Fifteen miles north of Silverthorne is a 300-acre ranch nestled up against a mountain. To get to it, you turn off of the main road and wind down closer to the mountain, past stands of trees and over a narrow bridge above a creek. Behind the barn, a wide field stretches out, which in summer can be seen dotted with horses and in winter is a long unbroken sheet of white.
This picturesque scene isn't just your typical Colorado ranch, however. It's the home of the Swan Center Outreach, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the rescue and rehabilitation of animals, particularly horses, llamas, goats and other large farm animals.
Run by Rose and John Longhill, Swan Center Outreach started in Summit County in 2006. The couple arrived in the state in 2002 from Georgia, where they ran the precursor to Swan Center Outreach, called the Swan Center for Intuitive Living, which included an art gallery, a school for spiritual study, a holistic healing clinic and a seminar company. Animals were a large part of the institute, particularly the spiritual school.
"We realized that (when putting) people with animals, they learned more quickly," said John Longhill. "Because there's a real incentive to get it right when you've got a thousand pound animal next to you."
After several years of traveling back and forth between the two states, the Longhills closed down their Georgia center and brought all its animals over to Colorado. The center currently houses 31 horses in addition to various goats, llamas, sheep, a donkey and an alpaca. It also continues to receive animals from all over, including Florida, Georgia, Colorado, North Carolina and Texas.
The horses at Swan Center Outreach come from a variety of abusive backgrounds, with trauma resulting from a lack of knowledge and neglect to sheer brutal violence. The center's specialty is rehabilitating animals that other rescue organizations have deemed lost causes.
"When we adopt them, we adopt them for life," Longhill said. "We get those horses that are considered unadoptable. When we adopt them we just develop trust again and communicate in a way that the horses understand."
One example is Shoshone, who was rescued by a group in Georgia, who found her being whipped bloody by her handlers after refusing to enter a trailer.
"For the first year we had her, she was scared to death of men," said Longhill. "Now she's a little flighty, but she's just the most wonderful, gentle soul."
Longhill says that he has never come across a horse so badly damaged that it cannot be rehabilitated. Then again, he and his wife are experts. Rose is an animal behaviorist with 30 years of experience, while John has worked with horses for 25 years, gaining much through direct contact and experience. The two have also traveled around the U.S. to learn from other horse experts and trainers.
"From each one we took something," John Longhill said. "We were able to develop a training program that really responds to what the horses need, rather than what we need. And it actually works better for us, because then they cooperate so much better and they understand what they're trying to communicate."
Communication is the key, Longhill said, which requires a deep understanding of the mind of the animal. It's also an area that children do well in.
"Your body, your body language and even your voice communicate what you're thinking," Longhill said. "Kids are very open to that. They have an intuitive sense about that anyway."
Now the center is much more than a facility for the rehabilitation of abused animals. It's a place where both children and adults can come to learn more about horses, interact with the animals and find a little healing themselves. The center offers various opportunities for special needs and abused children to come and interact with the animals, as well as a camp program called Leadership with Horses, with segments of one day, three days or five days, teaching children the basics of horse communication, care and riding.
"We go through an animal communication class where they learn really how horses talk," Longhill explained. "They don't speak English, but they do communicate."
The classes teach the children about mental attitude, energy and body language.
"We teach the kids to be aware of their thoughts, because that's what comes out when they communicate. It's a really growing experience for the kids," Longhill said, "But it's amazing. These little kids, 5 and 6 years old, leading around this horse that's 1,800 pounds, and the horse is respecting them, because the child knows how to direct their energy."
It's not just the horses that get all the attention, but the other animals as well. llamas, for instance, which are known for being less inclined to be petted and groomed as horses, have shown strong connections with the center's children.
llamas aren't "touchy feely," Longhill said. "The llamas aren't social, but because the kids love them so much, the llamas just warm up to the kids because they respond to that love and affection."
Longhill has seen the healing effects of the animals firsthand. One instance involved a 9-year-old autistic boy who hadn't spoken for years. He was paired with a horse, Lady, and spent the summer with her - not riding, but cleaning her stall, grooming and spending time with her. Near the end of the summer, his mother heard him shouting from upstairs. She rushed to see what was the matter and her son replied, "I want to ride Lady."
"The horses are really magical," Longhill said. "They really have a way."
Both adult volunteers and young participants follow the rules of the center, which requires training and practice.
"The kids learn how to ride from the ground up," Longhill said. "They learn how to handle the horses properly, and then once they've learned all the groundwork, then they basically earn the right to ride on the horse's back. Because what you do on the horse's back is basically what you do on the ground."
Volunteering isn't just riding around, either. Stalls need to be mucked, hay needs to be thrown, fences need mending - the list of chores goes on. But the power of Swan Center Outreach is that this doesn't seem to bother the volunteers at all. Currently, there are 150 active volunteers, some that come weekly, others that can only spare a few days here and there throughout the year. Even the cold wind that sweeps off the mountain from behind the ranch doesn't seem able to keep tightly bundled volunteers from shuffling around the training ring, hauling hay and shoveling manure.
Through their work, volunteers earn "carrot reward points" which they can later redeem for classes, lessons or trail rides.
Supporting a ranch with more than 30 animals isn't easy and isn't cheap. Swan Center Outreach has various methods of funding, including grants and a silent auction held every few months with the help of the Elks club.
Just about a year ago, volunteers JoAnn and Tim Casey came up with the idea for the Horse Cents Thrift Store. The store, located in Silverthorne, accepts donations of clothes, books, furniture, you name it, to sell, with 100 percent of the proceeds going to Swan Center Outreach. The store is staffed entirely by volunteers.
"We're doing the best we can," said Sally Beerup, a thrift store volunteer. "We have some really good deals."
Beerup, like many of the other volunteers, is passionate about helping animals. She's the president of LAPS, a local organization dedicated to expanding spay/neuter programs in the county and assisting low-income pet owners in need of financial assistance.
One of the main issues the thrift store is dealing with, aside from need for volunteers, is need for space. Not all donations can be displayed in the limited space of the two rooms that make up the store. Plans are in the works to expand to a nearby room to start selling furniture.
Nothing goes to waste, however, as items that there is no space for are given to FIRC for its thrift store in Dillon.
Among the items and bargains at the Horse Cents Thrift Store is a large framed painting, done by a local artist, of Swan Center Outreach. It includes the barn and background, as well as a handful of horses, each of which is identifiable as an individual horse back at the center.
"I love the horses, that's what brought me here, (and) I love the thrift store too," said Beerup, who is a natural bargain-hunter. She also enjoys taking time to chat with the customers who come in, a mix of locals and visiting out-of-towners.
"That's what's fun about this," she said.