Gina Dahlen with Arrow and Blaze at White Horse Ranch. Photo by Kari Hagstrom
Herman woman uses horses for therapy
Gina Dahlen is a woman with one vision. Well, two, actually. She has a big vision for her organization, Destiny Equine Intervention, doing business as White Horse Ranch near Herman. Dahlen intends to serve as many people as possible through equine-related therapeutic services, from children to veterans; whoever has a need or a hurt that can be helped by being around horses.
Dahlen’s other vision is a horse: a quarter horse paint pony, named Vision, who is blind. “Vision has a huge impact on the kids, and helps them to learn about trust,” said Dahlen. “The kids really gravitate toward her, and she’s very gentle and trusting of them.”
Dahlen, a former pharmaceutical sales representative for 16 years, grew up on her family’s farm near Foley. She enjoyed riding and being around the horses on the farm. After she married her husband, Doug, she moved to his farm in the Herman area, and asked if he’d be interested in having horses one day. An animal lover himself, he enthusiastically said yes. Once they had two horses—Dahlen’s personal horse is a paint mare named Faith, who has the image of an eagle on her side—people started asking to come out and see the horses. This was the start of the journey of inspiration toward White Horse Ranch.
Dahlen had been feeling “stirred-up inside” about continuing with the pharmaceutical sales business, which involved a lot of traveling and being away from her new home and husband for several nights a week. She wanted to be at home or closer to home. After surviving five rounds of layoffs, and becoming “not happy with work,” Dahlen opted for a voluntary severance.
One day not long after, a guest preacher at her church, Ben Smith from the Bahamas, mentioned to her out of the blue: “I see you with horses and kids.”
As more and more kids came to the ranch, more “backs” were required, so the herd of horses began to grow.
Six months later, Ben Smith returned from the Bahamas to again guest preach. He told her—again out of the blue—“Don’t be afraid to start your own nonprofit. I see you with horses and kids.”
Two days after Smith’s statement, Dahlen had a big dream. In it, she was riding alongside “a huge, angelic white horse—it was a God-dream. I was somewhere else, and it felt so great, I wanted to go back into the dream when it was over. It was incredible. I felt it was God saying, ‘Yes, this is what I’ve called you to do.’”
Two days later, a woman called to see if two girls, first and fourth-grade, who had been sexually abused, could come out and see the horses, “because they don’t get these kinds of experiences otherwise. These two girls experienced the love, the compassion, the hope, by just being around the horses. It’s like somebody flipped on a light switch,” said Dahlen.
Vision, a blind paint pony, is lead around as a little girl rides. Photo courtesy of White Horse Ranch
Those two girls and their experience were a big sign post for Dahlen. About a month later, she was given a CD by a friend and heard a song by Lindell Cooley called We Will Ride; the song describes the white horse in Revelation 19:11. The lyrics talk about the rider of the white horse being faithful and true. About a month after this “revelation,” Dahlen’s aunt—out of the blue—gave her a small statue she had had for 30 years: a little statue of a rider on a white horse, holding up a sword in one hand and a horn in the other, with “Rev. 19:11” written on the cloak.
After these affirmations of her path, someone mentioned to Dahlen to listen to a segment on Focus on the Family that was about Crystal Peaks Youth Ranch in Bend, Ore., (www.crystalpeaksyouthranch.org). “I got goosebumps,” said Dahlen. “I read the books [Hope Rising, and Bridge Called Hope, by Kim Meeder, who founded Crystal Peaks Youth Ranch along with her husband, Troy] and checked out the website. And I absolutely knew what I was supposed to do.”
Crystal Peaks Youth Ranch (CPYR) is a non-profit which rescues “broken horses and pairs them with broken children” for the healing of both. CPYR also offers training to those interested in developing programs patterned after its program.
Dahlen registered in February and took the training in May 2012, and recently completed a leadership conference in May 2015.
While at her initial training in Oregon, Dahlen noticed a white horse at the resort they were staying at. In talking with the horse’s owner and telling him she was from Minnesota and was at CPYR for training, the owner gave Dahlen the horse, because he would be less prone to sunburn in Minnesota, than in Bend’s desert-like atmosphere. This man had no idea at the time he was giving White Horse Ranch their white horse. So Dahlen got her white horse, who she named Spirit.
With all the pieces falling into place, Dahlen applied for nonprofit status in January 2013. White Horse Ranch received Minnesota state approval within two weeks, and incredibly, was granted IRS nonprofit status in September 2013. “It was a blessing to get it so quickly, in less than nine months,” said Dahlen. It was at a time when the IRS was not granting non-profit status readily, and was experiencing government delays and then a shutdown.
“So we had kids coming out to the ranch in the summer of 2012 and 2013, with summer 2014 being our first official season as a nonprofit,” said Dahlen. “We have grown mostly through word of mouth; articles about the ranch in The Grant County Herald and in Good Company magazine, helped spread the word. We have new people coming out each week.”
As amazing as the story of White Horse Ranch coming into being is, the stories of the personal transformations Dahlen has witnessed are even more amazing.
“God’s presence is felt here [at the ranch]. I want kids to feel that peace and presence. Look at what kids are coming out of—neglect, abuse, etc. Horrible things are happening to children out there,” said Dahlen. “I feel blessed that they get to come out here and experience the animals.” In addition to the horses, the ranch animals include mini donkeys and mini horses, Scottish highlander cows and a Dexter (an Irish breed of cow), named Betty who is tame enough to sit on, dogs, chickens, pheasants and wildlife.
“Many kids are in situations beyond their control, and they are being let down; a lot of them are let down by their own parents. Where is their trust and confidence? They get out here and get to build that trust and experience unconditional love that they receive from the animals. The trust that’s been broken, even by their own parents, gets restored,” said Dahlen.
“I give God all the credit; this was his idea/plan, he’s just asked me to implement it. The animals show up, who need to be here. Apache [a paint gelding] was donated. I was not sure how he was going to fit at first, because of his lack of confidence and trust. He came from a good home, but developed trust issues very early in life as a result of abuse and neglect. He’s an amazing horse and loves the kids. Last year we had a girl come out who was a fetal alcohol baby with attachment issues. She was nuzzled by Apache and Spirit down both sides of her body. She picked out Apache to work with, who was the only adopted horse on the ranch at the time. When she found this out, the girl opened up and started telling her whole story. That horse was supposed to be here for her. Apache had trust and confidence issues, and now he is helping others overcome their trust and confidence issues. I see that all the time here, where a kid with a specific issue chooses the horse with the matching issue.
“Being with the horses really helps build the confidence of young girls, especially since they struggle so much more with identity. I let them know how special they are, that they were created for a reason and a purpose. They all have gifts and talents waiting to be discovered. In talking to them I relate the different breeds of horse to different purposes we all have in life: The thoroughbred was created to race; the draft horse to pull heavy loads; the quarter horse to handle cattle. We all have different purposes and different reasons we are here. There’s always something you can draw on with the animals.
“Our sessions run 90 minutes. It’s so interesting. I feel led through each session, and they’re all different. Every day there’s a different message. The horses know what the kids need and just rise to the occasion. They offer peace and comfort, not judging. The kids’ defenses just unravel around a horse, and many for the first time can tell their stories,” said Dahlen.
“One boy came out, and with a look of total fear said, ‘Do I have to ride? I’m not going to get thrown off a horse.’ He would not come within 10 feet of the horse. I introduced him to Vision, our blind pony, and told him her story of love and trust. The walls of fear started to fall as his compassion for this horse overtook him. Within 20 minutes he was riding Vision. It was then that he started sharing his real concerns, which really had nothing to do with being fearful of the horses. At the end of the session he wanted to take Vision home with him. It was three days later that he returned. The smile he was wearing this time lit his entire space. The first place he went to was to see his new friend, Vision. This time when he rode, he told me ‘Because of Vision I’m not going to be angry with my sister anymore; I’m just not going to be angry.’ He continued to share his love for this horse. It was almost time for him to leave when he brought up a gift for Vision. It was a heart-shaped white rock he found earlier in the week that he had been carrying in his pocket. This boy not only gave his heart, but his treasured heart rock to this horse. We cannot begin to understand what this experience meant to this compassionate young man. Within a week of his visit, Vision received a letter from him stating how much he trusted, loved and missed her, and how he cannot wait to come back,” said Dahlen.
An autistic boy was at the ranch working with Spirit. Spirit was getting impatient from standing and began to paw the ground. Dahlen had a good talk with the boy about patience and the importance of being patient, something the boy admitted was hard for him. Again, the horses seem to draw something out for the kids to learn from. There are some children who are not as connected to the horses, so there are always alternative choices at the ranch: feeding the chickens, grooming horses, feeding or cleaning pens, etc. One little boy only wanted to catch frogs. Another little boy said, “I just wanna feed the chickens.” The autistic boy wanted to “lube that leather.” The kids are encouraged to explore, and given that freedom, to find a common ground to create a connection so they can express themselves in hope and in trust.
It isn’t easy starting a rescue and therapeutic equine facility. Many nonprofits don’t make it through their first five years without financial support. And funding for equine-related therapeutic facilities is particularly hard to come by—many large grantors don’t appear to fully comprehend the far-reaching impact of equine therapy on our wounded society, and many seem to think it is risky business betting on horses. So reliance on private support, either monetary or in-kind donations, and volunteerism are what therapeutic non-profits have to rely on. That and sheer hard work.
Dahlen, who has a teaching degree in physical education and adaptive [special needs] physical education from Bethel College in St. Paul, took on a second job this past fall to support the ranch. As the ranch does not yet have an indoor facility, it is limited to only fair-weather operation, though some people do still come out to be with the horses during the winter. Dahlen worked initially as a substitute teacher for West Central Schools in nearby Barrett and was later hired as a full-time paraprofessional helping in special ed. She got up at 4 a.m., did chores at 4:30 a.m. (in Minnesota in the winter–outside), got ready and went to school. After school, she had chores again, and sometimes a client would come out to be with the horses. She said she usually tried to be in bed by 8 p.m. Her husband, Doug, runs an engine repair business on the farm.
WHR was fortunate to receive a large hay donation this past winter, relies primarily on private support, and has received some smaller grants. As a rescue, WHR also takes in at-risk and in-need horses (even a dog, now and again).
With a powerful dream and a powerful vision, White Horse Ranch is moving forward. To more fully support their work, and to make the work more accessible during the winter months, they want to build an indoor arena—out on the flat farmland of west central Minnesota, as it gets cold and windy in the winter, with subzero wind chills the norm. They recently have moved into working with veterans, which, as with the kids, is enormously powerful, empowering and healing—but usually requires nighttime hours. More people could be served with the time and shelter provided by an indoor arena.
White Horse Ranch’s plan B would be to buy an existing and well-established equine therapeutic facility nearby, take over the existing client list and services from the soon-to-retire owners, and serve even more people. It would be quite a leap for a new nonprofit, but the ultimate goal is to serve many and well. But it can’t be done alone. Life is a team sport, and to grow, nourish and sustain itself and those it serves, WHR welcomes support. See the website for more information: www.whitehorseranchmn.org.
“I’ve learned to be in the moment,” said Dahlen, “in the moment with the child, with the horse. You can’t do anything about those other things. It takes a toll. Ist takes a lot to focus on those other things, so I stay in the moment and see what unfolds.
“I’ve learned not to get ahead of God; that just causes more stress, and financially, are you ready to handle it? I’ve learned that whenever you’re given a task, God gives you the grace for the arena you’re supposed to be in. God will equip you. Crystal Peaks has the practice of ‘Pray. Listen. Do.’ on every decision, and I try to model after that here.
“The lesson that Vision [the horse] teaches so often is that she didn’t give up. She’s a blind horse, and she didn’t give up. ‘Don’t give up, no matter what you’re faced with.’ That’s what she teaches the kids and shores up their confidence. And being around so much compassion, it just unravels their defenses so they can connect and heal,” said Dahlen.
With such a powerful and empowering vision, and a small but dynamic Vision, Dahlen and White Horse Ranch continue to grow and to serve wounded, at-risk, in-need horses, kids, veterans and others. They help to effect the healing of society’s wounds. Gina Dahlen and White Horse Ranch: They ride on Faith, Spirit and Vision.
For more information on White Horse Ranch, go to www.whitehorseranchmn.org. Donations may be made through their website. You may also sponsor a horse or volunteer. Destiny Equine Intervention, dba White Horse Ranch, is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization.
This article was originally published in the July 2015 Valley Equestrian News © 2015, visit www.theveonline.com. A special thank you to Valley Equestrian News for permission to reprint this article.