The word was spelled out in splashes of bright paint on a four-legged canvas– the soft brown sides of the little horse. This was the word the girl wanted to stay forefront in her mind as she thought back to her time at the Ranch. It was a word attached to memories, memories that she tucked away like treasures to be brought out in times of struggle and darkness, memories that would give her the strength to break free.

Those memories flooded her now, fresh on her mind, as she stepped back to admire her art. She recalled intimidation at the size of her partner for the week; the little mare seemed so large that first day. She remembered her uncertainty the first time in the saddle. How overwhelming all of the commands seemed to be: hands low, heels down, shoulders back, left rein, right rein. 

She smiled as she remembered the bounce of the first trot; her nervous laughter floating over the arena; pushing down the lump of fear in her throat; trusting her friend to carry her. How her fear bound her as she thought of the gallop, of the speed, of the triumph that would be hers if only she could push through the fear. How– just when she would get so close– the fear would close in again, and she would pull back.

And then, the day!

The day that she dug deep, gritted her teeth against the fear, and broke free… the wind in her hair, the sound of the horse’s hooves pounding in the dirt, the joy that spilled out in a shout of triumph as she cantered circle after circle, growing bolder in her new-found ability and strength.


She felt arms encircle her as she stood lost in her memories. Her parents, not by birth, but by legal decree, and, more than that, by their commitment and love. A father and mother who found her in the depths of the orphanage and pulled her free, redeemed her, rescued her from the physical prison that bound her. A mom and dad that stood on the rails of the arena and cheered her on, shared her triumph, marveled at the grin on her face and the sparkle in her eye.

But the prison in her heart, the fear created by the fight to survive– mentally, physically, emotionally– day in and day out, had more subtle, stronger bars. Its dark fingers curled around every interaction, every experience, every person, and by its very presence threatened to tear those things away.

Until now.

Until a little brown mare helped her to push those dark fingers back for the very first time. And she knew that now she had succeeded in breaking those bars they could never fully hold her again. When the fear and darkness came, as she knew they would, these memories would light the way.

The word FEARLESS would be her key.


At the Ranch, we start each session at the corral with the horses. The symbolism of beginning on the outside of something desired is not lost on participants:  they are used to looking in from the outside, always wanting, never belonging.

A partner is chosen, each horse matched to the rider. Initially fearful, young and old alike quickly bond with their new friend. With every step each of them are drawn deeper into relationship.

The boundaries of the arena provide a safe place to learn new skills, to grow, to gain confidence. Walking, trotting, and finally cantering, each new movement is encouraged and celebrated.

Ultimately, new abilities and knowledge are applied on the open prairie trails. Because each rider has gained strength and confidence within the safety of the arena, they now have the necessary tools to succeed in a new, uncertain environment.

Is this not how a family is supposed to work? Parents or caregivers provide a safe boundary for children to learn and grow, to gain self-esteem and confidence for the challenges of an open world– a loving circle that trains and encourages children to move from “fear-filled” to “FEARLESS”.

Written by Josie Gwin, Executive Director at Mercy Trails Ranch. Mercy Trails Ranch uses farm and ranch interactions, as well as therapeutic riding, to bring healing and hope to at-risk youth and families, with an emphasis on foster and adoptive families.

Photo Credit