Trauma. It is a word that needs no explanation. For most, it’s life-altering, and unforgettable. For some, it’s never-ending. For others, it was a one-time, catastrophic event that cannot be shaken. But the one thing that all of these types of trauma have in common, is that they can and will consume someone’s life if they are never faced.
It might be buried deep down. Maybe the source of it is nearly unrecognizable, since it has been masked for years by behaviors, avoidance, or even addiction. It might be set off by triggers, or it lives on the surface with overt depression. Trauma may be worked through in a counselor’s office, in the pew of a church, or hiking the Camino de Santiago trail. But this is a story of helping trauma survivors get their lives back, and doing it with hope for a better tomorrow. This story is about one person, her trauma, her brokenness, her bravery and her passion for helping others. But she couldn’t do it alone. Not in her own life, and not in her mission to help others. She needed the horses.
Northeast of Scottsdale, Arizona, there is a serene, stunning area called “Rio Verde.” This now is where the beautiful, welcoming “Rancho Milagro” has its real estate. But many years ago, there was little out that way…except for one young woman. A young woman who had been through so much severe trauma in her life, that she went out there to end it altogether. She had spent years as a child hiding in horse’s stalls to escape the trauma in her home. And years and year later, there, in the barren but beautiful Rio Verde, Vanessa found herself no longer alone, but surrounded by wild horses.
Her life didn’t suddenly become perfect after she was saved that day. She spent years going to counseling, processing through and diving into her past and how to live in her present. But five years ago, her counselor asked her to start thinking about her future. What did she want to do? What were her dreams? To give you the Cliffs Notes version, that was how Rancho Milagro was born.
Horses are huge, can be dangerous, and yet are so majestic, and so beautiful. Most people are either terrified of them, or memorized by them. But I asked Vanessa how horses could make such a great impact on trauma survivors, and her answer was immediate: horses are fight or flight animals, and most trauma survivors work in the same way. They
want to run, they want to be out; they don’t want to face what they’ve been through. If you have ever been around horses, you probably have noticed how intuitive they are. They are constantly hyper-aware of their environment. Their ears are moving all around, and when their environment becomes threatening, as she said it, they’re out of there. But how does a horse’s intuition help a person?
When someone is in the presence of one of these horses, the horse immediately starts to mirror the person’s emotions and behaviors – their stress, their anxiety, their stand-offish behaviors, their shut-down behaviors. The best way I can describe this is to give you all the two examples Vanessa gave me.
Client 1) A young female. She had been a victim of human trafficking for years. She came to the ranch with her hair in front of her face, her eyes down, and was nearly completely shut off to the world. She was terrified to be touched. Her horse mirrored this immediately. The horse backed into the back corner of its stall and became afraid of anyone coming near it. It did not want any interaction and stayed as far away from everyone that was near it as possible. So this is where the therapy begins. The horse brings the client awareness of themselves, which can be radical enough to take up an entire session, or even multiple sessions. Vanessa or her staff would step in at this point and let the client know that they have to get that horse out of the corner. It has to eat, it needs to come out for water, and that it’s not healthy for the horse to be feeling the stress symptoms while trying to keep away from them. The client has to figure out what the horse needs in that moment. And then, with time, she can discover what she needs to heal herself…to bring her out of her hiding, out of her corner.
Client 2) A male war veteran. His horse was put into the arena, and immediately began to sprint in circles. It would not stop. It was clearly under extreme stress, and yet, instead of allowing the wrangler stop it or slow it down with their calm, soothing, yet stern voice calling out to it, it continued to run. Vanessa turned to the client and told him that they HAD to figure out how to stop this horse. Her horse was either going to injure itself, run itself to exhaustion, or even die. Finally, her client realized they needed to take the next step to get the horse back to its stall, and give it some alone time to calm down. This was exactly what the man needed to do in his own life. He needed to slow way down, get some quiet time to calm down before he was ready to face whatever came next, or he would continue to escalate.
Rancho Milagro accepts clients of all kinds, from all different backgrounds. They have had clients who are first responders with PTSD, clients who have trauma from losing a loved one, through clients who have been sex trafficked. As Vanessa shared, some people only need one to two sessions, and others may want/need to come every week. Regardless, they are sure to be greeted by the ranch dogs on every visit, drastically impacted by the horses, and have one of many counselors, pastors or life coaches available for them if they want more service options. If a client cannot afford the sessions, they are given the opportunity to volunteer on the ranch ahead of time in exchange for future sessions.
When I share about incredible companies or non-profits, the first question people ask me is “how can I help?” – I’m so glad you asked!
-If you live in Arizona, you absolutely can come see the ranch for yourself! The first Saturday of every month they host a “Milagro Morning” for community, coffee and connection from 8-10am.
-If you know of someone who may benefit from their services, all they have to do is call or email (information on website) and go check out the ranch. They do not have to immediately have a session. It’s so important that they feel warm, welcome and comfortable in an environment that entails vulnerability, with the possibility of great healing.
-If you live out of state, Rancho Milagro is a non-profit and accepts donations! You can donate on their website: http://www.ranchomilagroaz.com/
I know I will never forget the fresh air, the wind blowing as a late afternoon storm was coming in (a
RARE sight in Arizona!), Gracie the shepard down at my feet and the warm, wonderful conversation shared between Vanessa, my husband and me. It was so apparent to me that this place was created to allow you to be fully present. It was created to help people face their life, brings healing and hope for a better tomorrow. I cannot thank humans like Vanessa enough for living by the statement “no pain is ever wasted.” You are a Godsend. Thank you for what you do!
Thank you all for reading. You are wonderful, and I hope her story and the story of Rancho Milagro inspires you, connects with you, or even that you can share it with someone who’s life could be transformed.
XoXo, Lindsey Sholtis