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Schools & Program Visits - Oct, 2000 Issue #74 

Driving Cattle and Chasing Fear
at Aspen Ranch

Loa, Utah
Kreg Gillman, Executive Director
Jason York, Admissions
e-mail: aspnrnch@gbasin.net

Visit Report on September 16 & 17
By Loi Eberle, M.A. loi@woodbury.com

[Loi is an educational consultant and is the editor of Woodbury Reports. Prior to that time she taught Journalism & Advised the Student Newspaper for CEDU’s North Idaho Schools. She also co- founded and directed a private K-8 school. She has an MA in Secondary Education and has done doctoral work in Educational Psychology.]

I prepared for the Aspen Ranch Cattle Drive/Consultant Tour somewhat apprehensively, since my last experience with a horse involved dismounting at a full gallop. Had I realized the level of training and supervision that I was going to experience at Aspen Ranch, it would have been instantly apparent that my fears were ungrounded. I met members of the consultant group on the airport shuttle and learned some of them had never been on a horse! Moreover, since this group consisted of school social workers, police officers and psychologists as well as educational consultants, some of them had never even seen a special program. The fact that all aspects of this tour ran smoothly, from transporting us to and from the various program activities, to serving us delicious gourmet dinners in the wilderness, was a testament to the organizational skills and the good working relationship. Aspen Ranch is licensed as a residential treatment center that has an accredited program averaging about five months in length. They accept adolescents aged 13 through 17 years of age, but find they are most effective with angry, alienated 14 –16 year olds who may be experiencing dysfunctional family relationships and behavior problems such as attention deficit and hyperactivity, oppositional defiance and/or substance abuse. They choose not to work with kids who have conduct disorder or who are psychotic. 

Located in the high desert of Loa, Utah, the campus includes a working horse ranch and school. They had 55 students at the time of our visit, with a total capacity of 70. The program has a number of aspects. The therapeutic component includes individual and group counseling for the adolescent, as well as family telephone therapy and educational materials to be used with a therapist the family is required to locate in their area. The adolescents also participate in equine assisted psychotherapy (EAP) and ranch work in addition to their accredited academic coursework. They have a level system, with consequences that are individualized according to the child and the situation.

When they arrive, the adolescents are at the “Mustang” level, and live in an intentionally stark but clean building called “Roundup, ” containing only beds and lockers. As they work through the levels, they next become a “Maverick” and can move into more comfortable lodgings with a log bed, couch, and some personal effects on their walls. Next they become a “Greenhorn” and, ultimately, a “Rancher,” though no child has reached this level for a while, thus they are considering some program adjustments. At each higher level, they gain more privileges, such as going off-campus on field trips and being issued more interesting clothing than the basic ranch attire they wear as Mustangs.

The students seemed friendly except for the few kids in the orange jump suits who were sitting in a classroom doing their homework on a Sunday afternoon because they’d attempted to run away earlier that week. There were other students in the classroom simply because it was a quiet place to do their self-paced coursework, and they were trying to catch up to their grade level academically. The staff is developing more weekend activities for students who don’t want to do homework or play cards on the weekends.

The student service projects, a requirement for the program, showed a great deal of creativity. Recently students had constructed some impressive ones: the bridge walkway, the gazebo, and the waterfall and pond system, to mention a few. These added some really nice touches to an otherwise desolate high-desert landscape. According to Seth, the new residential director, the ranch has become a great deal more attractive in the last year or two. The dining room had a cozy and warm feeling with its Southwest style tile floors and wood-burning stove. The girls’ bedrooms and nurse’s office were also located in the main building. The members of the tour had a chance to talk to most of the academic staff, who seemed to be able to motivate the students and tailor instruction to help them obtain their diploma or transfer credits to their home high school. The academics are self-paced, so motivated students have the potential to advance through their requirements quickly. However, they are not allowed to ignore the other program areas, since the academics are considered to be only one leg of a three-legged stool. The students must also do their therapeutic work, and attend to their responsibilities and relationships in the residential program in order for the student to have a solid foundation for growth.

This is a working ranch, and the students work with the horses, cleaning both the horses and their stalls, and repairing the fences to contain them. The other kind of work the students do is really on themselves, with the horses serving as the impetus to develop insight and motivation to step outside of their old behaviors. We had the opportunity to participate in this Equine Assisted Psychotherapy. I found it to be personally insightful, even though we were in an abbreviated session.

It was very interesting to observe a group of well educated, and therapeutically astute adults attempt to work out issues of planning, group dynamics and problem solving, in a very short time span, then exercise their plan with one to three horses! Add to the equation the fact that some of the group members had never ridden a horse, and others had less than positive experiences with these potentially lethal animals.

This situation added some elements of stress, and also gave us plenty of opportunity to work through issues of fear and re- strategizing under duress. After our sessions with the horses, we had the chance to debrief in sessions handled with a great deal of therapeutic finesse by Clinical Director, Carrie Siddiqi. She encouraged the group to discuss the behavior and emotions they experienced in the equine sessions. These sessions certainly provided some interesting insights about the students with whom we work.

For example, when is a task successfully completed? Our group had some differences of opinion about when their assigned task was accomplished. Some thought the task requirements had been satisfied, while others did not agree, insisting on an even higher standard. How often does this happen among the teachers and other professionals who are interacting with a student? We saw how even in our own group, the people doing the task sometimes decide that further work is necessary to succeed, without realizing they actually satisfied the original request.

It was amazing to me how many different versions of the rules each of us heard! Some of us even made up new rules. We chuckled after the fact when one group, after successfully getting the horse over the “jump,” all jumped over it as well, having “heard” that it was also required of them. They were amused when later asked why they had done that, and learned only the horse needed to go over the jump.

It was also a good way to help us get used to being with the horses before the cattle drive. By the time we were ready to get on them, we’d already spent a good deal of time being very up close and personal with them, clapping at them, talking to them, trying to convince them to follow either verbal or non-verbal directions, chasing them, and blowing in their nostrils. Heck, getting on their back was the easy part!

The Equine Assisted Psychotherapy trainers gave us a very thorough explanation of EAP, and the benefits of using a thousand pound animal to get a defiant teenager to start talking. For example, it won’t succumb to bullying, it doesn’t lie, and it responds to an accurate reading of non-verbal cues; a good way to teach adolescents with non-verbal learning differences, by the way. It can be very reinforcing for an obstinate adolescent to find a way to communicate to an animal that might also be somewhat resistant. Sometimes after a frustrating session with the horse, the child begins to open up and discuss his own frustrations and motivations, often realizing some things about himself for the first time, only after dealing with them in the horse.

The riding safety taught before the cattle drive was a condensed version of a two-week course, but I learned more in that quick session than I had during any previous horse-riding instruction I’d received. The Aspen staff was competent, courteous, and kept an ever-vigilant eye on us. They prided themselves on a high staff-to-student ratio in their program as well. The cattle drive itself was through spectacular red-rock country amidst a sea of blazing autumn color. It was fantastic, and heartening to see some people appearing so at ease while being so far out of their comfort level.

That evening we were entertained by two banjo players, one of whom was the Aspen Ranch’s Academic Director, Larry Price. His talent and versatility showed both in his performance as well as in his description of the ranch’s academic program.

I found this tour was not only about Aspen Ranch. It was also about learning to face fear by gaining insight into one’s habitual way of responding in a situation, and realizing how that limited repertoire of behavior can be enhanced by gaining a deeper understanding of the object of one’s fear. Truly, by learning more about the nature of what we fear, we can learn how to handle the situation with compassion, confidence and competence.

Copyright © 2000, Woodbury Reports, Inc. (This article may be reproduced without prior approval if the copyright notice and proper publication and author attribution accompanies the copy.)

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