Therapy for Them, Therapy for Me

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No matter what I’m doing when I’m volunteering at Reining Liberty Ranch, I always feel like I’m getting more than I’m giving.

Reining Liberty Ranch, tucked away near all the bison fields in Traverse City, provides enriching experiences for veterans with therapy horses. Equine Assisted Therapy is treatment that incorporates equine activity or an equine environment for rehabilitation purposes, according to the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship (PATH).

Over the past few years, I’ve had a few different volunteer roles at the ranch. I’ve been a stablehand mucking stalls and bringing horses out to the pasture in freezing cold weather. I’ve helped with hippotherapy for children with disabilities as a sidewalker. My latest role is helping train the horses to be better therapy horses, which are used both by the children and veterans.

woman takes picture of herself while walking with a horse
This is me walking Axel, one of the ranch’s therapy horses, out to the pasture after a ride.

My Start at Reining Liberty Ranch

I’ve loved horses since before I could talk. When I moved to Traverse City, I knew I had to get involved with the horse community. To me, there has never been a day better than one spent at the stable.

In the past, I’ve borrowed friend’s horses or gotten paid to ride and muck stalls but now I was in a position where I could volunteer my time, and that’s exactly what I started doing by helping with daily chores at Reining Liberty.

Although work sometimes got in the way and I took some time away from the stable here and there over the years, I’ve always felt like it was a community where I could come back and continue to help. And they were always grateful for it.

Reining Liberty is unlike any other community I’ve found. Owners Becky and Dennis Bigelow give everything to help the people they serve. Dennis is a modern-day horse whisperer and works his full-time job in addition to helping at the stable every day and every night.

All the volunteers are made to feel like a special part of the programs and are given every opportunity to get more involved, as much or as little as they want.

A bit about hippotherapy …

If, when I say “hippotherapy” you’re picturing me sitting next to a reclining hippopotamus as he describes childhood traumas, I have to tell you, that’s not it at all.

“Hippos” is the Greek word for horse. So, now that you know that, let’s talk about what hippotherapy does.

It’s occupational therapy with horses. Typically, it’s where people with disabilities work on therapy while on a horse. We’re asking them to put together puzzles and toss objects to us, all sorts of things that challenge their mind and their body.

You can see real growth when working with kids. You hear stories from their parents about how excited they were to head to the barn. You listen to them laugh and smile and try for what might be the highlight of their day, or their week.

Honestly, sharing the love of horses and the magic they work on people is the highlight of my week, too.

The Nitty Gritty of Training Horses

When I was younger, I competed in shows and eventually trained horses at stables in my town.

But the training required for the horses at Reining Liberty is so much different. We are constantly reminding ourselves how much we ask of these therapy horses.

Horses, by nature, spook easily. They are big babies about anything and everything around them. And we challenge them to handle inexperienced riders tossing basketballs to-and-fro or asking them to climb boxes and stand still endlessly.

Working on the Equine Management Team

When I was asked to be part of the Equine Management Team (EMT) I felt like all my dreams had come true. I was going to be part of this team of riders who directly affect the horses and therapy programs.

It’s a group of people familiar with horses and the ranch that work one-on-one so the horses get quality time with experienced riders. We also sort out issues they may have, learn their quirks and find out what types of therapy and riders they’re best-suited for.

The horses at the ranch come from all over and are donated, so it takes time to learn about each new horse and to train them to be effective therapy horses.

For me, this has been the most rewarding role I’ve held at the ranch. Even though I’m working, I experience the same emotional / physical / spiritual therapy that the veterans and kids do.

woman riding a brown and white horse
I rode Nim, a therapy horse at the ranch, bareback for an EMT session, to see how she would do with a kid or veteran on her back.

The added layer of volunteerism

I feel great when I’ve just gone horseback riding. I’ve never had a bad day at the barn – even if I’m mucking stalls, if I get thrown off or I’m freezing cold. Sometimes I don’t even ride – I just come by to smell the stables (Don’t judge, horse-people get it!) or pet my favorite.

So often it feels selfish of me to enjoy so much of my time at Reining Liberty Ranch that I have to remind myself I’m making a difference in the lives of these horses, Dennis and Becky, and all the veterans who have so faithfully served our country.

I’m eternally thankful for the opportunity to be involved in this community, and I’m so happy to have a job that rewards and celebrates volunteerism with our Volunteer Paid Time Off program.

If you want a job at a company that cares about giving back, check out our current job postings.

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