Farm rescues horses, helps teens

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Brook Hill Farm grew out of a love for horses

By John Barnhart

    Brook Hill Farm, located on Bellevue Road in Forest, was established in 2001 as a horse rehabilitation center.

    According to Jo Ann Miller, Brook Hill’s executive director, their horses come from various sources. Some are unwanted; some have been injured. Some have been neglected.
    They also come in different ways. In some cases, their owners have surrendered them. In other cases, the county has seized them.
    “We have a contract with the county,” Miller said.
    This agreement gives county animal control a place to take horses that have been seized because their owners have been abusing or neglecting them. Bedford County horses are Brook Hill’s priority, but Miller said they take them from other counties if they have space.
    Brook Hill, which is one of only 19 equine rescue facilities in the country that is fully accredited by the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries, currently has 34 horses.
    All these horses, in turn, have a job to do. Along with helping abused and neglected horses, Brook Hill helps abused and neglected children. Most are teenage girls. Some of the girls have disabilities, although their disabilities are not enough to prevent them from doing activities independently.

Working with youth
    One 15-year-old girl, named Ann-Claire, is so nearsighted that she is legally blind. She rides horses well because the horse does the seeing for her. Brook Hill opened up a great opportunity for her.
    “I couldn’t find any other barn that would let me ride,” she said.
    Belle, an 18-year-old, was diagnosed with Asperger syndrome, characterized by significant difficulties in social interaction. Brook Hill has been working with her for some time and, talking with her, a person would never guess that she had been diagnosed with Asperger.
    “Coming out here helps me be more social with people,” she said. “I opened up a whole lot. I’ve come a long way. I feel like I belong here, I can open up.”
    She also gets academic help because she also has math dyslexia.
    “I see numbers backward,” she said.
    Math tutors work with her and she said math is now easier for her because she knows what’s wrong and has been taught how to cope with it.
    Belle has been coming to Brook Hill long enough that she can serve as a senior leader, helping younger teens.
    “I enjoy being a senior leader,” Belle said.
    Brook Hill uses a technique called equine facilitated learning for the children.    
    “The horses are motivators to get the kids to do schoolwork,” Miller explained. Miller said their goal is that 100 percent of the at-risk children that come to Brook Hill will graduate from high school.
    Miller said abused and neglected children can relate to a horse that has been abused and neglected. Both the child and the horse are looking for a friend.
    Riding the horse also helps give them a feeling of power because they are controlling a 1,200 pound animal. They aren’t a victim.
    Jordan enjoys Brook Hill “because I love horses.”
    “Out here it just helps with my confidence,” she said.
    Children come to Brook Hill in different ways. Some are brought by parents, some are referred to Brook Hill by the county’s social services.
    Kristen Bushing brings her daughter, a Type 1 diabetic who is allergic to 30 different foods.
    “We were kind of at the bottom of the barrel with her because she was talking about how she didn’t want to live anymore,” Bushing said.
    The girl’s experience at Brook Hill turned her around.
    “She loves that horse,” Bushing commented. “She has something to look forward to.”
    She said her daughter, who turned 12 this month, has had a change in outlook. Now, she pushes back instead of letting life push her over.
    Miller said Brook Hill has a very structured program with one adult for every child. Adults and children are not paired, but the one-to-one ratio means there is always somebody to help. They also have an EMT there, Sue Montgomery, who volunteers her time.
    Brook Hill, which is sanctioned by the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship, currently has 15 children in its program. Each one knows that all the others have a problem of some sort.

Internship program
    Brook Hill provides internships for college students. Rachel George, who is working on a master’s degree in professional counseling at Liberty University, has been doing work at Brook Hill for three years. The main focus of her degree is working with at-risk youth using alternate therapies, like the equine therapy that Brook Hill uses.
    “I’ve learned so much from being out here,” she said.
    The internship provides her with a real-world application of what she gets in her classes.
    “I learn the practical application of the theories,” she said.
    Brook Hill has at least four college interns working every semester.

A love for horses
    “I grew up a horse lover,” commented Miller, explaining how she came to start Brook Hill. “I’ve had horses most of my life.”
    She got it going, partnering with Dr. Ronald Fessler, a local horse veterinarian. Both knew a horse rehabilitation facility like this was needed.
    Miller has more than a love of horses. She has a strong background in the work she’s doing. Miller has a bachelor’s degree in learning disabilities from Lynchburg College and is an equine specialist in mental health as well as a registered riding instructor. She has served as a mentor for college students and has taught equine science as an adjunct instructor at Central Virginia Community College.
    Miller has plans for the future. Brook Hill has expanded its stable, adding stalls. She’s also getting ready to offer college-level equine therapy classes in partnership with community colleges. At some point, she would like to have a wounded warrior program.
    “The horses really help with PTSD,” she said.
    Brook Hill Farm is a 501 (c) 3 non-profit, with a board of directors, and donations are tax-deductible.
    For more information, check out the website at www.brookhillfarm.org. The site includes some before and after photos of horses that they’ve rescued.