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Blue River Horse Center trots along despite pandemic

Gale Potter holdes horses Rein and Serenity as Kelli McDill stands in the background at the Blue River Horse Center. Both attended a volunteer orientation class.
Courtesy Blue River Horse Center

SILVERTHORNE — It’s no secret that nonprofits have struggled during the coronavirus pandemic as traditional fundraisers were canceled and wallets were pinched when the economy took a dive. The Blue River Horse Center, which provides unique educational experiences while training rescued horses, is looking at a $35,000 annual shortfall, according to founder and Executive Director John Longhill.

This is because the nonprofit’s ReSaddled Thrift Store — its main source of income — was closed for about two months. The organization also missed out on its annual Elks Lodge breakfast benefit along with future events.

However, as the weather warms, the center located about 20 miles north of Silverthorne finds itself busier than ever before. Longhill chalks it up to people wanting to get outside after the stay-at-home order expired and being in a more altruistic mood given the current events.

“We have people waitlisted to be in the programming,” Longhill said. “It’s been very popular. We had volunteer trainings almost every weekend in May and June, we’ve had three advance classes every week, all pretty much booked solid.”

Though the center has been a hit with visitors from the Front Range in the past, Longhill is noticing that it’s now mainly full-time or part-time residents that participate or train to be volunteers.

“They’re a very connected group and aligned with our philosophy and really want to help make a difference, not just with the horses, but with the people,” Longhill said.

Those people come from all walks of life, such as disadvantaged kids from SOS Outreach, cancer patients from Domus Pacis Family Respite or those with disabilities. More than simply a training center, Longhill said working with the horses leads to powerful moments of introspection and character building for children and adults. And though the sessions are not technically therapy because no licensed therapists are employed, he does describe it as therapeutic and empowering.

Eavina Leftridge, 5, sits atop Dutch at the Blue River Horse Center. The ranch is open to people of all ages and frequently helps youths by providing a fun and educational experience.
Courtesy Blue River Horse Center

“The horses are like a 1,000-pound mirror of your unconscious thoughts and behavior, so if you’re not thinking the right thoughts, the horse will let you know,” Longhill said.

“… It’s just a very positive and life-affirming type of experience,” he added. “The kids may live in Silverthorne, but they never get out of town and see the agricultural aspects of the county. They may come from difficult homes where the parents are alcoholics, they might be a little abusive, so they don’t feel like they have a lot of control over their life, so they’re excited to get away and come out.

“They learn how to handle the horses safely, and by the end of the day, these 8-, 9-, 10-year-old kids are leading around 1,000-pound animals.”

Many who spend time at the center are satisfied and share their positive experience with the nonprofit.

“It was helpful for me to be reminded of the nature of a horse and the bond that can be created when you emphasize gentle communication,” Kelli McDill wrote in a feedback form after a June session.

“When working with Coco, I was told he was shy, and I felt a bit nervous about connecting with him, but after a few deep breaths and thinking about my energy, I could see us both calm down,” Alexia Dassath wrote. “… Focusing on what I send out into the world will change what I get in return and help make my life happier.”

Day-to-day operations haven’t been heavily impacted once the ranch reopened its doors in May. Yet, naturally, this season will look different than prior ones. Group sizes were initially limited to 10 people but have since expanded to a maximum of 25. However, Longhill said most classes hover around 15, so the limitations aren’t that big of a deal.

Audrey Radlinski leads a pair of horses while wearing a mask at the Blue River Horse Center. Aside from basic health protocols such as facial coverings and physical distancing, the center has been operating normally since May.
Courtesy Blue River Horse Center

Everyone must spread out and wear masks, and temperatures are checked upon arrival. To help facilitate the activities, the classroom portion of the programs moved online so time at the center can be spent focusing on the horses.

It turns out the animals couldn’t care less about the pandemic. Longhill said seeing the masked humans doesn’t bother them, as long as the handlers give off the right energy.

“If you’re thinking angry thoughts, you’re going to be communicating an angry energy with your body language and vocalization and all that,” Longhill said. “If you change that to love and compassion, the horse starts to relax in a matter of seconds.”

Taking hold of the reins

Because Blue River Horse Center isn’t interacting with as many partners as usual — such as Keystone Science School and Mountain Mentors — due to those organizations wishing to limit exposure, the public is invited to visit the campus July 15-16 and again near the end of the month to participate in its flagship leadership classes over the span of two days. Horses both big and miniature will be fed, groomed, trained, saddled and ridden. The key to the reciprocal interactions is to adequately bond with the horse in a leadership role.

“If you can communicate to the horse with confidence and ability, then the horse will accept you as a leader, and you have a very peaceful and safe relationship,” Longhill said. If not, he said that’s when a horse is more apt to kick, buck, bite or perform other actions negatively associated with horses.

Maryna Ozerova, a volunteer horse trainer, tends to a horse at the Blue River Horse Center. The nonprofit takes rescued horses and then trains them while participants learn leadership skills.
Courtesy Blue River Horse Center

Longhill hopes the classes will drum up support to keep the nonprofit spirit burning with community members donating time and money. The camp Wednesday and Thursday is full, but those interested in attending other camps in the future can contact Longhill at 970-389-8496 or johnlonghill@mindspring.com for more information.

“I founded this nonprofit in 2015 and have been doing this type of work for 30 years,” Longhill said. “… I want it to continue beyond my lifetime, so that means hiring more people and training more people.”


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