BRUSH PRAIRIE — Josh Farmer was bound up like a ball of nerves when he stepped into Silver Buckle Ranch's classroom. Hunched over, eyes downcast, the 12-year-old's body language gave the impression he'd rather be anywhere else in the world.
Horses aren't his thing, he said. They smell. They're dirty. And they're unpredictable. When he was 8, Farmer got onto the back of a horse, and it didn't go well.
The Silver Buckle Ranch
• Address: 11611 N.E. 152nd Ave. in Brush Prairie.
• What the ranch does: The ranch’s Acts of Random Kindness program provides low-cost or subsidized instructional therapy classes to students who are referred to the program.
• For more information: Call 360-260-8932.
"I didn't know what was going to happen," Farmer said, "like, whether it was going to go too fast."
Going too fast wasn't a concern during his second session at the 40-acre ranch, which combines classroom and stable activities. With a volunteer horse handler guiding the 1,000-pound equine, Farmer was among the first of seven classmates to hop onto a paint gelding named Cowboy and ride it — at a slow and steady pace — around an indoor arena.
He rode the horse with style, extending his arms outward like airplane wings, a big smile on his face.
Farmer is one of hundreds of kids who've come to Silver Buckle Ranch over the years to receive what staff members and volunteers call horse therapy.
Through a long-enduring program at the Brush Prairie nonprofit, which is a functioning horse and cattle ranch, Clark County adolescents discover a piece of themselves through their interactions with horses.
At the ranch, kids see themselves reflected through the horses' actions, said Kim Harrison, the ranch's director.
"If I walk into a stall, and I'm uptight about something, the horse will mirror that," Harrison said. "The horse is looking to you to be a leader, and it can immediately tell when something is wrong."
But with more kids entering the program, coupled with fewer paid staff members, the program has been placed under strain, Harrison said. She admits the ranch hasn't done a great job of fundraising in recent years, even as its programs have begun to rely more on donations.
What started in 1977 as a simple rodeo club has transformed over the years. In 2000, Silver Buckle turned into a nonprofit, but the ranch continued making money through its riding programs, lessons and Rodeo Bingo.
Washington's smoking ban put the kibosh on Rodeo Bingo, along with a few other local bingo operators. So for the last couple of years, the ranch has been subsisting on a $1.2 million payment it received from the sale of 20 acres of the ranch's property.
In 2006, the donor-funded Acts of Random Kindness program started. Over the years, Silver Buckle has placed more emphasis on that program, which is for "at-risk kids," or kids with developmental problems such as autism or ADHD, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder.
The kids come to the ranch for a variety of reasons, Harrison said. Some are angry at the world, others have trouble relating to their peers, but all of them are looking to break the mold.
The program is growing. It began with around 15 to 17 kids per session in 2006. Today, that figure is closer to 27 to 30.
In 2012, the program served 81 kids, up from 51 in 2011. That number is expected to be greater this year.
As needs have risen, budgets have fallen. In the last year and a half, the program has cut $200,000. The number of paid staff has decreased from 13 to four, only one of whom is full time.
"We're working on a skeleton crew," Harrison said.
Harrison and other program partners say they don't know how to boost giving, but they want to stay committed to growing the program.
'Horses change lives'
Because the Silver Buckle Ranch relies on volunteer help, it invites former students to come back to work with the younger kids.
Cody Smith, 18, is one of those volunteers.
He was 11 when the court system gave him a choice: Spend three weeks in juvenile detention or get some help.
The help came from the ranch. He learned to ride and corral horses there, but most important, he learned how to control his anger.
After all, there's a high level of reciprocal trust involved with handling horses, he said.
"Horses don't judge," Smith said. "They won't hate you unless you give them a reason to hate you. They won't fear you unless you give them a reason to."
When Smith first came to the ranch as an angry 11-year-old, he didn't know much about horses. Now, he works closely with the horses to help other kids work through the obstacles in their lives.
He hasn't completely worked through his anger issues, he said, but the ranch helps keep him grounded.
"Horses change lives," he said.
It's a common sentiment at the ranch, voiced by program staffers and volunteers alike.
A lot of the students come back as volunteers when they reach their later teen years, said Cathi Wright, the ranch's program coordinator.
"We do rely a lot on the volunteers, especially during the summer," she said.
With the program struggling financially, assistance from former students is essential, she said.
Without it, she said, the program wouldn't be able to keep going. There would be no staff to run programs.
"Most kids come here on scholarship," Wright said. "We don't turn them away. We can't turn them away."