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the healing power of diego ranch
by Audrey Hanes, photo by Kim Vickrey

Equine therapy has long been believed to have positive physical and mental benefits for patients who learn to interact with horses, whether it be by riding them or by learning to take care of them. Those therapeutic benefits and a strong desire to give back and help children are the reasons that Michael Jackson and Jennifer Warzocha opened Diego Ranch Inc. in Jonesboro last April.

For Jackson, Diego Ranch was a way to combine his longtime experience with horses with his love for kids and his desire to make Jonesboro a better place.

“My girlfriend and I were at Craighead Forest Park one day, and we spent more time letting kids pet and sit on our horses than we did riding,” said Jackson. “I think that’s when it hit us – we knew we needed to build a safe environment for all kids to enjoy the love of equine.”

Diego Ranch is a riding facility for kids with or without special needs, adults, wounded veterans and anyone who wants to bring their own horse to ride. Jackson describes the unique program as a place where everyone is welcome to come play, learn, train and even heal. Hippotherapy, which is treatment with the help of a horse, is a proven therapeutic technique for children with a variety of physical, emotional and mental disabilities.

“I had a learning disability growing up, so I know what it feels like to have a hard time with things,” said Jackson, a longtime general contractor. “I don’t look at it as kids’ problems – I look for what kids can excel at and be great at. Like with building, I try to find what I’m good at and go all in. That’s what I want to help them do. I feel for the kids today.”

Riding and caring for the horses can improve their riders’ lives in more ways than one, particularly for children with autism, ADHD, dyslexia, Down syndrome, social/communication delays and genetic disorders. Physically, the gentle and rhythmic motion of a horse’s gait increases the rider’s muscle strength, while also improving coordination, balance and flexibility. For children with emotional or mental disabilities, the special bond formed with a horse can lead to increased self-confidence, self-esteem, improved decision making and social skills, patience and a strong sense of achievement.

“I just wanted to get involved and help others with disabilities, but before I started, I studied 12 other therapy schools around the United States,” said Jackson. “I looked at the programs to see how equine therapy could help from a mental help aspect to what it can do physically.

“Since I have started, I have seen big changes in my students already, with more self-confidence and awareness. Even grades have improved in school.”

The organization is named after one of Jackson’s late horses, an animal that he says taught him many of the basics he now uses in equine therapy.

“I named the ranch after Diego, a horse that had been previously misunderstood,” said Jackson, who has been around horses his entire life. “This horse showed me what it was like to care, have patience, to just relax and understand what he was going through, so I learned how to teach better. … I have always had a huge heart for kids with physical, emotional and mental needs. I really wanted to combine my love of horses with wanting to help others, so my girlfriend and I have worked very hard to become incorporated and have a nonprofit status. Being a nonprofit will better help our students get what they need.

“Our goal is to one day have a safe facility to help over 4,000 kids with disabilities in our area, after-school programs for kids, a place for anyone with a horse to have a place to ride and, eventually, have service ponies to take to schools, hospitals and churches. It all comes down to the fact that we would like to serve our community in the way our talents will allow us.”

Jackson says there is a great need in Jonesboro for a facility that can help not only riders with special needs, but one that can be open to everyone.

“Several things I have noticed in our community that we need are a safe place for everyone to ride their horse or a safe place to learn how to ride a horse with true horsemanship skills,” he said. “Our community also needs a large facility to handle the demand for children with disabilities to heal – a place for kids to learn patience, social skills, hard work and discipline. Horses make wonderful childhood companions. Children are naturally attracted to them, and that makes horses a desirable alternative to TV, internet and the cell phone. Horseback riding also puts children in touch with nature and may be enjoyed alone or in groups. This is where we come in to provide a safe, fun place for everyone to enjoy the love of equine.”

Reina Foster is one of Diego Ranch’s 26 current riders; her grandmother, Audrey Ganong, says that riding horses with Jackson has given her granddaughter, who is almost 9 years old, confidence that is spilling into all areas of her life.

“Reina … is dyslexic and sees a dyslexia therapist twice a week, and (she) also sees a speech therapist two times weekly; that’s a lot of therapy,” said Ganong. “She qualified for physical therapy, as well, but we opted out because with all these therapies, she had little time for fun. Other children were playing team sports or taking dancing lessons while Reina was receiving therapy. I asked her what she would like to learn for fun. She told me that she wanted to learn to ride horses.”

Ganong says that several friends recommended Jackson and his new nonprofit, and it was a great fit.

“Reina liked Michael immediately,” said Ganong. “Normally, she is very shy, but being around the horses makes her completely forget this. When she is working with the horses, whether riding, walking or grooming them, she is at ease. She smiles and giggles incessantly. This is so good for me to hear.

“She is learning so much. Michael taught her how to make a horse back up using sound and body motion. When a 1,500-pound-horse obeys your commands, that raises your confidence. … Now when she faces a difficult task, she handles it with less frustration. I would really like to see Michael achieve his goal of an indoor riding facility. He is a fantastic, patient teacher, and I know Reina really enjoys him. The horses are very well trained and sweet natured. Annabelle, the dog, definitely does her part to make the kids at ease, and Maggie, the donkey, is also a favorite with the kids.”

Riders like Foster come once a week to Diego Ranch for an hour. Whether they’re riding them, washing them or walking them, Jackson says that his students’ interactions with the horses teach them about discipline, love and respect.

Currently, the ranch’s mini donkey and five horses are housed in a simple facility on the property of Joey Glaub Portrait Art, but the nonprofit’s founder says he hopes to build a new facility as soon as land is either donated or bought with funding.

Jackson’s 26-plus years as a general contractor have allowed him to look into some unique and affordable options for the future facility. His plan includes a fabric arena from a company out of Canada, classrooms, an office, a viewing area for parents, concessions and a stable in the first step; other features will be added later as funds allow.

“Most of my kids have a disability of some kind,” said Jackson of what he took into account when designing the future ranch. “Some can’t be in the sun, so we will have an indoor arena. That’s also better for kids who can’t be around mold, mildew and pollen because of the meds they’re on. This fabric building won’t sweat like a metal building would, so it keeps all that OK for the kids. There is no wood or rust or nails for the kids and horses to get hurt on. The building is also much taller, so no shadows or being claustrophobic for my kids with autism. …

“We have looked at every aspect to keep the kids safe and smiling with our program. It’s a very healthy and safe facility, and there’s not a lot of upkeep. The fabric will allow us to save on lighting costs. We also want to make less of an impact on the earth, and this building will help with that. It can be put up or taken down in a day.”

The cost-conscious founder also wants to make sure the facility and organization are here to stay. By setting up Diego Ranch to not rely completely on donations once it gets going, Jackson hopes it will attract more people and be able to keep its doors open for a long time.

“Most therapy schools don’t last because all they rely on is donations from the community and grants,” said Jackson. “We do need that money up front to get it built, but after that, the facility will make its own revenue with rodeo events, barrel races, housing other horses and things like that. I don’t look at this like a charity. I look at this like a business for the kids. I want to make a place anyone can use – senior citizen programs, church functions, things like that. We want kids off the couch and off their cell phones.”

More than anything, Jackson is aware that he can’t make Diego Ranch a success on his own.

“Everything has just been so positive so far, but it takes people to make this work,” said Jackson. “I’m just one person. It will take everyone getting involved to make something great.”

So far, many different people and organizations have stepped up to help get the new nonprofit off the ground. Jackson’s girlfriend, Warzocha, has a background in English riding, as opposed to Jackson’s past in gaited riding, which Jackson says has been invaluable.

“Jennifer will work more with the English part of it, but she also helps with the therapy side and really everything else there is to do,” said Jackson. “She is an awesome woman.”

Along with Jackson, who serves as president, Warzocha serves as vice president on the nonprofit’s board of directors, alongside Treasurer Sue Warzocha and Secretary Gail Jackson.

In addition to the passionate board of directors, Diego Ranch has benefitted from the generosity of many others who have gotten behind Jackson’s vision.

“Every day, more and more people are getting involved, we just need the land and the money to make the new facility happen,” said Jackson. “We also need helmets, safety vests and special saddles; all that stuff is expensive.”

Jonesboro’s Sarah Carter recently donated a horse to the program, which Jackson says in is training to ready it for therapy. Tipperary, a company out of Canada, also donated eight helmets to the ranch.

“I feel everyone has a talent that should be exposed and used to the fullest,” said Jackson. “I look for these talents with the kids to better boost their self-esteem and help them become better little adults in the future. I also have talents that I would like to use to give back. I know I’m a great builder, a horse trainer with understanding and a soft touch and a person with a passion to give kids a smile and a purpose in life.”

To make a donation or for more information about Diego Ranch Inc., located at 677 AR-91, call (870) 919-0003, email diegoranchinc@gmail.com or find it on Facebook.