Hundreds of youth are discovering their potential at Stepping Stones Ranch, located in Wilmington, OH, where they participate in therapeutic and learning exercises with horses, donkeys and ponies under the leadership of co-founders Darlene “Dar” Hensley ’94, and Danielle Combs. These activities help students develop skills for overcoming academic, behavioral or mental health issues.
Stepping Stones began in 2010 when Hensley and Combs teamed up to create a ministry that would provide emotional, intellectual, behavioral and spiritual support for struggling students in southwest Ohio. After working in children’s and youth ministry for nearly 30 years, Hensley, executive director of Stepping Stones, felt called to serve children and teens who were unlikely to attend church.
“How do you reach kids who are never going to walk in the doors of a church?” Hensley said. “God started showing me that horses can be a tool.”
Equine assisted therapy, equine assisted learning and rhythmic riding programs teach students to develop healthy relationships, as they learn to respond to social, emotional and behavioral cues from the animals. Hensley explains that the emotional responses of horses are very human.
“You can’t always control what [the horses] are going to do, but those are some of the best teachable moments,” she said.
Students quickly discover they have to earn trust and affection from the horses. In observing the animals, students also come to recognize their interactions with the horses as metaphors for the experiences in their own lives.
“We’re trying to hit some people’s triggers, and it’s OK to be sad, it’s OK to be frustrated or however you’re feeling,” Hensley said.
After leading individual and group sessions over the last four years, Hensley and Combs have witnessed profound interactions between students and horses.
“We see things constantly happen that you just know God is the ultimate horse whisperer,” Hensley said.
Students are typically drawn to horses with personalities most like their own, which leads to meaningful teaching moments. Hensley and Combs have watched aggressive students team up with an assertive horse, forcing them to learn how to be respectful and kind in order to elicit the desired responses from the animal. At another time, they have seen a gentle horse push back the sweatshirt hood of a withdrawn, grieving student, who responded with a hug.
“We can’t make that stuff happen,” Hensley said. “That’s how they experience God’s love.”
Stepping Stones frequently works with students who are in the juvenile justice system or have been placed in foster care. It is especially important for these and other students who do not come from strong family environments to experience love and acceptance.
“From the very get-go we are to be the hands and feet of Christ,” Hensley said. “No matter what.”
The support Stepping Stones provides for its students extends beyond the fences of the ranch. Stepping Stones coordinates with schools, juvenile courts and children’s services. Hensley believes Stepping Stones has a unique opportunity as a community of faith to fill the communication gaps between these different agencies. Staff members meet with case workers, probation officers and guidance counselors in order to provide a unique perspective on the progress of a student. They also attend court dates alongside their students.
“We do life with our kids,” Hensley said.
After relocating in October 2013 to a 45-acre property in Wilmington, OH, Hensley and Combs are working toward expanding their programs. They hope to open an alternative learning center and a residential home for eight teenage girls who have experienced abuse or trauma by fall 2015. Stepping Stones provides programs for adults as well as youth year-round.