Around 2009, Mandy Toole started thinking she wanted to do something more with her horses than just ride and take care of them. She wanted to find a way to use them to help people.
Then she came across a book titled “Hope Rising” by Kim Meeder, the owner of Crystal Peaks Youth Ranch in Oregon.
“I thought if I ever had the opportunity, I’d like to do something like that,” Toole said.
Two years ago, she shared her dream with friends from church, Becky and Clinton Davis, and it began to take shape.
“She has worked in the schools dealing with behavior issues, so she saw the vision right away,” Toole said of Clinton.
From that discussion, Making Strides Youth Ranch was born. The pair recruited volunteers and filed the necessary paperwork as a nonprofit organization, eventually buying 12 acres north of Pembroke on Highway 119.
“Right now, we’re clearing about 5 acres, then we have to fence it in,” Toole said. “Our goal is to have a juvenile diversion program the courts can use for a certain number of sessions. It will be a mentoring program, as opposed to counseling.”
More information about the ranch is available on its Facebook page, including details about Saturday’s volunteer opportunity from 1-5 p.m.
“We actually went out to Oregon and met Kim,” Toole said. “She puts on clinics on how to start programs like hers, explaining how to set up as a nonprofit, what kind of insurance you need, how to run the sessions.”
Toole said youth who are sent to the ranch will have to start off slowly with chores, cleaning up the horse stalls and pasture and grooming the horses before working their way up to riding.
“You have to make them feel invested first so that they understand the responsibility involved,” she said. “It all depends on what they need.”
Toole also said she would like to involve the families of the youths when possible.
“If you can work with the family, you can be more successful,” she said. “A lot of times with juvenile offenders, there are other issues involved.”
What Making Strides will not be, however, is a horse rescue operation or a facility for disabled children.
“We already have those in the area, and we aren’t here to compete with them,” Toole said. “Especially when it comes to rescuing horses, you can never tell what kind of horse you might get.”
Not all horses, Toole said, are compatible for what she wants to accomplish.
“Some horses like kids, some don’t,” she said, laughing. “They’re like people.”
Toole is positive the program will work for at-risk youths based on studies she read while working toward a criminal-justice degree at Armstrong State University.
“They’ve used horses in prisons and saw a definite change in the behavior of the inmates,” she said. “You can’t make a horse do anything it doesn’t want to do, no matter how much you yell.
“The inmates eventually realized they had to change their body language and how they communicated,” she added. “They calmed down and decided that anger couldn’t be their first response.”
Toole said horses can be particularly helpful in similar situations dealing with at-risk youth.
“People act differently around horses,” she said. “You can’t help but stand face to face with one and not smile. Plus, you can project feelings on to the horse that the kids might be feeling in order to reach them.”
For now, Toole and Clinton continue to raise money to get Making Strides ready to open, including seeking sponsorships for things like materials, feed and additional horses.
“There’s definitely a need,” Toole said. “I think it’s just a matter of showing some results, and people will take interest.”