If you had followed Lost Creek Road to the Diamondfly Ranch last Saturday morning you would have stumbled upon four pairs of kids and their parents completing a variety of seemingly bizarre tasks.
Some were rolling dice while riding bareback in the arena; others were blindfolded, leading a horse through an elaborate obstacle course. But these eight characters didn’t make their way to horse country in Thayne to train for the next rodeo or race. What they were really there for was a chance to talk to each other, with a little help from the horses.
They were all participants in Horse Warriors, a year-round empowerment program that fosters good relationships and horsemanship through a variety of activities meant to spark thoughtful interaction between humans and their equine counterparts.
Throughout the year the kids spend one day a week working with the horses and the nonprofit’s staff of instructors and volunteers. But an integral part of the program is a commitment from families. That’s where Family Fun Days come in. The student’s parent or guardian — and a licensed family therapist — periodically have a chance to get right in the center of the fun.
Priscilla Marden, who co-founded Horse Warriors over 20 years ago and serves as its executive director, has been around to see the impact working with horses can have on empowering people.
She likes to see people develop confidence and self- awareness and help teach them how to create and maintain safe and healthy relationships.
“My favorite parts are seeing progress,” she said. “And seeing people have those ‘aha’ moments where they recognize that by changing things in themselves, the world outside them changes. That’s huge.”
Marden explained that the family fun days are also a great opportunity to be involved in students’ lives by furthering their relationship with their parents. During Family Fun Days everyone has an excuse to spend time together.
“They are able to see themselves a little more clearly by seeing it as kind of a reflection from the horses,” she said.
Marden said the Horse Warriors program can’t accommodate huge numbers of students — the groups are usually around five or six people. But what it lacks in capacity it makes up for in the time and dedication it provides to the families.
“We don’t have huge numbers, but we have a decade or more with each family because we keep them around,” she said. “I think that the long-term investment is really one of the things we do well.”
That’s not to say Horse Warriors remains isolated. Later this month, from 6 to 8 p.m. July 23, Horse Warriors is hosting its White Horse Social fundraiser at the Teton County Fairground Food Court. It’s a chance to open up the small program to a broader community and for kids to have fun and turn white horses into their personal canvas using finger paint.
Many kids spend upwards of 10 years in the program, becoming mentors and developing confidence along the way. One of the living testaments to the long-term commitment is Ainsley Pratt, who started in the program in middle school at age 12.
Now 19, she just finished her freshman year at Westminster College in Salt Lake City — where she studies psychology and outdoor education — and is back in Wyoming for her third summer on the Horse Warriors staff. Pratt credits Horse Warriors with giving her confidence and skills she would not have developed otherwise.
“It’s taught me compassion and allowed me to grow in a way that I now feel like I can help the world, and I think I found a route to do that through this,” Pratt said. “It’s just been life changing.”
For Pratt, another part of the appeal was growing as a mentor and leader. When Pratt was in Horse Warriors, she was Sascha Mizelle’s mentor in the Power Ponies program. Now she can see her former mentee participate in Horse Warriors and become a budding mentor in her own right.
“It’s cool to watch the circle continue,” Pratt said. “Having a feeling of expertise and being able to help these families that I care deeply about and that I’ve watched grow for a while is really special.”
When Pratt started, the Family Fun Days program wasn’t as developed, but she is glad to have seen it expand over the last few years.
“You can fill the kids’ toolbox, but if the parents don’t have the tools to also participate in the relationship, it just doesn’t work,” she said. “So building the communication the way we do, I think is really important.”
Horses good for communication
The activities set up for Family Fun Days are meant to help the parent-child pairs develop communication tools. Each of the four stations focuses on a facet of communication.
One of the stations required the parent-child pairs to take turns leading their blindfolded counterpart through an obstacle course. That caused some trepidation for DeeAnne Robinson, whose broken ligament in her foot meant she would have to navigate a cast as well as a horse and risk reinjuring herself. She put on the blindfold and completed the obstacle anyway, though the instructors allowed her to do it without a horse.
For her 12-year-old son, Anson, it was testament to his mom being “fearless.”
“She has a broken ligament in her foot and she still came out and rode a horse,” he said. “That was crazy stuff.’”
It’s only the second Family Fun Day for Robinson and Anson, who joined the program about a month ago.
Working with horses has a special significance to them. Anson’s father used to work with horses. When he died in an accident in January, Robinson felt Horse Warriors could be a way for Anson to connect with his father — and himself.
“I think it’s good for both of us to learn about ourselves a little bit more and get in tune with what’s going on inside, and then pay attention to each other a little bit,” she said.
Establishing a connection
In the round pen a horse was completely at liberty, no bridles or saddles. The task for the parent and child was to establish a connection with the animal and one another purely through communication.
The station was Anson’s favorite, though not because it was the easiest. The exercise became a bonding experience for him and his mom. When something didn’t go according to plan, he and she would laugh together, then come up with a new plan.
“I like that it’s not just about riding horses,” he said. “It’s more like how to experience how you can handle things in life and how you can still have fun, even if there’s totally different people around you. Horse Warriors is a little bit relaxed, but at the same time it’s teaching you responsibility.”
Over in the arena the parent and kid each mounted a bareback horse and rolled a pair of dice that would decide their fate. Whatever number the dice landed on indicated how many wooden posts around the perimeter or the arena the pair advanced. At each post there was a question written on a slip of paper they had to answer.
The questions included more lighthearted conversation starters such as, “Talk about your favorite style of clothes,” but they also included questions that gave the participants a chance to open up, like “Who do you have the hardest time communicating with in your family?” or “If you could have a committee of three people, living or dead, to help you make decisions, who would it be?”
Over at the grooming station the duos were asked to be aware of how their own mood influenced that of mustang Freya and Tennessee walker Chance, two horses notoriously fickle about their grooming habits. Horses respond to a person’s mood, whether they are calm are anxious, and react accordingly, Marden said.
Ella Weimer learned alongside her mother Shelby Blankenship that the horses need to feel safe to establish a connection with people. She credited Horse Warriors with teaching her how to become more attuned to the energy of others.
“You get to notice reactions and your brain kind of gets trained to recognize emotions that you wouldn’t always be able to recognize,” Ella said, “like body signals and the way things are acting.”
A place to talk about things
Ella and Blankenship first heard about the program when they spotted a Horse Warrior ambassador equine at the 2017 Old Bill’s Fun Run. The following year Ella started out in the Power Ponies program — the beginner program — and she moved up to Horse Warriors this summer.
Blankenship said she appreciates having an environment in which she and her daughter are freer to discuss difficult topics than they would be at home.
“It’s a fun environment to talk about some things that she might be a little uncomfortable about,” Blankenship said. “I enjoy learning things about her in this way.”
“Well, it’s a really good way to know more about who you are and get to know yourself, along with other things and people,” Ella said. “You get to figure out what you’re feeling and when you’re feeling it. It’s a good way to contact your brain and say, ‘I’m feeling this way, and it’s OK.’”
At the end of the day, participants, staff and volunteers gathered in the Diamondfly Ranch tipi. Throughout their time in Horse Warriors, participants and parents keep a journal, a chance to put into words what they’ve learned. They’re then asked to share their thoughts with the group.
The parents and children also wrote letters addressed directly to one another. Before returning them, though, they each stood up and walked up to the table in the center of the tent. There they eyed the dozen toy horses laid out on the flat surface and picked out the one they thought their partner would like best.
With reflections finalized, the families headed home for the day, but they’ll be back for more throughout the year. For Marden, who has had the chance to work with dozens of families in the two decades she’s been doing this, Horse Warriors is a welcome reprieve from the rat race of life outside Diamondfly Ranch.
“It’s so rare that people take the time to pause or notice — they just want to blow through life,” she said. “And the horses, say, ‘No, be in this moment.’”