At Peace Ranch, a soulful symbiosis is underway: people rescue horses, who in turn help rescue people.
Fall has arrived, and Peace Ranch is winding down for the season. The leaves are red, orange and gold, and the overcast sky signals the approach of winter. Horses and alpacas stand and wander in their various corrals, enjoying a truly peaceful day at Peace Ranch. Only the occasional squawk of a chicken turns heads briefly. By all appearances, these animals lead a life of leisure. But the truth is, many of the creatures are engaged in a fascinating kind of work, participating in therapeutic programs to help troubled humans.
Jackie Kaschel is the founder, executive director and driving force behind Peace Ranch. Based near Traverse City, the ranch has been offering equine-assisted psychotherapy for individuals, couples, families and groups for five years. For Kaschel, Peace Ranch marries two of her greatest passions—helping people and caring for horses. And like most paths in life, the one Kaschel took to get here is a circuitous one.
Kaschel studied counseling and religion in college and went on to receive a master’s degree from Oxford Graduate School in Tennessee. But it was one course in particular that changed her life. In 1984, while taking a counseling class in New Hampshire, she met her future husband, Paul.
The two married a year later and moved to Paul’s hometown of Grand Rapids. “But we were both interested in mission work, so we headed out to Colorado Springs, with my daughter, and worked for Family Life Services,” says Kaschel. “While we were there, I gave birth to a son and happily got pregnant again.” However, that pregnancy ended tragically for the couple and left them wanting a fresh start. Kaschel’s husband took a counseling position in Traverse City, and the family moved back to Michigan, this time for good. In 1990, the couple helped start Paraklesis, a 501c3 charitable organization under Forest Lakes Counseling, to provide Christian counseling services for the greater Grand Traverse area.
Now professionally rooted in Northern Michigan, the Kaschels decided they wanted more children. In 1996, they adopted three daughters from foster care, and a few years later, one more daughter joined the family, now numbering eight. And then came the horses. “Some of the only positive memories my adopted kids had from their early childhood was being around horses,” explains Kaschel. “I just knew they needed to have horses in their lives again.” Kaschel, a horse lover from the start, admits that her exposure was limited until 2005, when she began volunteering at Horse North, a rescue program in Kingsley. “It turns out I have a knack for working with troubled horses, too,” Kaschel says.
Peace Ranch, located 15 minutes south of Traverse City, commands a sprawling 30 acres in Hoosier Valley. The breeding horses the family started with are long gone, and rescue horses have taken their place. “Callie is our most recent rescue,” says Kaschel. “She was sold to a meat buyer in Canada, but was thankfully rescued from that situation and came to us.” Callie was feral and pregnant when she arrived, but sadly, the foal did not survive. However, Callie will. “Our therapeutic services specialize in crisis care, so it seems befitting that we help horses in crisis, too,” explains Kaschel.
As the Kaschels developed the Hoosier Valley property into a horse ranch, Jackie started to explore a shift in her therapy work. “Traditional therapy, where you go to an office and talk to a therapist, is not necessarily the best approach for some people, especially kids,” Kaschel says. “Experiential therapy is activity-based and is designed for personal growth and learning.”
Kaschel began to wonder if anyone had ever combined working with horses to achieve mental health or personal growth goals. Sure enough, it was a newly emerging therapy. In 2007, Kaschel sent a proposal to Paraklesis and then began working on her certifications. Today, she has advanced certifications through Eagala (Equine Assisted Growth & Learning Association) and is a board-certified equine-interaction professional.
Fast forward to summer 2014, and the ranch is back in full swing. Today, Jackie and her team are hosting a day camp for youngsters 6 to 8 years old. The group includes a mix of children without behavior issues and others struggling with autism and defiant disorder. Outfitted in Got Peace? T-shirts, the therapy team runs various activities designed to build leadership skills, confidence, patience and self-control. “Leading a horse around an arena takes confidence, something a lot of people struggle with,” says Kaschel. “And when someone steps into a pen with a horse, they need to be the leader. Horses need a pecking order.” Another group is trying to snap cups off a fence with the whip of a rope. Seemingly an exercise in frustration, but really one that teaches patience.
“The activities we plan become metaphors for what’s troubling someone in real life,” Kaschel says. “If someone is experiencing a frustrating situation at home, it will play itself out here.” For example, participants are often asked to herd a loose horse in a pen. “The horse might not cooperate at first, and the participant will feel frustration,” says Kaschel. “But then their problem-solving skills kick in and those are the strategies they take home with them.”
The ranch recently paired with the Veterans Administration to offer equine-assisted psychotherapy to soldiers with post-traumatic stress disorder. “Vets suffering from PTSD are in a constant state of hyper-arousal, which translates to being desperately afraid,” Kaschel says. “When the soldiers begin to stroke the horses, their blood pressure drops, and their breathing and heart rate slow down. Physiologically, they begin to feel calm.” The program has been received very well so far. One soldier even told Kaschel that his experience with the horses made him feel safe—a feeling he hadn’t had in a very long time.
The bell rings, signaling it’s time for the kids to rotate. In between shifts, the children tag along behind Kaschel and pepper her with questions about the horses. When the camp ends, Kaschel and her team meet at their usual spot, a semi-circle of benches, to recap the day. Kaschel asks for feedback, and everyone gives it—her way of achieving successful programs for her participants and rewarding experiences for her volunteers, whom Peace Ranch could not survive without.
Licensed therapists are always a part of the healing programs, but the ranch also relies heavily on its volunteers to assist with the horses. “I’ve got volunteers ranging from 15 to 91 years old,” Kaschel says. “The vastly different ages certainly challenge my creativity in coming up with jobs that are both appropriate and rewarding for them.” Her eldest volunteer, Erwin, is the gatekeeper. He actually requires a password from anyone wishing to enter the arena. “This may seem a little extreme, but horses startle easily, and Erwin makes sure both person and horse are never surprised,” Kaschel says.
Even though the horses are predominantly cared for by volunteers, there are still expenses involved. “We want to keep our therapeutic costs reasonable so our programs are accessible to everyone,” Kaschel says. “We do that by pursuing grants and receiving community donations and sponsorships.” A yearly donation of $2,500 creates a sponsorship, and many local establishments have jumped on board.
It’s summer now, and staff from Red Ginger restaurant have come to volunteer. Temporarily displaced after the restaurant briefly closed following structural damage a few weeks prior, the wait staff and cooks are helping out at Peace Ranch instead. Tapping into their obvious interest in food, Kaschel smartly puts them to work in the garden. Before the Red Ginger crew leaves, though, they head into a paddock and Kaschel teaches them how to groom a horse. This is clearly the highlight of the staff’s day. One by one, the Red Ginger team brushes and strokes, snaps pictures and simply relishes their time with a brown beauty named Fiona.
Understanding people’s desire to touch and connect with the horses, Kaschel started the popular “Hug and Groom” program, which is free and open to the public all year long.
A group of young children gather in a smaller pen, which houses the miniature horses. The kids are excited to interact with the horses but first must pay their dues. A 6-year-old named Abby shovels piles of horse manure, without a single complaint, because she knows what’s coming next. Under a volunteer’s supervision, Abby hugs Ladybug, brushes her mane and even cleans the dirt from her horseshoes. “I just gave Ladybug a pedicure!” exclaims Abby. Kaschel is in the next arena, helping the older participants groom bigger horses. “People can have very strong reactions to grooming a horse,” says Kaschel. “One woman started crying because she used to care for her physically disabled son, and brushing the horse brought that grief to the surface and allowed her to express her emotions.”
Kaschel is wearing a different T-shirt today. This one reads: Horses Helping Humans—a concept that has really come full circle, since the humans give back to the horses, too. Kaschel is certainly enjoying the ranch’s success—five years in the making—but what’s even more satisfying is watching her patients and her horses heal, or as the name of the ranch aptly suggests, find a little peace.