Located on San Benancio Road in Salinas, The Buckeye Ranch is home to six therapy horses, one barn cat and thousands of priceless smiles.
By using horses as teaching tools to help kids learn life skills such as boundaries, trust and communication, Hope, Horses & Kids is a nonprofit organization that works with kids with special needs, those who are at risk and those in the foster care system.
Most first-time kids arrive quiet, shy and typically hesitant when it comes to interacting with the horses, but the horses are completely the opposite.
“Horses don’t lie,” says Lori Tuttle, the executive director of Hope, Horses & Kids. “What you see is what you get. If they look happy, they’re happy. If they appear afraid, then they’re afraid.”
Carmel High has played a large part in the expansion of Hope, Horses & Kids in the past year by sending an abundance of volunteers. Tuttle was invited to attend CHS’s annual Community Service Fair in 2011 where she met students who now are regular volunteers.
“I think the program serves great opportunity,” CHS senior Shyla LeFever says. “The bond and benefits that come from a relationship with a horse, or any other animal, are incomparable.”
All volunteer work is hands-on, whether it’s playing games with the kids during lessons or helping prepare horses for upcoming lessons. Volunteers soon find out what an incredible experience it is to witness all these incredible moments that happen with the children, only made possible by the horses.
Carmel High junior Samantha Lee recalls giving a boy with a brain tumor a ride on Percy, one of the therapy ponies, on her first day of volunteering for HHK.
“The boy seemed to have a real connection with Percy,” Lee says. “Seeing the pony so gentle with him when the boy gave him a hug after a ride was really sweet.”
Last May during STAR testing week, the CHS AVID class spent the freshman community service day at the Buckeye.
“We hosted about 30 kids out here and dedicated an entire day to the horses,” Tuttle says. “They learned about ‘Catch, halter, lead,’ grooming and equine communication. They even got to do horse chores.”
At the end of the day, the students were put into teams of three and had to get a standing horse into a box made of poles. The catch? They could not touch or talk to the horse, and they had to keep each other safe. The task was a lot harder than most people would perceive it to be, but there’s something incredible about being able to control such a powerful animal without any contact.
“Just being able to deal with a thousand-pound animal, then being able to direct the horse’s feet,” Tuttle explains, “it’s all just pretty amazing. It’s empowering.”
Horses are herd animals so they are always looking for someone to follow. It gives students an opportunity to be able to step up and be a leader.
“When you put a kid at the other end of the lead rope, there’s a bond of trust that happens because now the horse is looking up to the kid for leadership,” Tuttle says. “They’re looking to make sure that the kids are going to keep them safe.”
It is not an uncommon thing to witness the magical moments when it comes to the progression the clients make with the horses. Hope, Horses & Kids is an incredible, life-changing experience for both the students and volunteers.