Aspen Ranch is situated in a valley on 160 acres of rolling hills with attractive dorms, a school area and a large in-door equine facility. Located in remote Loa, UT, the Ranch is a good three and a half hour drive from the Salt Lake airport. The program is far away from any big city distractions. From the highway, The Ranch does look like a working ranch, albeit, a bit more attractive than most.
Appropriate students include those who have experienced family difficulties, ADHD, oppositional defiant behaviors, and substance abuse. Many feel alienated, angry, and are at risk for school failure. A Utah licensed RTC, Aspen Ranch provides individual, group and family therapies. What has always set the Ranch apart from others is its focus on experiential therapies, particularly its multi-faceted equine therapy program. Licensed by the Utah Department of Education, the Ranch provides small classes and accommodations for those with special academic needs.
Aspen Ranch was founded 12 years ago. The original concepts driving the program were: A family environment manifested in small teams of students, allowing for intimacy, teaching a work ethic and basic family values including integrity, relationships, respect and responsibility. The Ranch was built to serve the needs of students who are not at high risk of running, or those who show persistent conduct disordered behaviors or otherwise out of control behaviors.
The Ranch has continued its efforts to remain focused on the powerful tools inherent in a "working ranch." Administrative leaders have primarily been recruited from the local communities. This team brings to Aspen a fresh re-connection to the original goals and beliefs--not because they have created a new wheel, but because they love and believe in what they are doing. The majority of the management team has lived their lives within a rural community, among horses, cattle, small towns and the values associated with this life style. With its success at local recruitment, the Ranch continues to provide a culture that reflects the ambiance of the area.
Straight forward honesty is also found among this group of people. The Ranch does not take young people who are inappropriate for the structure of the Ranch. Credit goes to the Aspen leadership in its efforts to stay true to its mission of working with young people who are able to control behaviors, which is important when working with horses.
I visited Aspen Ranch in a different way than usual. Instead of questions and answers in an office, I spent the day on a horse with the Ranch's management team and one student whom I will call "John." I did not take one single note. As far as I could tell, John did not take a "back-seat" to any of the well experienced horse men/women. John was riding a horse that he was asked to break just a couple of months ago. He was flawless in his riding--up dry river beds, over ditches, up steep climbs and down the other side. He frequently got off the trail and took on more difficult terrain, challenging himself and his horse. He had a constant look of confidence and contentment. He knew he was good.
I later learned from John that he began his stay at Aspen Ranch by running away and defying staff, until he made the decision that he needed a high school diploma. He had earned no credits in high school prior to the Ranch. He is now a bona-fide junior, weighing the pros and cons of staying on voluntarily at Aspen until he graduates from high school. He said he loved the horses, and around the dinner fire he and staff talked about being part of the crew that planned to push a herd of cattle up into the mountains, a three-day effort. He also attributed his success to the single sex classrooms with an equal division of experiential and academics, with the seat time occupying four hours a day and the rest of the day being spent on experiential activities.
Before I left the campus, I saw a girl sitting in the grass with her horse lying beside her. As it turns out, this young lady desired to be a mother-NOW. She was assigned a horse that she cared for, 24/7. Her constant "baby" was helping her re-think her aspirations of becoming a mother. Each treatment plan review includes ways to implement experiential learning opportunities of the Ranch.
One of the more interesting activities takes place with the older and disabled horses. The program includes a "hospice" program. Horses are either donated to the hospice program or include aging horses used over the years. Students are assigned to care for these horses who may be suffering ailments of old age or injuries of some type that limit their involvement in riding programs. Kindness, empathy, support, responsibility and love are all part of the experience.
I saw six boys playing hacky-sack in front of their dorm. This group of boys, who tended to be new and still oppositional, was assigned unbroken wild Mustang horses. I imagined that lots of learning was going to take place with the boys and the Mustangs over the next few months.
Aspen prefers hiring clinicians and other staff who have experience with horses and ranch life. Each staff member hired is required to complete a thorough horsemanship training program. Therapists are expected to walk with, ride with or work with students. They are discouraged from doing therapy behind closed doors. It is clear that the Ranch is experiential in nature. They believe that students learn and grow through the development of a work ethic and family values, pretty much like the old west. Maybe like Loa, UT.
This team is prepared to carry out its, and the original, vision for the Ranch.