Writer Shannon Severson

Photography Courtesy of Jo Black, Winters Film Group and MariaElena Rizzo

[dropcap]E[/dropcap]quine therapy, the use of horses to aid in the healing human ailments, may seem like a newfangled idea, but it is actually centuries-old. As early as 400 BC, Greek physician Hippocrates wrote about the benefits of therapeutic riding. Hippotherapy, a form of riding for people with physical disabilities, is named for the father of modern medicine. Equine therapy for neurological disorders and depression has a history dating back to the 17th century.

Here in Arizona, in the Rio Verde area, Rancho Milagro (which translates to “Ranch of Miracles”) is offering help and hope to trauma survivors through their equine coaching program.

The founder of this non-profit, faith-based ministry, Vanessa Kohnen, established Rancho Milagro because of her own personal transformation, and much of her story is reflected in “Amber and Grace,” a new movie released by Winters Film Group.

“Amber & Grace” is the fictional story of 15-year old Amber Taylor, played by Cori Rae Lauren, who is lured into the world of sex trafficking and ultimately finds healing and restoration in the bond she forms with Grace, a horse at Rancho Milagro.

The film was born of neighborly curiosity. Kohnen and her husband, Bob, were approached by their neighbors, film producers Paul and Patty Winters, who asked if they could make a story about the ranch.

“It took me a week to think about it because I knew my story would be part of this movie—and that meant being vulnerable,” says Kohnen. 

“I can’t ask my clients to walk through vulnerability to get to healing if I’m not willing to press in and be vulnerable myself.”

The second half of the film is set on the ranch with the therapy horses, and Bob makes an on-screen appearance as himself.

“It’s very much us,” says Kohnen. “Our ranch, our horses and part of my story. I helped write part of the script and produce the film, so it’s very personal. The actor who played my character did a great job.”

The Rancho Milagro Foundation hopes that schools and churches will host screenings of the film. They encourage them to include question-and-answer sessions to educate families and young people about the grooming process that leads to sex trafficking. The film will also get the word out about the ranch for those who may benefit from equine therapy.

As a retired fire department paramedic, Kohnen has experienced post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from her time as a first responder, and as a survivor of abuse.

“Rancho Milagro was started out of my own personal trauma,” says Kohnen. “Horses definitely saved my life.

“About 20 to 25 years ago, I started going out to Rio Verde at a difficult point in my life. The Salt River horses would come around, and I would observe them and interact at a distance. It was an opportunity for God to give me hope and vision and a dream. 

“I saw traits in the horses that represented areas of my life. They were the beginning of my dream to found the ranch, but I needed to go through a lot of healing myself first.”

Healing Together

Kohnen says that horses are so attuned to the world and the humans around them that they act as a mirror, spurring questions, conversation and transformation. 

“If someone comes into the arena and is anxious, the horses start mirroring behaviors of anxiety,” says Kohnen. “I’m able to ask about that in the person’s life, not about their past, but about what they are feeling in that moment. We really believe in this modality. 

“People have breakthroughs within five to 20 minutes because they’re using all five of their senses. Our brains grasp concepts a lot faster when we are in the environment, not just in a therapist’s office setting.”

While Rancho Milagro is faith-based, Kohnen stresses that it isn’t something that is imposed upon their clients.

“People come out to our ranch and they are angry at God,” says Kohnen. “We honor and respect that. 

“Our pastor was the one who first encouraged us to bring some girls out to our ranch from the Dream Center to work with our horses. We became an official 501(c)3 organization in 2015.”

Every person, horse and even dog at Rancho Milagro is considered “staff.” Their specific personal histories are used to help clients. Often, those clients are individuals, but the ranch also hosts team-building events for groups. Every person can take wisdom from his or her experience.

Obediah is a mustang found orphaned in the Virginia range, standing over the body of his dead mother and abandoned by the herd.

“He’s our first mustang,” says Kohnen. “He needed to be rescued or he wouldn’t make it. Now that we have him, he’s already changing lives. Obediah is a true representation of a survivor.”

Those who come to the ranch are usually referred by word-of-mouth or stories they see in the media that prompt them to reach out. Many have served in the military or as first responders. Kohnen wants her clients to know that they’re not alone in their struggles or in their endeavors to heal.

“The idea that they’re all alone is a lie in people’s lives that isolates them,” says Kohnen. “The more they hear from me, a survivor of sexual abuse and having a PTSD diagnosis from working at the fire department, it gives me credibility. Because of my story, I have been able to help people change their lives.”

Lend a Hand

On the horizon for Rancho Milagro is the third annual fall fundraiser to be held Nov. 2. A chili cook-off, recognition of volunteers, live music and silent auction will be part of the celebration on ranch property for an estimated 200 to 250 people. 

The keynote speaker will be Craig “The Sawman” Sawyer, an ex-Navy SEAL whose Vets 4 Child Rescue organization takes down sex trafficking rings.

“He is no joke,” says Kohnen. “He and his family have become personal friends. We will also have a March of Miracles, which is really neat. Each horse is walked around the event as we share their story and then the clients share their own stories about how that horse changed their lives.

“We want all people to know that there is hope at the end for anyone, no matter what they’ve been through. We are in such a dark world right now. We want to get the message out that there are people willing to help.”

Tickets for the fundraiser and registration for the chili cook-off can be purchased online by Oct. 15. Suggested tax-deductible donation is $50 per couple.


The Rancho Milagro Foundation Annual Fall Fundraiser

Saturday, November 2 | 7–9:00 p.m. | Rancho Milagro | 32905 N. 140th St, Scottsdale | $50 per couple suggested tax-deductible donation

480-529-2633 | www.ranchomilagroaz.com