Tucked away in the hills of San Francisquito Canyon is a place of healing and safety for youth and families.
SRD-Straightening Reins is a nonprofit horse ranch that promotes emotional growth in children and teens by providing equine-assisted psychotherapy (EAP), equine-assisted learning workshops and after-school “Ranch Time.”
The non-profit was founded by Executive Director Debbie Rocha after she lost her 15-year-old daughter, Samantha Dyer-Rocha, to suicide in 2011. SRD-Straightening Reins, named in honor of Samantha, aims to change the narrative about teen mental health and be proactive, rather than reactive.
Rocha said her family moved outside of the city of Santa Clarita five years before Samantha’s suicide in order to live in a calmer setting near horses.
“We knew that horses were the key because that gave us five more years of peace with our daughter and we know it’s a very tranquil environment,” Rocha said of the confidence and tranquility she saw in Samantha.
SRD-Straightening Reins provides the same tranquil environment for children ages 8 to 18 to focus on their mental well-being and receive professional counseling. It is a place where individuals can talk about topics like depression, anxiety, self-medication and suicide, without feeling judged or misunderstood.
Healing and Helping Community
At the ranch, teenagers interact with therapy horses and barnyard animals three days a week. These free, two-hour “Ranch Time” sessions give people the opportunity to help with animal grooming and maintenance and to ride horses in the ring.
Teens can also just use their time to work on homework, de-stress or hang out with their peers. Time at the ranch counts toward volunteer service hours for school and community service programs.
“I will tell you that, with the ranch kids, their biggest change is their independence,” Rocha said. “Interacting with the small horses is tremendous boost to their confidence.”
Rocha said this confidence around and with animals directly translates to a confidence in daily life.
“If they aren’t confident in themselves then they are going to go down those wrong roads,” she said.
The organization holds equine-assisted workshops for schools, special needs children and siblings.
“In these sessions… populations really develop the tools and friendships that they need,” Rocha said.
SRD-Straightening Reins also partners with schools in the area to support and enhance existing mental health programs on campus.
Rocha said the non-profit has worked with eight different schools, including those in the William S. Hart Union School District, the Saugus Union School District and SCVi Charter School.
Equine Assisted Psychotherapy (EAP)
What makes SRD-Straightening Reins unique to other ranch non-profits is its use of Equine Assisted Psychotherapy (EAP).
According to the organization, EAP uses a combination of observation and interaction with horses and a mini-donkey to facilitate communication between an individual and a trained therapist about behavioral and emotional issues.
Horses are social animals with defined personalities and moods. This provides a metaphorical learning environment between counselors and students to process feelings.
“The sessions are solution-focused,” Rocha said. “They are driven by the youth and what their needs are that is what the staff focuses on.”
During these sessions specialists ask questions about a child’s experience by using words without emotional connotations. This allows the child to add their own meaning to the situation.
“The staff works to create a metaphor and example with the horse and the mini-donkey,” Rocha said. “When they create a scenario or situation in the arena it allows the child to relate to it.”
For example, Rocha said that putting together a pair of horses in a ring creates a certain form of energy.
“A kid would say, ‘That’s how my mom is in a situation when she is angry with me,’” she said. “For the child to say, ‘that’s how my mom behaves’ is an insight into what they’re feeling.”
Rocha said EAP allows children and teens to work through situations that were stressful, traumatic and overwhelming in a new environment. The therapy works to change associations with events to provide coping methods and tranquility.
“I guarantee when you leave and something happens, like just driving to the grocery store, you will see and reflect on it,” Rocha said. “With every experience there is a brain attachment… we start to create positive and new interactions and associations with those attachments.”
Rocha said she and her team have seen children who go through EAP develop the tools they need to cope so they can ask for help and not self-medicate when they are feeling unhappy.
Reducing the Mental Health Stigma
Rocha said her overall goal with SRD-Straightening Reins is to change the stigma around mental health.
“It’s OK to acknowledge that we’re anxious and we’re struggling,” she said. “We need to remove the stigma before kids start to self-medicate. We need to accept people and embrace people for who we are.”