Two things have stuck with Tracy Cookman, the founder of Charis Ranch in Laporte, Colorado, since childhood: her heart for orphans and her love of horses. In 2009, those two passions united when she headed up a group effort to rescue 11 PMU foals from slaughter. Her rescue efforts eventually turned to off-the-track Thoroughbreds, especially those that had been retired or sent to auction because they were no longer sound enough to ride.

Though rescuing horses was incredibly rewarding, Cookman knew it wasn’t her only calling in life. One year later, Cookman found the perfect way to combine rescuing horses with her desire to help children—she began a non-profit program for at-risk youth that utilized equine-assisted learning.

Mostacolli Mort, a rescued racehorse who won more than $240,000 before being retired due to injury, shares a special moment with a child in the Equine Adventure Program. Photo by Tracy Cookman

Her rescued horses were the key.

“I felt like the Lord made it clear to me that these broken horses would heal broken children,” says Cookman.

Today, Charis Ranch provides a variety of free programs for youth who need healing, whether they come from rehabilitation centers, the foster care system, or families who are seeking a way to help their struggling child. The 35-acre ranch is home to 21 rescue horses who have been re-trained by volunteers and Charis Ranch Barn Manager, Lucia Ginten, a professional trainer and dressage instructor. The Charis Ranch team also includes a Director of Development, a Volunteer Coordinator, and more than 50 volunteers, many of whom are part of a junior volunteer program.

Charis Ranch offers both individual and group sessions that use horsemanship as a foundation for teaching lessons and relational skills. While the goal is to follow a curriculum that begins with basic horsemanship and ends with more advanced skills, the instructors modify sessions based on individual childrens’ needs.

[Read more: Hugs for Horses uses the power of horses to change the lives of children with disabilities]

[Read more: Learning dressage helps one rider with autism and cerebral palsy establish success and confidence in all aspects of his life.]

One little girl, who was brought to Charis Ranch after losing her brother, wasn’t interested in learning horsemanship skills. Instead, all she wanted was to hold a bucket of grain for the horses to eat out of, paint the horses, and wash them. So that’s what they did. The simple joys of spending time with horses provided the breakthrough she needed to smile once again.

A teenager in the Triumph Youth program paints words of affirmation on retired racehorse Memo Mon. Photo by Angel Mountain Media

In addition to individual and group sessions, Charis Ranch puts on a summer program for 75–200 children. The Equine Adventure Youth Program consists of four weeks of horse activities, crafts, and games, all of which are designed to teach life skills.

A separate summer program for troubled teenagers utilizes the power of hard work, horsemanship, and a caring staff to change teenagers’ lives. The 12–20 teens in the Triumph Youth program spend the first part of each session hauling hay, cleaning water troughs, and fixing fence, with the Charis Ranch staff working right alongside them. Working together as equals breaks down barriers and enables the staff to form relationships with teens who usually do not trust adults.

“Our main goal is to spend time with the kids and let them know that we love them and that we value them and that they matter to us,” says Cookman.

The second part of the session focuses on horsemanship activities which range from in-hand obstacle courses to riding. By the end of the summer, teens who had no previous horse experience are capable horsemen, but they have also learned far more than horsemanship skills.

A junior volunteer with Sterling, a Quarter Horse gelding rescued from a kill pen in 2014. Photo by Angel Mountain Media

“They learn that there’s more to life than the small focus that they’ve experienced so far,” says Cookman. “Our goal is to give them hope that life can be different and they don’t have to be stuck in the lifestyle that they were in before.”

The healing power of horses can be clearly seen in the Triumph Youth program. A young man who had been struggling with a meth addiction fell in love with a rescue horse named Romeo, and was determined to ride him despite his total lack of equestrian experience. He worked toward his goal all summer and by the end of the program, he was cantering around the arena on Romeo. On the last day of the program, the young man said goodbye to the horse who had become a teacher and friend. He rested his forehead on Romeo’s neck and said, “Romeo’s better than meth”.

The ranch’s programs are uniquely effective because children who have been labeled as “lost causes” connect with horses who once had the same label placed on them. When the staff at Charis Ranch tells them that no one is worthless or too broken to fix, they have proof in the shape of 21 rescue horses who have been given a new lease on life. At Charis Ranch, everyone—whether two-legged or four—has value, regardless of their circumstances or past mistakes.

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