The First Day
There's something about the smell of a barn. Somehow the compilation of horses, hay, manure and dirt creates a stew for the nose that kneads the senses of horse people like a spa. It's a smell associated with hard work, honesty, connection and love.
The Sonrise ranch is a place for people to board their horses, for haul-in's to ride and for those who volunteer countless hours with EMBRACE, it's even more than that. It's a place to spread the love of Jesus Christ. From noon until 4pm the ranch is closed down to haul-in's while they prepare for the group about to arrive. There is no need to sign a W2, or clock in and out, because every person involved with EMBRACE is a volunteer. She uses her own horse and tack, which enhances the experience because of the relationship and trust already built between horse and owner. She sacrifices her own time out of an already busy schedule as a mother, daughter, grandmother, wife, housekeeper, church member and part-time employee.
She uses her own gas in the truck that hauls her horses from home to the barn for each session, as well as her own feed and grain. She has her own farrier and veterinarian to keep her horse in top shape and spends even more time working with her horse, or multiple horses, to ensure his mind is sharp to do the work that EMBRACE demands of him.
She does all of this for one reason: to share the love and transformation of a relationship with Jesus through the incredible relationship built with the horse. The volunteers arrive before noon. They bring in their horses and everything needed for the lessons. They clean the office, tidy up the barn, pull out the coffee machine and lay out home baked treats. The talk is light, the air joyful and excited as they prepare for the group of girls to arrive.
This group is a bunch of teenagers being bussed in from a local drug rehabilitation facility. It's not the first time these women have come face to face with broken girls, many of them criminals, but among the excitement there's always a little anxiety. At twelve o'clock they create a circle and talk about the plan for the day, clearing up any confusion and making sure everyone understands his or her role. Finally, they pray. The first time the girls get off the bus, there's always hesitation and fear. Some have never even seen a horse before, others have years of experience with the animal.
On day one, every teenager is always nervous, even though some show more indifference than fear. No one knows really what to expect. By the time they walk into the barn, they get their first indication of what this group is about. Smiles, cheerful greetings and wide open arms pull each of the girls into a hug - if they're willing. "Hi!" "We're so happy you're here!" "How are you?" "What's your name?" "Welcome to EMBRACE!" Anxiety fades into surprise and gratitude as these girls with broken hearts hug back. By the time they're all ushered into the barn they're no longer strangers, but welcome guests, all in the first five minutes. They make name tags and each of the volunteers goes around to introduce themselves.
Some share more than others, and usually at least one of the women begins to cry as she shares about how she has been impacted by drugs and alcohol and how much she loves the girls and wants to help them see God's love for them. There's always laughter and joy even in the midst of tears. "I don't care if you never learn anything about riding a horse," says Colleen.
"The only thing I care about, we care about, is if you walk away from here having a better understanding of how much Jesus loves you. That's why we're here. To share the love of Jesus with you through the relationship you'll build with our horses." In the midst of this lesson the girls learn to trust, and the trauma of the past begins to surface in a place rooted in and surrounded by love where it's safe to feel. Safe to let go. Today, the first day, they simply get an introduction to the program, the Bible and the horses they'll ride. They learn how to groom them, feed them, and walk with them. Abe grabs hold of Colleen's zipper with his teeth and zips her zipper up and down making the girls laugh.
Shea gently nudges an anxiety ridden teenager with her nose making her smile. Roxy lets her eyes drift close, trusting the stranger to touch as she brushes her neck, the years of trauma and fear fading from her eyes as they soften and her shoulders relax. Lady bows her head and rests it against the chest of a teenager afraid of horses, elated with the gentleness of the enormous palomino. In the office, sitting at a long white folding table, the girls search a stack of scriptures for truths about God that combat the ever-present lies. I'm afraid.... "For the spirit God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us power, love and self-discipline." - 2 Timothy 1:7
I'm weak.... "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness..." - 2 Corinthians 12:9
I'm a failure.... "No, in all these things, we are more than conquerers through him who loved us." -Romans 8:37 With new cowboy Bibles and a journal in hand, dirt on their shoes and pants and smiles on their faces the girls pile reluctantly back into the bus. It will be another week before they get to come back to the ranch, as they will begin to call it.
In that week the truth will sink in and begin to take root, or it wont. The volunteers clean up the office and bring it back to it's original state as haul-in's begin to arrive. Sonrise Ranch gets back on schedule and the volunteers depart. In six days it will begin again, and the roots will deepen in the hearts of the kids as well as the volunteers.