By Taylor Knopf

Kathleen Evans credits her son’s emotional transformation to his time spent on a therapeutic 33-acre horse ranch located between Raleigh and Durham.

Three years ago, her son, Thomas Evans, was released from his second hospitalization at the age of 9. He was struggling with obsessive-compulsive disorder and had recently left a seven-month stay at the Wright School, a residential mental health program for children with emotional and behavioral disorders.

Thomas’ self-esteem was poor. He’d been bullied by other kids and he wrestled with thoughts of self-harm.

Little boy walks a small white horse in a fenced in space.
Thomas Evans has opened up through his therapy at Hope Reins and working with the horse, Shiloh. Photo credit: Hope Reins

Because her son loves animals so much, Evans looked for a program where he could interact with them and grow socially. She found Hope Reins.

Hope Reins is a faith-based, nonprofit program that pairs children working through crisis situations with horses, many of whom have been rescued from traumatic environments. It’s a cost-free service for children and their families, and many could not afford this type of service elsewhere.

The core therapy offered by Hope Reins is a 90-minute individual session for a child with a horse and a session leader. During the first visit, a child is introduced to all the horses on the ranch, and they learn each horse’s story of recovery.

The idea is that a child often identifies with a horse’s past trauma — whether it’s neglect, starvation, or abuse — and chooses to build a relationship with the animal moving forward.

Kim Tschirret, founder of Hope Reins, knows firsthand the comfort of an animal during trying times. Her father was an abusive alcoholic and she and her siblings never felt safe at home, she said. As a child, she was not allowed to talk about it at home or to anyone else.

“But I had a horse, and my horse was the only thing that I spoke my secrets to about what was going on in my life,” Tschirret said.

She was inspired to start Hope Reins after reading a book about a similar ranch in Oregon. So after a successful career in the business world, Tschirret quit her job and formed the beginnings of Hope Reins in 2009.

Eight years later, Hope Reins has held 8,000 sessions with 2,000 kids from 1,500 different families.

This year, Tschirret said the budget is $1.1 million which serves 520 children. It takes $5,500 to sponsor one child at Hope Reins for a year. She said they need 25 more kids sponsored by the end of 2018. There are 11 full-time and nine part-time staff members.

Evans said this is huge for her family because they couldn’t afford more treatment or therapy on top of the hospital bills and other services her son needs.

Meaningful volunteer work

Hope Reins is only possible with the help of donors and 220 regular volunteers. Feeding and caring for the horses is a large task. There are 80 rotating volunteers that feed the horses twice a day.

Tschirret says volunteers have found them, many through word of mouth.

“And we have built Hope Reins very specifically to engage people in what we are doing and really give them meaningful work,” she said.

“One thing we’ve done really well since the very beginning is really finding people that are passionate about our cause, which is not horses,” she said. “People love the horses. But we’re we’re about helping people that are hurting.

Two women stand with a brown horse in a pasture
Hannah Strayhorn (left) and Karen Bear (right) having been volunteering at Hope Reins for six years and both are part-time session leaders. Photo credit: Taylor Knopf

“[Volunteers] give their time and their talent and their treasure.”

Some of the volunteers are folks who have gone through the programs at Hope Reins.

Cheyanne Echegaray, 20, started coming to the ranch at age 12. Now she is part of the Kids Give Back program at Hope Reins and a regular volunteer.

“When I first came here I was in a really dark place. I was close to suicide, honestly,” she said. “I came here and met all these amazing people and horses.”

She connected with a horse named Deetz who she says is “one of the only spirits in my life that never left.”

Hope Reins is a special place, Echegaray said.

Other volunteers build connections with the horses through their work and sessions with the children.

Karen Bear has volunteered at Hope Reins for six years and is a part-time session leader. And for Christmas, the staff presented her with a bracelet made from the tail hair of one of her favorite horses on the ranch who recently passed away at the age of 23. She teared up recalling the memorable times she had with the horse.

Two people walk a pony through
Hope Reins is made possible by the help of 220 regular volunteers who feed, care for and train the horses.

“She was 2,000 pounds of love,” Bear said. “She was lowest in the horse pecking order here. But she had a big heart.”

As a session leader, Bear teaches the Hope Reins Horsemanship. The philosophy behind this training is that there are four things horses can teach people: trust, communications, boundaries and leadership.

“Picture a small child having a 1,300-pound horse follow them and choose to be with them instead of being with the herd. Choose to go away from the safety of the herd out with them for a walk,” Bear said. “It’s just an amazing feeling. It builds so much confidence.”

For example, learning about boundaries when working with a horse can open up the opportunity to talk about boundaries as people.

Tschirret said that for many of the children they serve, their boundaries have been overrun. Some have been sexually abused, and they need to learn what healthy boundaries with others look like.

This coming year, Tschirret said her staff will be trained in trauma-informed care, a method of treatment that takes into account the fact that trauma can disrupt development, adversely affect trust and relationships, and contribute to mental health issues.

Something for the whole family

Hope Reins engages the families of the children they serve as well. There are fall festivals and Christmas parties open to everyone.

And each time a child is having their session, the parent is assigned a listener.

“It’s someone you can talk to. You can make it spiritual if you want, or just chit chat,” said Evans, adding that she usually doesn’t like to dive into deep personal topics.

Woman walks a horse up a drive way next to a fence.
Hope Reins is a faith-based, nonprofit that pairs children working through crisis situations with horses, many of whom have been rescued from traumatic environments.

“That’s a challenge when you have a child that sick. It puts a wall between you and other people. They see your child is in a residential school or in a hospital. They don’t know what to say to you and you don’t know what to say,” she said. “So it’s hard to get close to people.”

She said she’s surprised by how close she’s grown to her assigned listener named Anne.

“Over the months and years, I’ve cried in front of her. I can share things with her and she gets it,” Evans said.

As for her son Thomas, she said his confidence has grown over the years at Hope Reins.

“He has the ability to speak out in a group or speak up when he disagrees. I feel like he likes himself a whole lot better,” Evans said. “Instead of being the weird kid, he’s realizing that everyone has problems. And he’s not different than anyone else.”

Since coming to Hope Reins, he hasn’t expressed any more thoughts of self-harm. Evans says the ranch has given Thomas a purpose. He loves caring for the horses.

Even his school teachers see a difference and excuse him from morning classes twice a month so he can go to sessions at the ranch.

“He’s so much calmer afterwards,” Evans said. “It’s better than medicine.”

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Taylor Knopf writes about mental health, including addiction and harm reduction. She lives in Raleigh and previously wrote for The News & Observer. Knopf has a bachelor's degree in sociology with a...