Ministry uses horses to reach, help heal youth

By Corban University
Salem Oregon

“It’s unexplainable what a horse can do and how they can relate to someone who is struggling,” says Emmy Arana, co-founder of Acres of Hope Youth Ranch and alumna (’15) of Corban’s Masters of Education program. This simple observation, born through years in the saddle, grew into her life’s mission.

“Acres of Hope has been a vision that God gave me six or seven years ago,” Emmy says. Her vision started small, mirroring her expectations. But it was quickly nurtured by prayer and the voices of dedicated mentors in Emmy’s life who encouraged her to follow her calling. As she moved forward in faith, her goal was to begin cautiously, testing the viability of her dream while expanding gradually. With the support of her husband and Acres of Hope co-founder, Justin, Emmy began to think of ways to utilize their five-acre property in West Salem. The property, however, was built on a hill, lacked functional spaces for training, and was not licensed and insured for people to work with horses. It was the first obstacle in her path.

“We strategically went to the people that we knew would just get on their knees and pray, because we knew that following the Holy Spirit was the only way we couldn’t go wrong,” Emmy says. It was in this process that Emmy met Heather Holcomb, a Corban graduate of the class of 2012. The two attended the same community group at Salem Alliance Church and quickly realized that they shared an affinity for horses and wide-open space. Heather, eager to reunite with her rural upbringing, began helping Emmy on her property, bucking hay and building fences. She remembers the day that Emmy shared her dream. “She said to me, ‘Heather, I just really feel that God has put this dream on my heart to pair hurting youth with horses.’”

As the two talked about Emmy’s vision and the challenges of starting a youth ministry, the opportunity became clearer. Heather, a psychology major, had a background in social services. Through prayer, God began to reveal His plan to bring their skills together, all while uniting their shared love for people with their love for horses. “In what world could I be a part of something like that?” Heather says. She joined her friend’s vision, committed to helping her build this ministry slowly from the ground up.

“But God revealed He had bigger plans,” Emmy says. “Our five-year plan quickly became a two-year plan.” And Emmy’s vision moved from trot to canter, spurred on by prayer, mentorship, and dedicated friendship. “We eventually got to the point where we were just going to put one foot in front of the other,” she says.

Emmy and Justin listed their property for sale and put in an offer on a dream piece of land that they did not expect to get. “There were so many doors to close,” Emmy says. “We began to pray that God would close them if that’s what He wanted, and all the doors were flung open.” Within 60 days, their property had sold, and they were set to move into their new property with its abundant space and expansive ready-made facilities. “There were so many things that God orchestrated, lining it up so that we were actually able to purchase Acres of Hope.”

Now at full gallop, their ministry is active and thriving, far ahead of the timeline they imagined. They moved into the new property last Christmas, with Heather stepping into the role of Executive Director. Now, on a daily basis, the two friends enact the vision they had prayed about while building fences and bailing hay. They began to open sessions in the summer, beginning where Emmy’s vision started, through mentorship. “God has given me so many different mentors through different stages of my life,” says Emmy. “Now, we get to be there for these kids in a difficult season for them.”

Acres of Hope accepts kids of all backgrounds, dealing with a wide range of issues from anxiety and depression to bullying and heavy trauma from their pasts. “Our mission is to share hope,” says Heather. “Our heart is to pair them with a mentor, somebody who is going to be consistent with them.” These mentors, called session leaders, teach the kids in their program all the necessary skills to take care of and lead a horse.

For Emmy and Heather, they are not interested in simply offering riding lessons. Instead, they opt to teach their kids the skills of horsemanship from the ground up—from tacking up to galloping, and every aspect required in caring for a horse. “When our kids come to Acres of Hope, they are very much looking for leadership, from their mentors and even the horses, following wherever the horse is guiding,” says Emmy. “And right away, we are teaching them through horsemanship skills how to instead be the horse’s leader.”

Through their lessons on how to bond with and comfort a horse, and how to guide it through confident demeanor and gentle nonverbal cues, their students learn not only how to adopt new methods of care, but how to set boundaries, grow in confidence, and practice leadership. “When you take a horse out of its herd, it needs someone to be a leader, and they actually find security in good leadership,” Emmy says. “We get to teach kids a different definition of what leaders look like, that doesn’t require words or a stage or a microphone. It requires standing up taller, a soft feel. It’s body language. It’s all nonverbal. As our kids take deep breaths and release, they see the horse’s demeanor change.”

It is the unique ability of horses to care for and relate to their riders that first drew Emmy and Heather to the idea of using horsemanship to help hurting youth. “These horses mirror things,” Emmy says. “If a kid comes to the table with high anxiety, they feel and mirror that.” As a result, the youth at Acres of Hope have the unique opportunity to safely view and reflect on their struggles and learn how to work through them, to the benefit of horse and rider.

“We don’t try to make our horses seem 100% perfect either,” Emmy says. “We get to talk through how the horses respond and struggle with anxiety, too. Our kids that have anxiety really relate to our horses. They love their horse in spite of its issues, so when they see a bit of themselves in these beautiful, magnificent horses, they understand that they can also have some tougher qualities and still be pretty dang awesome.”

Even as the difficulties of COVID ushered in new uncertainties into the community at Acres of Hope, God continued to open doors, keeping the facility running through it all. One of their first volunteer interviews happened to be with the head of a prominent COVID in the community. Through this connection, Acres of Hope was able to receive invaluable advice and guidance on how to remain open and helping kids through the pandemic. “The arena is such a big and beautiful outdoor space,” says Heather. “We believe that when God gave us that space, even in the design of it, He knew it would be qualified for open sessions in spite of COVID guidelines.”

Since Acres of Hope is a program that runs at no cost for families, relying instead on generous community contributions, Heather has seen the impact, especially during times of added uncertainty, become magnified. “It’s been a beautiful thing for us to be a consistent support for our kids even when things are constantly changing,” she says. “Often times our families have run into a lot of dead ends where they are not sure where to go next. We get to see parents’ faces light up as they take a deep breath. They have this hope right away that this is something that could possibly help.”

Even as Acres of Hope remains open and actively serving hurting youth in the community, the need is only increasing. “Right now, we have 17 kids on our waitlist,” Heather says. “It feels like we are holding back the floodgates, and the only obstacle we have for serving more youth is being able to hire more session leaders.” As God continues to open doors for Acres of Hope, the need for financial support and volunteers increases. But for Emmy and Heather, it represents just another chance for God to show His unbridled ability to accomplish His work. “Acres of Hope was a gift that God gave us,” Emmy says. “This property is not ours, it’s His. And it’s for everyone. God is moving here.”

For Emmy, she never could have imagined what God would do with a willing heart and a simple love for horses. “I want people to know not to discount what they have to offer,” she says. “God is connecting us with people we would have never thought to connect with. This is His mission and vision out here.” Through her faithfulness, God has taken her dream and transformed it from a prayer to a purpose, trading the hope of a covered space on a sloping five-acre plot for a sprawling facility on over 40 acres, each full of new possibilities. And at its heart sits a unique way of revealing the gospel to those who are hurting. “It’s hard to explain what a horse does,” she says. “They don’t follow any formula we give them. It’s what the kids are bringing, what the horses are bringing, and what the Holy Spirit uses to lead in those times.”

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