A Day of Equine Therapy at Rancho Milagro

Two horses out near a fence in Rancho Milagro

“… there are wounds that never show on the body that are deeper and more hurtful than anything that bleeds.” – Laurell Hamilton in her book, “Mistral’s Kiss”

As a psychology instructor, it’s not uncommon for students to expose their past wounds, current life struggles and path toward healing. A former Grand Canyon University student, Julie Parker, was no exception.

Having undergone extraordinary trauma and come out on the “other side,” Julie wanted to share a unique therapy at Rancho Milagro that has been integral to her healing journey. Her ability to now look me in the eyes was testament to the therapeutic benefits. She opened the invitation to all GCU psychology and counseling faculty one Saturday, and it was truly a unique experience for all.

Nestled in a peaceful rural community near Pinnacle Peak Road and Cave Creek Road in Scottsdale, AZ, Rancho Milagro, meaning “ranch of miracles,” is a non-profit, faith-based ministry formulated to bring equine therapy and healing to survivors of severe trauma (e.g. sexual trauma) and veterans of foreign wars suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

Rancho was inspired by the dreams and vision that Vanessa Kohnen, founder and executive director of Rancho Milagro, has had for over 15 years. A survivor of sexual abuse herself, she believes, “This form of therapy brings a unique sensitivity to the program that trauma clients relate with, bringing trust and healing to their lives… A horse’s keen sense teaches life skills that are valuable coping tools. It provides survivors with opportunities to achieve freedom from the daily stresses that cloud their heads and wear down their souls.”

A half-day spent with these horses personally revealed to me that they truly do have an instinctual sense for reading emotions and intensions.

But, why is this process so healing?

The answer is partially biological. Newer studies (e.g. Beetz et al, 2012) are revealing that human-animal interactions stimulate the release of the famously termed “cuddle” or “bonding” hormone, oxytocin, which has been show to decrease stress and increase levels of trust and empathy.

Harvard-trained psychotherapist and social worker, Susan Pease Banit, believes PTSD is a “…whole-body tragedy, an integral human event of enormous proportions with massive repercussions.” 

It’s important for trauma survivors to seek out therapeutic modalities that can help them move forward. Part of this process involves increasing self-awareness, building confidence and learning to trust.

While there is no single “right” way to heal from a traumatic experience, equine therapy has been shown to provide many of these healing benefits.

Rancho offers equine therapy in various forms such as riding, horsemanship, horse care and grooming, along with many other horse-related activities. They also offer art therapy, a place of rest, gardening and nutrition counseling. Visitors can peacefully sit in the barn and journal or get their hands dirty.

Kohnen encourages trauma survivors or those interested in volunteering and obtaining experience in this field to contact her and set up a visit.

Who wouldn’t benefit from a beautiful day of healing with horses?

GCU offers psychology and Christian counseling degree programs that help you prepare for a fulfilling career in the field. Learn more about our counseling degrees by visiting our website.


  • Beetz, A., Uvnas-Moberg, K., Julius, H. and Kotrschal, K.  (2012). Psychosocial and psychophysiological effects of human-animal interactions: the possible role of oxytocin. Frontiers in Psychology, July. Retrieved from journal.frontiersin.org/article/10.3389/fpsyg.2012.00234/abstract

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.

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