Sanctuary expands program for kids with autism

By Summer Aguirre

Tierra Madre Horse & Human Sanctuary is growing, and its latest expansion will incorporate programming for young people with autism.

While the Cave Creek sanctuary’s purpose is to provide a forever home for disadvantaged horses, its team also aims to help humans navigate their personal challenges with the healing powers of its two dozen-plus equines.

Tierra Madre’s youth programming, in particular, has impacted the lives of many young people over the years, and its expansion will help the team better reach individuals with autism and developmental disabilities.

Alexis Roeckner Ferri, the sanctuary’s CEO, is looking forward to the opportunities that the growth will present.

“We feel that we can help so many more children and young adults,” she says in a statement. “What we’ve developed here is very, very successful, and we want as many people to take advantage of it as we can. It’s to everybody’s benefit — our horses as well as the young people. To that end, we’ll be reaching out to schools across the Valley to make them aware of it.”

Tierra Madre’s expansion is timely, with the approach of World Autism Awareness Day on April 2.

The sanctuary’s programming

Tierra Madre offers “equine experience sessions” to groups and individuals of all ages and abilities, which specifically target youth with autism and developmental disabilities. Programming can also be designed to benefit at-risk young people, individuals in recovery or those recovering from trauma.

Each equine experience session usually runs for an hour and a half to two hours and is split into two parts of hands-on activities personalized for the group’s goals, preferences and limitations.

Since horses can be unpredictable, Ferri says they want the animals to be the ones guiding the course of the session.

During the first half, children participate in horsemanship and groundwork that can include learning about herd mentality, equine psychology, the differences between prey versus predators, and how to approach and halter a horse.

Sometimes, the group participates in a debrief break or social activity for about 15 minutes before moving on to the remainder of the session, which is a project.

“We love making your hands dirty. We love getting them out and working,” Ferri says. “The group will either put grindings in stalls, muck stalls, clean out feeders, rake old hay out of aisles between stalls — so some kind of project where they are trying to accomplish a specific task.”

Sessions can be a one-time experience, but the Tierra Madre staff typically sees clients for at least multiple visits, whether that is every other week or once a month.

Regardless, the ultimate objective is for the participants to leave the sanctuary feeling fulfilled.

Their work, as described by Ferri, is a continuous circle of the horses and humans saving and healing each other.

Impact on humans

The Tierra Madre sanctuary is home to 26 horses that were previously abused, neglected, injured, abandoned or surrendered. A number of its equines, many of which are now seniors, are former racehorses, show horses, ranch horses and rodeo horses.

Today, they live happy and healthy lives at their safe haven.

“We are the only exclusive horse sanctuary in Maricopa County, meaning that once our horses walk through our gates, they are home forever,” Ferri says. “We don’t adopt them out, they stay here — this is their home.”

The sanctuary’s CEO explained that horses are good healers because they are prey animals. Their naturally docile demeanor encourages positive interactions and helps people learn how to form trusting relationships.

“They’re intuitive, they’re very sharp, and you have to have confidence around them, and you have to be honest with them,” Ferri says. “That brings a lot of things out of people. They reflect what’s inside of you, and you have to face what’s inside you at some point.”

Over the past three years, Tierra Madre has hosted many students from the Southwest Autism Research & Resource Center (SARRC), the Glendale Union High School District and homeschooling cohorts to learn and participate in daily life on the ranch.

Susan Dodge, a member on Tierra Madre’s board of directors and a special education teacher at Greenway High School in Glendale, oversees three classes of students who have been regularly visiting the sanctuary and its horses since the program’s inception.

“I most definitely see a difference,” Dodge says in a statement. “For days after one of our visits, I see a big difference in the students’ attitudes and their concentration on learning. I consider it one of the best ‘classes’ that we provide.”

Ferri recalled a teenage boy named Garrison who participated in Tierra Madre’s program years ago. The boy was nonverbal and often walked around with his hands over his ears to block out noise.

A retired racehorse named Iron Man was particularly fond of Garrison and one day approached the boy during a group activity.

“Iron Man came up and he put his head right on Garrison, and Garrison put his head right on Iron Man. Those two just stood together for what must have been like 10 minutes. Everyone started crying because those two were having a conversation that no one else could understand,” Ferri says.

“In that moment, Garrison was talking to that horse. You could tell because his hands dropped from his ears, he was calm and attentive, and Iron Man was just breathing life into this boy. Garrison just had the biggest smile on his face and he was just so different, like he changed from that one encounter. Stories like that are why we do what we do.”

Behind Tierra Madre’s operations

The Tierra Madre sanctuary was founded as a nonprofit organization in 2006 by Jim Gath, whose original mission was to simply establish a haven for horses that needed care, love and a permanent residence.

Over the years, volunteers and visitors expressed how the equines helped them through emotional, spiritual or psychological challenges, spurring the sanctuary to expand its services to humans in 2018.

Tierra Madre’s horses have since helped many individuals in recovery, survivors of trauma or sexual abuse, and those with autism and developmental disabilities.

“A lot of us who found our way here are survivors of something or we have had some kind of trauma in our lives,” Ferri says. “A lot of us feel like this place has saved us, and now (the expansion is) our chance to give back to people who could really use the healing that we received.”

The sanctuary has a small team of several individuals who are supported by around 65 volunteers, and as a nonprofit, it is entirely funded by donations.

Ferri says they are “very fortunate” to have grants, fundraising events and a large donor base, but they hope to increase program revenue through its expansion.

“This is something we truly believe we’ve been called to offer,” she says.

“We sit at this enormous opportunity to reach more kids with autism in the Valley, and we’re very excited to leap forward.”

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