Georgia Ranch Brings Veterans and Horses Together By Summer W. Bacharach & Stephanie Cirasa Photos by Frank and Cyndi Braski
pictured Kris Kanzler US Army riding Casper at QC Arena / Quercus Cattle in Gay, GA
Veterans work cattle at Gore Farms, Griffin, GA with Jonathon Brown. A waypoint is defined as a stopping point or point at which course is changed. Choosing that point and finding the willingness to work toward reaching it is the first step in creating change for those involved with The Peace at Home Project at Waypoint Ranch. Waypoint Ranch in Carrollton, Georgia was founded as a nonprofit organization to provide a place where veteran families can find effective, evidence-based treatments combined with holistic alternative therapies on a working ranch. Having experienced first-hand the toll military service takes on a family, Founders Ray and Stephanie Cirasa are dedicated to supporting veteran families through the challenges associated with recovery from service-related injuries. Over the past 16 years this
program has rehabbed more than 50 horses and supported over 500 individuals.
Kris Kanzler, Army Special Operations, Ranger and veteran peer mentor at Waypoint Ranch reports: “During this week, I learned to drop all my own labels—the PTSD label, the somehow-damaged veteran label – and just focus on the horse and becoming his partner and earning his trust. This was beyond therapy; it’s changed my whole future.”
Ray graduated from the United States Air Force Academy and retired after 20 years of service and ten assignments as a Logistics Readiness Officer. He has served in Afghanistan and Iraq to include commanding the Air Force’s only convoy squadron.
Stephanie was born into a Navy family and married into the Air Force. Having experienced the challenges military life presents as a child, spouse and parent, she is passionate about helping other families navigate service-related obstacles. Stephanie is certified in EAGALA model Equine Assisted Psychotherapy (EAP) and trained in Trauma Focused EAP, Rhythmic Riding, Sensory Integration Riding, has Air Force Military Family Support Services training, and extensive experience in support of trauma recovery therapies. “First-hand experience with PTSD and suicide has given us an understanding of what families are going through, and we’re going to do something about it”, says Stephanie.
Nancy Slater (pictured here instructing as Parelli Foundation Executive Director and Waypoint Ranch Founder Stephanie Cirasa look on), says “When the Peace at Home Project received funding from the Parelli Foundation, I immediately wanted to participate. I let them know I would match their funding with time spent as my way to pay it forward. Horses are intuitive and know when people are afraid, angry, upset, unfocused, uncaring, etc. If we want them to do something for us, we need to be kind yet strong. Clear and honest. Present and motivated. Once we learn to speak Horse fluently, we team up with each other, naturally. Veterans and horses know the feeling of being in a tribe. Veterans who have returned from war share something else with horses. It’s called vigilance. Horses’ number one concern is safety – when is something going to surprise us? A vet can look a horse in the eye, and the horse will look back with acknowledgment: You know what I know.”
Stephanie explains “this program is simple and straightforward. Both people and horses need a ‘job’. Work plus purpose equals growth. The goal must be meaningful. We are action-oriented people, who continuously ask ourselves ‘Why is this experience beneficial?’ We are constantly examining, changing and evolving towards growth. One key focus is to remove barriers. These are unique for each participant and horse. Whether physical pain, a broken belief system, financial hindrance, barriers inhibit forward movement. Being alive is not enough, we want our tribe to thrive. Thriving requires being present, connecting to other living things, and bringing the mind, the brain and the body into harmony. In a working ranch environment, veteran and active military clients and their families can regain a sense of purpose and reconnect. Connection is essential.” This connection comes in the form of a relationship with one or more of the many horses on the property. At Waypoint Ranch importance is placed on not only traditional therapies, but also the healthy daily habits of a harmonious working environment.
Jay DeBaker, Army Special Operations, Ranger and veteran on “Crow”. This was Crow’s first time ever carrying a flag, an educational exercise creating a connection between horse and rider, while adding to this young horse’s training. Stephanie emphasizes that the ranch’s various activities “benefit a bigger purpose through willingness to put in work to reach a goal. Sometimes goals include helping create trust in a horse with a background of neglect or abuse. By being asked to ‘work with the horse that shows up today’, the men and women participating here are tasked with helping another being; learning to be a part of the solution.” Another part of the work that appeals enormously is working cattle on supporter Dr. Jim Gore’s third generation Gore Farms in Griffin, Georgia with Johnathan Brown, someone Stephanie says “has a way with men and horses. He sees and reads people as well as he sees and reads horses; proving that practicing horsemanship can be applied to helping people.” He currently directs his efforts to ‘heal brokenness’ by involving veterans from Waypoint Ranch in working cattle at Gore Farms and during ‘ranch retreats’.
Jonathan stresses the importance of getting back to “doing life. We take the therapy Stephanie does in the arena, come to the ranch, and put it to life”.
Counselors also benefit from this healing through horses and have committed to learning to communicate and benefit from these equine partners, both to do the best job for our participants as well as for their own mental health. Barry Bouillion, USMC veteran and marriage and family therapist, (pictured here with Stephanie Cirasa) asks participants “What makes you come alive?” Barry explains that horses help counselors do this job without burning out.
Seeing this incredible take on therapeutic horsemanship, the Parelli Foundation has provided Waypoint Ranch with over $7,000 in grant funding through its Heroes and Horsemanship Initiative to pursue retreats and purchase virtual equipment, increasing both education and reach. Through these grants, veterans and counselors have attended retreats with Nancy Slater, a Licensed 2 Star Parelli Professional. The Foundation’s Heroes and Horsemanship Initiative supports non-profit therapeutic horsemanship organizations serving veterans, active members of the military, first responders and their families. This program supports those who protect our country by extending their access to horses and Equine-Assisted Therapy, giving our American heroes the opportunity to heal and cope. Retired Colonel Dr. Sean Hollonbeck, MD, MPH, Army aerospace & family medicine physician who is also a board member the Parelli Foundation explains: “After extensive research, there is arguably no better modality for addressing PTSD than Equine Therapy for those with continued PTSD. Globally, short, focused equine-based models with natural horsemanship educational principals are changing lives. Horses are nature’s ultimate prey survivors. They are non-judgmental, want to serve, and can teach immediate tools to veterans and other PTSD survivors.”
Jonathon Brown at a Waypoint Ranch retreat at Quercus Cattle Arena in Gay, GA. Ranch retreats are held several times per year at varying locations. There is a need to expand this ‘Ranch Retreats for Rangers’ program to other working ranches. Now, more than ever we are called on to make a difference and the Parelli Foundation is proud to have continued to give vital grants during this unprecedented time. Making grants available to organizations like Waypoint Ranch is especially meaningful during such a trying time for those we strive to support through this program. Waypoint Ranch is currently exploring opportunities to expand in the Southeastern United States.
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