Redmond ranch pairs neglected horses with at-risk youth

  • Written by Briana Gerdeman

Raven Rock Ranch is just a few miles from the suburban communities of Woodinville and Redmond, but it’s a world of peace and tranquility. It’s the perfect setting to rescue horses and help children and adults recover from traumatic events through equine-facilitated psychotherapy.

Sandy Matts, who founded the nonprofit Raven Rock Ranch in Redmond in 2011 with her husband Tim Matts, explained that equine-facilitated psychotherapy uses interaction with horses to teach emotional and relationship skills.

RanchMaddie Rus, a volunteer at Raven Rock Ranch, guides a therapy horse. (Photo by Briana Gerdeman)Her clients are usually at-risk kids and teenagers, as well as adults who’ve experienced trauma such as war or rape.
“We’ve had several kids who’ve been bullied, and they are able to develop a good self-esteem and confidence and feeling value in themselves, so that they’re able to overcome it and they can go back into the situation and not get bullied anymore,” Matts said. “We’ve also had bullies….We have kids that have tried to commit suicide. We have kids who are at danger for just going and living on the street, or drugs, or substance abuse.”

Horse therapy differs from therapy with other animals such as dogs because horses are prey animals. Dogs are predators, and even after being treated badly, dogs will love people anyway, Matts said.

“Horses aren’t that way. It’s not unconditional. It’s very conditional, which forces — in a good way, but it forces the child to be able to regulate their own behavior, because horses are prey animals,” she said. “...They want to find a good leader. It’s a very valuable lesson, because especially for kids who have been bullied or kids with PTSD, their boundaries have been squished. They don’t have boundaries….Horses force you to create boundaries, because otherwise they’re 1,200 pounds of muscles that are coming towards you.”

Many of the eight horses at Raven Rock Ranch are neglected or abused horses that the Mattses rehabilitate.
Each 90-minute therapy session is not all fun and games, and riding isn’t the main focus. The clients start by working.
“Very often, these kids that have been damaged in a relationship, they don’t feel like they can bring anything to another human being,” Matts explained. “They don’t feel useful, or valuable, and so when they come here, even if they’re just scooping poop ... I reinforce and reiterate how important it is for that horse, that you clean their stall and fill their food and replace their water with fresh water, and brushing them.”

After caring for the horse and learning how to put on the saddle and bridle, they take the horses to the round pen or arena to do groundwork or riding, or sometimes go on a trail ride. They end the session by caring for the horse and giving it carrots.

“We have one volunteer with every student, so it’s an instructor, a student, a volunteer and a horse,” Matts said. “So ... it’s not efficient, because there’s so much adult time.”

Raven Rock Ranch serves 25 to 30 clients, who are referred by organizations such as Child Protective Services and schools, every week. Matts would like to serve more, but since she’s committed to keeping therapy free for all clients, she’s dependent on donations.

There’s also no time limit on how long clients can come to Raven Rock Ranch. One girl has been attending for three years, but most clients attend for six to 12 months.

Before opening Raven Rock Ranch, Matts had her own therapy practice, where she “would sit in my office with my notebook and talk to people,” she said. She also relates on a personal level to the at-risk kids who come for therapy.
“When I was a little girl, I was sexually molested, and a horse is what really bridged the gap for me,” Matts recalled. “If not for my horse — I was able to have a horse — if not for my horse, I don’t know where I would have ended up. I was an at-risk kid, and nobody would have ever known it. I would have blended into the scenery until I was just away. I was not rebellious or out there, I just withdrew.”

Equine-facilitated psychotherapy is especially helpful for traumas “you can’t talk your way out of,” Matts said. She explained that it deals with the limbic (emotional) part of the brain, which we can’t reach logically. Horses’ brain regions are surprisingly similar to humans’.

“The walls are up. Everybody who’s been damaged is so careful, and they don’t even know they’re being careful. So I can’t speak to that part of the brain,” Matts said. “The only way to change that, and revise it, and regulate it, is to experience it. They want to experience it with a human, but the humans are the ones that damaged them in the first place. But they, especially kids, love horses.”

To find out more about Raven Rock Ranch, or to donate or volunteer, visit

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