be aware of and have control of their environment with a 1,200-pound animal. Where a counselor would ask, 'What's your problem and how do you feel about that,' the horse is nonjudgmental and is responding to the moment.'

In 2009, Big Star achieved federal nonprofit status, had its first fundraiser and continued training the horses amid an expanding student base. Knudsen has to cover $1,100 a month in expenses for caring for the horses, and she puts more back into the organization through scholarships to low-income students and other special initiatives. Most students pay $140 a month for four hour-long lessons.

A 60-by-120-foot covered riding arena installed earlier this year allows Big Star to offer services year-round, no matter the weather.

The nonprofit organization still needs volunteers, donations of plywood to encircle the arena and much more. For more information, call 503-913-8680.