Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington

From the

Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane

Deacon Eric Meisfjord, Editor
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302

Equine Therapy receives new boost at Morning Boys’ Ranch

Story and photos by Bonita Lawhead, Inland Register staff

(From the Jan. 15, 2004 edition of the Inland Register)

James, MSBR lead ranch 
handRight: James is the lead ranch hand at Morning Star Boys’ Ranch. He’s been paired with Crystal, an eight-month-old chestnut-colored female. (IR photo)

Horses have been an important part of Morning Star Boys Ranch nearly ever since the ranch’s founding in 1956. Certainly after 1966 when Father Joe Weiten-steiner returned as director, horses and their care have been an integral part of the ranch’s program.

The horse aspect of program has declined some in recent years but that’s changing.

Thanks to a generous gift from an anonymous donor, the program with the horses has been given new emphasis. Kristine Wirtjes was hired to direct the Equine Program. Not only will the original purpose of the horse program be restored, there’s a new component. It’s called Equine Assisted Psychotherapy. In EAP, activities involving horses are used as a part of therapy for individuals, families and groups.

The monetary gift came to the ranch with the request to make the horse program “all it can become to become.” In deciding what might be beneficial for Morning Star, Wirtjes remembered the EAGALA program. (EAGALA stands for Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association, Inc.)

Kristine Wirtjes, Dani MyersAt right: Kristine Wirtjes (left) directs the Equine Therapy Program; Dani Myers is Morning Star’s social worker. (IR photo)

Wirtjes had previously worked with Spokane’s School District 81 in the COLT (Changing Our Lives Together) program. She said COLT was an effective prevention program, using horses, that was aimed at young people at high risk to abuse alcohol or other drugs. From her work there, Wirtjes learned about EAGALA, which she thought could be beneficial to Morning Star’s equine program.

Wirtjes and Dani Myers, the ranch’s social worker, attended their first EAGALA training to receive certification in the new therapy. Wirtjes grew up with horses, but Myers had not. “I was a little apprehensive at first,” Myers said as she began her own education about horses during the training.

Since then the two women have worked to put the equine program in place. They have grown enthusiastic about its possibilities, seeing great advantages for the ranch’s residents.

In explaining the therapy using horses, Myers said there are a number of activities that can done with the horses, to help the individual client, family or group.

“The activities with the horses become a metaphor for them to help them in their relationships,” Myers explained. The specialized counseling appears to be “particularly promising” with people who have not responded successfully to more traditional styles of treatment. Clients may be able to relate therapeutically to a living entity without emotional barriers. Treatment areas include problem-solving, anxiety reduction and anger management.

Judy was Morning Star’s first horse, arriving at Morning Star in 1957 as a gift from Charles D’Hont. In 1959 horses left the ranch and were not brought back until 1966, when Father Weitensteiner returned. The ranch began acquiring horses again and soon had 20. Most of them came through Pete Dix and the polo club, and the facilities for the horses have been named for Dix. The boys who lived at the ranch rode horses often and camping trips with the horses was a popular summer activity.

There are currently nine horses at the ranch. In the Equine program, the boys meet weekly with Wirtjes, first to learn about horses and their care and then how to ride. Depending on the boys’ situations, horses may also become part of their counseling.

Another of the horses is named Crystal, a beautiful eight-month-old chestnut female with a star on her forehead. Crystal belongs to 13-year-old James, who lives at the ranch. Wirtjes has designated Jim as lead ranch hand at Morning Star.

There’s also Doc, a beautiful, all-black Percheron who came to the ranch when he was injured and could no longer be part of a pulling team. Even though he’s a gelding, Doc acts motherly in his relationships with the other horses. Wirtjes also described him as a lover.

He may be a lover and may be motherly, but he is also huge and likes to look for food in visitors’ pockets.

Feeding, grooming, riding and caring for horses are an important part of the regimen for the young men who live at the ranch as they learn responsibility and concern for other living things. In return, the horses give the boys unconditional affection. Even if the boys are not familiar with horses when they arrive, it isn’t long before they are involved. The animals prove to be good therapy in many different ways.

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