The TRAK Ranch Blog
by Ron Martin, TRAK Board Member & Guest Contributor
I have been affiliated with TRAK since around 2009. I came to TRAK to try and improve my horsemanship skills and learn more about horses. Scott Tilley, then Ranch Manager and Instructor, challenged me at every lesson to become better. He wouldn't let me become complacent, riding comfortable horses. He challenged me to ride better and better horses. While Scott tries to make you a better horseman, he also makes lessons fun. I noticed early that TRAK promotes a family environment. Everyone there, from the staff to the volunteers, work together to promote a therapeutic atmosphere.
As a boy of 5 years old, I wanted a horse. I grew up on Roy Rogers. Every Christmas, I asked my folks for a horse, but it never happened until I got involved with TRAK. Once you spend time at TRAK, you begin to feel like all the horses are yours! During the past 8 years, I have had the opportunity to ride most of the horses at TRAK. A couple years ago, Scott asked me if I wanted to do a half lease on a horse named Hawk. Hawk became like my own horse, so I was close to fulfilling my boyhood dream. Then two years ago, an opportunity arose for me to own my own horse named Sammy. I have had her for two years now, and you can't imagine what she means to me. You see, it only took 57 years, but it was well worth the wait.
I mentioned earlier that TRAK is like a family. When I go there to ride or just spend time with Sammy, I see people of all ages working at the ranch. From the staff giving a lesson to a child with special needs, that has the biggest smile you can imagine, to the many volunteers feeding the animals, mucking stalls, people of all ages. It's amazing to see the young and old, working together, talking, laughing, working, and the best thing is, they are actually talking to one another, not texting on their cell phones. In fact, you don't see much cell phone use at the ranch. Volunteer opportunities at TRAK teach our younger folks leadership skills that will stay with them their entire lives.
I have also had the opportunity to give back to TRAK. I serve as Vice President of the Board of Directors and volunteer as much as I can.
Anyone spending time at TRAK will truly experience TRAK Magic. It's hard to explain TRAK Magic, rather, you have to experience it. I encourage anyone to come by and visit the ranch. My guess is that once you come, you will stay and become part of the TRAK Family.
Animals are naturally curious and love without judgment. So do our humans!
If your child is diagnosed with a disability, you may be accustomed to "therapy" being done at a table in a highly structured setting, like a classroom, or an office. This presents benefits as well as challenges. When children are constantly the recipients of services, the unintended focus can become what they cannot do, rather than a celebration of ability. In addition, skills taught in therapy at home or in an office can be very difficult to generalize in an unstructured community setting, particularly for children on the autism spectrum. Does a safe setting exist, where it is okay to practice social and vocational skills, to earn trust and coping skills, in the presence of love and support, without being bullied or judged?
That is why TRAK Ranch was founded.
While our staff have significant backgrounds in special education, and have been trained in delivering formal services, what is "therapeutic" at TRAK far exceeds what can be done within the sterile clinical setting. TRAK's mission is to use animals as a bridge for youth to make human connections and experience a feeling of belonging to a community. Children with visible and invisible challenges first set foot on the ranch, perhaps as members, riding students, or as part of a school vocational training group, but they quickly become experts at something. Maybe they connect with a special animal and find out all there is to know about its care. Then, they become volunteers. When we take new members on tours, or classes through on field trips, now that child is the "professional" teaching others, interacting, sharing, serving and feeling the satisfaction that accompanies pride in a job well done.
What is therapeutic about TRAK is the entire setting and mission. "Belonging" is not a service we can package into a 50-minute hour, assign a dollar value, and advertise. In all honesty, the feeling of being part of a "community" is priceless, whose rewards extend far into the future for Tucson. Everyone has something to offer. Rather than focus on disability, we celebrate ability and create a safe zone to learn, grow and reach a child's fullest potential at TRAK.
A diagnosis of autism changes everything. It tests faith, marriages, finances, relationships, friendships, and inner strength. One of the more challenging aspects is that it is an invisible disability, often accompanied by poorly understood physical symptoms of illness. The invisibility of the challenges often brings judgment on the part of strangers. It is not uncommon for a parent to feel that they cannot go out of their home without someone staring, or worse yet, making comments that hurt. The children may not be able to respond verbally, but they certainly feel the disdain.
My son's autism was the regressive kind. He had beautiful eye contact and words and lost them all in less than a month, just before his first birthday. He was hyper and sensory-seeking, so sitting anywhere was impossible. In playgroups and music groups, he was the only one to run circles outside of the circle of children playing appropriately. Friendships dissolved quickly when differences between him and their children were painfully clear. We were shunned in churches, glared at by those who judged us to be poor parents. When brought to a playground, the other families would leave. I began driving around to look for empty playgrounds before taking him out of the car.
Driving by, I saw TRAK ranch at their old location on Craycroft and River, and was magnetically drawn into their driveway to inquire whether my son could take riding lessons. Although he loved horses, he had a bad experience with therapeutic riding in New York State and was afraid to get on again. His sensory sensitivities made it a challenge to tolerate jeans, socks, boots, and he was terrorized by the crow of a rooster. It was only by the sheer hope and faith of a mother in miracles that we signed up for our first lesson, with now Executive Director, Scott Tilley.
Scott demonstrated so much patience with my son. The rooster crowed and, indeed, my son did freak out the first few times. As you can see in the photo above, he refused to wear jeans and boots, but Scott would quietly remind him, "Cowboys always wear jeans." Eventually, he shed his sweatpants for jeans and his shoes for boots and even grew to love the rooster, Dude. He not only overcame his fear but began to ride and ride well. Each lesson, Scott would add one thing, and before I knew it, that child was able to catch and halter his horse on his own. It would have been so tempting to do it for him, but Scott knew that one day he would. And he did. The photo below shows him loving Norman, who he learned to halter on his own after much effort and persistence. Having a teacher and mentor who believes in him...who sees ability, not disability, makes all the difference.
Our experience at TRAK began connecting with the animals, but the real reward has been connecting with its very special staff and volunteers. The judgments we experienced from those in stores, playgroups and churches has never happened at TRAK. In fact, when I do overhear TRAK people talking about my son, it is always positive. "He is so cute! He is so polite! He makes my day!" Not only has TRAK been a place where my son can thrive, but the ranch has something to offer the entire family, so we have a place to belong together.
Love, not judgment, is always the answer to reach those that society has deemed to be unreachable.
Love is what we have found at TRAK.