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At-risk youth offered equine therapy at horse-riding haven outside of Palisade PDF Print E-mail
Written by Wauneta Breeze   
Friday, 19 June 2009 20:22

By Dave Vrbas

The Wauneta Breeze


Heidi McGraw would be the first to tell you she’s not qualified to do what she does.

This cowgirl with a cause admits that she doesn’t have all the answers when it comes to youth mentoring. Thankfully, she doesn’t need them either.

“God prepared me for this,” said the owner of Palisade’s new HIS Haven Ranch, as she leans against a fench post at the ranch just north of town, discussing the divine guidance she receives daily. 

“There’s an old saying, but I don’t know who said it,” she quotes humbly. “‘God doesn’t call the qualified. He qualifies the called.’”

Three years ago — her family still living outside of New Prague, Minn., about an hour south of Minneapolis — she received the calling to start her own ranch for at-risk youth, modeled after Crystal Peaks Youth Ranch in Bend, Ore. 

Thus began McGraw’s journey into her own non-profit organization, HIS Haven Ranch (HIS is an acronym for Healing In the Savior). With generous logistical aid from the folks at Crystal Peaks and donations from locals, McGraw began spearheading a non-profit organization for emotionally vulnerable youth and adults.

Little did she know that one day she’d be running two of them.

Two years after launching the therapeutic horseriding ranch in Minnesota, her husband, Kevin, was offered the associate pastor position at Hamlet Union Church, which meant they and their three children were packing up and relocating to outstate Nebraska.

After having helped 25 families with at-risk youth at the ranch in Minnesota — teaching them trust, setting of boundaries, learning from mistakes, graciousness and giving back, to name a few life lessons learned through the ranch’s therapeutic riding — McGraw said it was tough to 

leave friends and family, but said she trusted God’s plan for her family.

“It was hard to leave, but to go forth in His will made it much easier,” she said.

HIS Haven’s Minnesota ranch is still very much in operation with her volunteer staff there going just as strong as before. “They’re amazing,” McGraw said of her staff members two states away.

Nearly a year after moving to southwest Nebraska, the McGraw family — Heidi, Kevin, daughter Katey, 17, and sons Jack, 14, and Tom, 12 — have the land, horses, a core group of 13 mentoring volunteers, and are planning a grand opening open house for next weekend, June 20, at Palisade‘s HIS Haven Ranch location.

She credits the ‘lavish generosity’ of locals in making the new riding grounds a reality. Almost everything, from the 80-acre grounds to the storage barn, tack room and barn sitting atop its prairie grass, was donated.

“When the guy (who wishes to remain anonymous) said the land was ours, I was shocked,” McGraw said. “He looked at me and said, ‘This isn’t my land. This is God’s land. God can do whatever he wants with it.’”

On the land were several sets of corrals, which had been out of use for years. They were recycled and transformed into fence posts, tying posts and gates. Donated buildings were moved in by volunteers. 

The picturesque location is shaping up to be a great therapeutic escape in God’s country. A perfect spot for teaching life’s lessons from a biblical perspective.

“How can you not feel closer to God out here?” McGraw implored.

McGraw herself is a volunteer, and explained that the youth she seeks to help come to her from a wide variety of channels. Referrals come from their church as well as many others in the area, schools, social service agencies, and general word-of-mouth.

And just as her referral sources vary, so do the young ones coming to the ranch for appointments with a guiding hand. “It’s a huge array of different problems we help with,” she said. “We won’t turn anyone away and we have no age limit. We never turn down an opportunity to teach about Christ’s love.”

By including the entire family in learning about riding a horse — including respect and love for the animal, following directions and giving back to the ranch through good old elbow grease — all from a biblical perspective, McGraw said she and her staffers are able to impress God’s love upon those who previously felt unloved and abandoned by God himself.

“I have had so many kids ask me, ‘Why do you do this?’” McGraw said. “I say, ‘because I love you.’ Their response is always, ‘Why do you love me?’ ‘Because God made you and God loves you.’ They need to 

be reminded constantly that there is a purpose, a plan, and a reason for their lives.”

With four horses already on the grounds and three more set to join them by the end of the summer, McGraw said the lessons taught are not just for the at-risk. She involves the entire family when possible so that as the kids start ‘getting it,’ their parents and siblings are there to see it.

“We minister to the entire family,” she explained, noting that the lessons on the ranch can then be put into immediate action back at home.

Each session includes grooming, ride time, play time, and a time to give back to the ranch itself. A playground will be added, and a petting zoo will be available eventually, for younger kids or those intimidated by horses. 

McGraw said she is always willing to teach others to become mentors and appreciates volunteers of all kinds, from riders to painters to teachers to fence post diggers. 

She said she believes everything in her life has led her to this volunteer vocation. “All my different experiences, every job I’ve had, God was preparing me,” she said, noting that her favorite part is seeing how many lives can change through one person finding God’s love. “God uses the remnants of our life to rebuild us,” she added.

HIS Haven Ranch will be hosting a public open house next Saturday, June 20, kicking off at 4 p.m. MT/5 p.m. CT, just north of Palisade on the right side of the road. The grounds are ‘a couple blocks’ north of the northern-most house on Main Street.

Wild Horse Ministries (WHM) will be headlining the open house. Paul Daily of Louisiana, founder, began his first ministry in 1997, and McGraw said he is amazing to watch as he ‘breaks’ or ‘gentles’ horses from a biblical perspective, using his experiences and relating it to man’s life lessons and the teachings of Christ.

The public is invited to attend the event. A meal will be provided for $5 a plate. Attendees are encouraged to either bring a lawn chair or pull up a tailgate for the demonstrations and to meet the volunteer staff members from Wauneta, Hamlet, Palisade, Stratton, McCook and Hayes Center.