Spirit’s Respite Ranch, just north of Stettler, is an animal therapy ranch that helps those with special needs and conditions ranging from PTSD to anxiety.
It’s something of a labour of love for owners/operators Janelle and Kent Robinson, whose son Dax was a key inspiration to launch the service this past summer.
Dax, who turns six next March, is severely autistic, and the Robinsons of course do everything they can to help their son – and that includes providing therapy that involves time spent with animals, said Janelle, adding that the critters have a positive effect on Dax and others who are dealing with everything from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder to anxiety issues.
The Robinsons also noticed that there isn’t an abundance of support for families of special needs children in general, so they wanted to extend a helping hand themselves – thus the founding of Spirit’s Respite Ranch.
“We had decided to start a place here where we could offer horseback riding and animal therapy – just a respite service for workers to come with their clients or families to come together,” she explained.
“It’s also more needed now than ever,” said Janelle, adding that even in the midst of the pandemic, they’ve been growing.
And it’s not just for kids, she said.
“Support homes bring their adults here, too. I also have respite workers who bring their adults and teens here, and we are partnered with the high school now to be a work experience place for the students which is fantastic.
“All animals are really mirrors of what we bring as people,” she added. “And special needs kids don’t bring fear, they don’t know animosity, they don’t know ulterior motives or manipulation – they come with such pure hearts and they connect with whatever animal it is. I have chickens, pigs, miniature cows, horses, ponies, miniature donkeys, goats, sheep, bunnies -there’s a little bit of everything,” she said. “For kids who can’t communicate with us, I can see exactly how they are feeling through how the animals are reacting to them and with them.”
Janelle’s grandparents started Ol’ MacDonald’s Resort by Buffalo Lake, so she spent plenty of time leading trails rides there.
“My favourite time of year was when we had the action groups come. It’s where I first had my experience with people who have special needs. And that’s where I learned, at a young age, how horses affected people with special needs, and people who had different struggles,” she explained. “You will see a peace and a calm come over them.
“It’s also incredible to see the effects this has on the parents, too, who come,” said Janelle. “I make them a coffee and they can just sit for a few minutes, and sometimes they also go out to the barn and hang out with everyone,” she added. “It’s interesting because they see their child or client do things that they haven’t done before.”
Parents are also helped because, as Janelle said, she understands where they are coming from. “They are so happy that there is a place like this where they can go with their kids; and that there is another family willing to open up their home who ‘gets’ it. We’ve been there, and we know what it’s like,” she said.
According to the Central Alberta Humane Society, interactions with animals are known to provide positive health results including the lowering of blood pressure, the calming of agitation and anxiety, and the stimulating of creativity and bolstered interaction.
“When I ride with special needs clients, we incorporate games that help them work on the strategies that they are working on at home or with their occupational/physical/speech therapists,” explained Janelle. “Because they are on horseback and having fun, the ‘work’ of the therapy doesn’t seem to be as daunting, and most times comes much easier.
“We do things like aiming/tossing games on horseback to working on left and right hand/body coordination, speech games/sound practice to help communicate with their horse, and simple direction following strategies for our more severe riders,” she said.
“The parents and aides are a big part of letting us know how the client has been reacting before and after each session so that we can ensure we are working on what the client needs at that time to help them become more regulated, as well as having fun,” she explained.
Looking ahead, Janelle said that one of their goals is to be able to have handicap accessible cabins or RVs on the property for families to rent so the families can more fully enjoy the farm experience.
”To provide these families with a welcoming place to enjoy the outdoors together – as well as an inclusive place for them to ride horses, play at a sensory playground, or even just throw rocks into a pond together – would be amazing.”
In the meantime, Janelle said corporate or private donations go towards getting kids and adults into the programs by helping to subsidize costs.
And from the start, the community support has been strong, she said.
“Stettler is such an incredible town. I have had people come to me and say they want to donate, they want to volunteer. They have donated saddles, and they have said, ‘If you need anything,’ let us know’.
“So our community support is incredible, and we are so thankful for that! It will grow – this is such a needed service.
“I also come from a family of doers – if something that is needed isn’t there, you just figure it out. You build it, you provide it or you do it. It may take a long time, but you just get at it.”
For more information, find Spirit’s Respite Ranch on Facebook.