by: BARBARA SHERMAN - Todd Hildebrandt, a kindergartner at Sherwood Charter School, holds his mustang pumpkin outside the arena where various horse events took place at Wild Horse Mountain Ranch's annual Kids, Pumpkins, Music & Mustangs' fundraiser.If you’ve never heard of mustang pumpkins, then you didn’t attend the Wild Horse Mountain Ranch’s “Kids, Pumpkins, Music & Mustangs” fundraiser Oct. 26

“This is the first time we have done this event and are planning a fall fundraiser for next year as well,” said owner Stacey Harnew-Swanson, who has been working with kids and mustangs since 2005.

The event raised funds for the ranch’s therapy riding program, according to Harnew-Swanson. It included music performances by Molly Adkins and Martin Stevens, who are instructors for the monthly kids’ bluegrass workshops held at the farm, and Corral Creek, a band is fronted by Sherwood resident Ron Taylor, plus a horse and donkey Halloween costume contest and an opportunity to see the horses put through their paces.

As part of the event, kids could choose their own “mustang pumpkin,” which volunteers made by attaching cardboard heads with wooly manes and tails to pumpkins.

“We work with kids with varying needs and tailor programs that support the goals the family and child are working toward,” Harnew-Swanson said. “Most times, the students have therapists who are actively working with the students off-site. We try to support (their) goals and provide a fun and rewarding experience for students.

“The connection between student and the horse often seems magical. A student who is anxious at home or at school may become inexplicably relaxed when brushing the horses or when riding.”

Harnew-Swanson, who has a master’s degree in education, has been a teacher for more than 20 years. In 2005, she began her research in equine therapy, and using mustangs adopted from Oregon’s wild horse herds rounded up from Bureau of Land Management lands, she started working with children of varying ability levels.

In 2011, with an influx of 10 Kiger mustangs, Harnew-Swanson expanded her teaching to include adults.

The horses originally were largely untouchable, and her adult volunteers were inexperienced, so when she was demonstrating techniques for gentling these horses, she found herself using a philosophy that requires listening to the horses and reading their needs.

“With the addition of the 2011 rescue horses, it became obvious that we had to move from being a research farm to being a non-profit that would help rescue horses,” Harnew-Swanson said.

“It is our mission to not only rescue and rehab mustangs but to also work with the mustangs so they could be part of our therapeutic riding program.”

Harnew-Swanson said there are three main reasons why she was drawn to equine therapy.

“In the ‘80s, my oldest daughter participated in equine-based physical therapy,” she said. “She had developed significant physical disabilities as a result of a brain tumor. The therapy was both something she looked forward to as well as an activity that induced her to stretch her abilities.

“Her core muscles were especially compromised, and the riding helped to strengthen her core without taxing her strength by walking. The tumor eventually proved fatal, and the time with the horses was certainly a highlight of her life during her last months.”

Secondly, Harnew-Swanson said that since she had a horse as a kid, “I had an inkling of how important the horses can be to the development of leadership skills and responsibility.

“Finally, I chose to study education in grad school. After completing my master’s, I spent time working with researchers in Atlanta on brain-based learning strategies. My recent work with mustangs has made it quite apparent to me that we can learn a great deal from animals. All three experiences sort of led to me getting into the field.”

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