Waypoint Ranch changes lives. The lives of people as well as horses. With much of their focus on helping veterans, the ranch – a particularly rare commodity in the United States – is trailblazing the effort to ensure anyone who seeks peace and hope in their lives through animal therapy is given a chance to flourish in society, at home, and within themselves.
Originally from South Carolina, Stephanie Cirasa has enjoyed relationships with horses her entire life. Her grandfather, who was a veteran who fought in the Battle of the Bulge, first introduced her to them when she was a child. Upon her first ride, the connection was instantaneous.
When Stephanie and her husband, Raymond – a retired United States Air Force Lieutenant Colonel with 20 years of service - completed their time with the Air Force, the two soon understood what it felt like to lose a connection to a “tribe,” or rather their brothers and sisters in the armed forces and their families. Stephanie realized many veterans must feel this way. Add that lost connection to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and other lingering conditions many vets are forced to deal with, and the need for therapeutic remedies becomes immensely clear. For Stephanie, who experienced a traumatic event of her own years earlier, equestrian therapy seemed an obvious route for these veterans, and she made it her mission to make that happen.
At the age of 29, Stephanie was seriously injured in a “horse-related accident.” She suffered a traumatic brain injury (TBI) and broken neck. Although it took seven years for her to fully mend physically, the moment she felt healed wasn’t entirely due to her physical recovery. It was when she reached an understanding about her relationship with the horse.
“I suddenly realized that I didn’t know as much about horses as I thought,” she said. “I wanted to understand why I made a stupid mistake when I thought I was an expert. What I found out is some of my belief systems that came from childhood experiences weren’t serving me well and leading me to make a mistake with my own safety. I came to understand some of the things I was carrying with me since I was a child were affecting him negatively. That’s when the relationship changed, and I felt healed.”
In going through the process of recovery from that incident and exploring why it happened, Stephanie said she was led down the path of connecting her own traumatic injury with her military family history.
“My journey led me here,” she said.
During her recovery, Stephanie said she heard from numerous sources that nothing could be done for a TBI but soon learned that information was “not accurate.”
“There are a lot of regenerative services which can be used for brain injuries,” she said. “During horseback riding, or sensory integration riding, the brain is working all of its different faculties. What I came to realize is that it could and did help my brain injury.”
So, when she and her husband decided to devote a large part of their lives to serving veterans, they wanted to “specifically build a facility to provide services to veterans and their families who are struggling with combat related post-traumatic stress.” That facility became Waypoint Ranch. Located in rural Carroll County, the ranch is the perfect place to relax, regroup, and reconnect with one’s self.
Waypoint is the epicenter of equine therapy related services offered through the Peace at Home Project, Inc., a 501(c) 3 nonprofit group whose mission is “to assist veterans and their families in the resolution of post-traumatic stress injuries. With a deep commitment to evidence-based and animal assisted therapies, and in accordance with the highest ethical and professional standards, [they] create and implement strategies to promote post traumatic growth for those who have sacrificed for our nation.” The services provided at Waypoint include: equine therapy and therapeutic riding; trauma-informed equine assisted psychotherapy; and relationship-based horsemanship lessons and consulting.
“There are so many veterans who have co-occurring TBIs and post-traumatic stress injuries who can really benefit from this,” she said. “Many of them who come here comment on how peaceful and calm it is. More and more veterans are retiring to rural areas. This is a place where they can feel comfortable and secluded.”
According to a study by the RAND Corporation, at least 20 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans have PTSD and/or depression. That number climbs higher when combined with a traumatic brain injury (TBI). Seven percent of veterans have both Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and a traumatic brain injury.
Also, traumatic brain injuries are much more common in the general population than previously thought. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), over 1,700,000 Americans have a traumatic brain injury each year.
During her years as “a horse listener,” Stephanie has amassed a large volume of training and experience in the field of equine trauma therapy. Stephanie is certified in EAGALA (Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association) model Equine Assisted Psychotherapy (EAP) with a military services designation. She is trained in Natural Lifemanship Trauma Focused EAP and Rhythmic Riding, and has additional training in Military Family Support Services from the USAF. She has studied Parelli Natural Horsemanship for nearly 20 years and has devoted herself to the study of Applied Equine Ethology, the scientific study of equine behavior in the human domain.”
Furthermore, she previously founded three equine therapy programs on military bases in other states before the couple retired from the military and moved to west Georgia. The Cirasas chose Carroll County largely because of a relationship they had developed with a therapist named Jeri Apple, who had been providing mental health services in the area for over 30 years. Apple is also EAGALA certified and well-known for developing the Tanner Women’s Center in Carrollton.
With much of the success of the Peace at Home Project reliant on efforts from the community, Stephanie is always thankful to receive help from others. Over the course of three weekends, the Combat Veterans Motorcycle Association (Chapter 25-4), based out of the Fort Benning area, stopped by Waypoint to help with a community room construction project at the location. Materials for the project were donated by Home Depot.
Dustin Waggoner, chapter commander for the motorcycle association, said the group was happy to be able to offer a hand at the ranch.
“We heard these folks are vets and they help other vets,” he said. “They needed assistance, and we’re all about whatever we can do to help vets.”
At the end of their third weekend at the ranch, they presented Stephanie with a plaque honoring her for the work she does for veterans.
Waypoint continues to grow, and Stephanie hopes to expand and build cabins to provide extended lodging for visitors, including veterans and therapists who assist with the programs.
“We don’t have any combat-related trauma therapists in our area; we have to fly them in,” she said.
As for the results of this type of therapy, the Lone Survivor Foundation, a group Stephanie worked for, has conducted 5 years of research behind these types of trauma informed models of care that incorporate animal-assisted methods. Waypoint isn’t trying to recreate the wheel, Stephanie said, but rather mirror that work and produce the same “phenomenal outcomes.”
One of the foremost reasons equine therapy is such a successful path to healing for so many veterans is because of the parallels between the tribal orders of soldiers and horses, Stephanie said.
“They live together, they work together, they look out for each other, and they have members within the herd who take on different roles,” she said. “That kind of society is what they live in every day. They are hyper-vigilant and always on the lookout for threats.”
A prime example of how Waypoint provides services to veterans is through the Atlanta Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) – specifically the Domiciliary Care Program at Ft. McPherson for homeless veterans.
“We have these guys coming down here weekly,” she said. “We welcome any veteran from any era of conflict from any state.”
Although they have affiliations with the VA and other organizations, veterans often find out about Waypoint through word of mouth.
“Our military families are a close-knit community,” she said. “More and more of them are hearing about us and realizing we offer a confidential, secluded place where we can provide services for them that are unique and different than traditional counseling.”
In the vein of collaboration, important for the growth and prosperity of any nonprofit, Waypoint is advancing and expanding through several relationships in the community, most recently with the University of West Georgia. The facility hasjoined forces with Associate Professor of Psychology Jeannette Diaz and UWG psychology graduate Perry Kirk to gather data, gain understanding, and share information on the use of agriculture in psychological healing.
“They introduced me to the concept of care farming,” Stephanie said. “When I read the definition of care farming (the therapeutic use of farming practices) I was excited, because that is what I was already doing. It was a really nice fit. We are now working together to provide community health programs that arebased on farms.”
Kirk said his first visit to Waypoint was an interesting and stimulating experience.
“Seeing it and listening to Stephanie talk about it you really begin to understand what interactions with animals do for peoplewho are dealing with those kinds of struggles,” he said.
Another collaboration Waypoint has developed is with Tina A. Robinson, a licensed clinical social worker with master and bachelor degrees in social work and postmaster’s studies in gerontology (the study of the social, psychological, cognitive, and biological aspects of aging). Her work experience has included a variety of settings involving hospital, home health, long-term care, hospice, and adult education. She is an expert in mental health and care management needs and a “registered neutral, member of the Aging Life Care Association, National Association of Social Workers and the National Guardianship Association.”
Robinson, along with Autumn Holt, an Equestrian Services intern and close associate of the Cirasas, are both currently working to receive certifications to provide equine therapy.
Although the programs focus much on veterans and their families, Waypoint welcomes anyone who has suffered a traumatic injury and feels they could benefit from the therapy, one example being “at-risk youths.”
“We don’t want to eliminate anyone in our community,” Stephanie said. “We want to support their entire family as well.When someone is struggling with recovery from a traumatic injury, it affects the whole family.”
The next step for Waypoint? Stephanie said while their animal therapy revolves around horses, she wants to grow “Georgia Giant” quail and promote the regeneration of that endangeredspecies.
“I’m really hoping we can do this,” she said. “We want it to be created by veterans, run by veterans, for veterans.”
The ranch hosts groups and individuals, with the centralemphasis being on the specific needs of the clients.
“The work we do is client-centered,” she said. “We establish what their needs and goals are, and create a program designed specifically for them.”
One relationship that is invaluable to Waypoint is with the Georgia Vocational Rehabilitation Agency.
“This organization has our veterans’ backs,” she said. “When we are struggling to find funding for veterans through the VA, this group has come on board with us and helped fund services for veterans who suffer from PTSD.”
Although donations are appreciated and important, Stephanie said people getting involved in the activities at Waypoint is what is most essential.
“We believe that it is important that the community be involved,” she said. “It’s all about collaboration. What I know is that the nonveteran community wants to support veterans. They can do that by volunteering here.”
Stephanie said proper training is of great importance when assisting in the healing of others with traumatic injuries.