After 20 years working with developmentally challenged children and injured veterans, Bruce Branum has learned that, sometimes, people just need a helping hoof.
In 1996, Branum and his wife, Marie Lawrence, founded Mystery Dog Ranch, a 178-acre horse ranch in Ringgold, Ga. In addition to riding lessons, summer camps and rentals, Mystery Dog also offers a range of horseback-therapy programs.
Branum, 57, has been working with horses throughout his life and has used them to help treat a range of issues, from post-traumatic stress disorder and drug and alcohol abuse to developmental issues such as Down syndrome and cerebral palsy.
Horses serve an important function in therapy because of the calmness they project and their lack of pretense, Branum said.
"They won't lie to you," Branum said. "They either like you or they don't.
"Once you get to a stage that you feel comfortable [with a horse], that horse is your partner. He teaches you from there how to deal with the social issues of life."
Earlier this year, Mystery Dog founded Hozho, a nonprofit organization specializing in therapeutic riding programs such as The Reins of Life and Inner Light, targeting at-risk teens and abused women, respectively.
"The name 'hozho' is a Navajo word meaning 'balance' and 'reliability,' " said Sarah Hyatt, the program's co-founder and director of equine-assisted therapies. "That's what we try to offer to our riders of all abilities - to find balance in their lives."
Saturday, the ranch is hosting Rock * Ride, an inaugural, Wild West-themed scholarship fundraiser to benefit Hozho and introduce its services to the community. Branum said he expects an attendance of about 1,500 to the all-day event.
The festival will take place all over the ranch but primarily in a clearing ringed by wooden buildings where a large stage has been constructed that will host performances by a half dozen local musicians.
Rock singer Tori Martin, 12, will be among the performers. She has been riding at Mystery Dog ranch since she was 6 and said she jumped at the opportunity to participate.
"I'm just happy that we're raising money," she said. "It's a chance to help all these charities that mean a lot to me."
In addition to music, Rock * Ride will feature a Wild West show and shooting exhibition, guided horseback tours, arrowhead hunts and barrel racing.
The festival also will offer brief demonstrations of therapy riding with participants who have benefited from the programs, Hyatt said.
Hyatt, 30, has ridden horses since she was 3 and has been active in equestrian therapy for five years. In that time, she said, she has seen interaction with horses enact remarkable change on people of all ages.
The side effects of equine therapy aren't limited to physical benefits such as increased range of motion or muscle and joint stimulation, she said.
"There's also that mental aspect of riding with a horse," Hyatt said. "It's freedom. If you've been confined to a wheelchair your entire life and can get on a horse and ride, that's a huge mental freedom for you."
Branum said that sense of empowerment is a key motivator for As You Were, a program he founded to benefit wounded veterans returning from Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom.
After seeing demonstrations for Horses for Heroes, a program offered through the North American Riding for the Handicapped Association, Branum saw a need to treat recovering veterans as mature, capable individuals.
"We can treat these guys as the soldiers they were," he said, adding that he served in the navy during the Vietnam War. "I know pretty well how they want to be treated.
"If they want to go back to being a man - being as they were - we have the place for them."
All the proceeds from the festival will be funneled into funding Hozho. Branum said the money doesn't matter, as long as he's making a difference.
Through annual events like Rock * Ride, the Haunted Hayride and other fundraisers, Branum said he hopes to show the community how effectively these programs are at reaching individuals with a wide range of issues.
"Ain't none of us going to be rich by the time we die, but we'll be rich with friends from what we do," he said, laughing. "I don't care if only one person shows up. We'll have a good time, and we'll do it again next year."
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