Jasper Ridge Farm harnesses the healing power of animals

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Kate Ridgway

Alyssa Houk, executive director at Jasper Ridge Farm, loves all the animals and directly sees the impact the animals have on the clients. “There might be a special needs child that doesn’t want to get on the horse, but then they get on and they’re so excited and so proud of themselves. Or you hear about a teenager with mental health issues who barely ever speaks, and then they’re smiling and chatting with us about something with the animal,” Houk said.

As the sun shines brightly overhead, she puts her boots in the stirrups, grabbing the reins with her right hand, almost like holding an ice cream cone. The wind hits her face as her hair flies behind her. The click and clack of hooves hitting the arena floor match the rhythm of her heartbeat. She smiles and taps her heels on the soft fur of her horse. She feels free, without a single worry polluting her thoughts. It’s just her and the horse riding together. 

For veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and children with disabilities, this is the feeling they come away with after visiting Jasper Ridge Farm.

Located in Woodside, Calif., the non-profit organization is home to many animals, including horses, goats, sheep, bunnies, guinea pigs, chickens, and more. Jasper Ridge Farm has different programs that help people in need by providing the love of a furry friend. 

“Every client has a great experience with their animals, and sometimes, there are these magic moments where you just see something click between a client and an animal,” said Alyssa Houk, executive director at Jasper Ridge Farm. “You see it with your eyes; you feel it in your heart when it’s happening.”

Houk left a career in tech to take the head job at Jasper Ridge Farm because she was so moved by the power of animals helping people. She oversees the programs, volunteer staff, animals, and more.

Animals have this beautiful capacity to give and to love.”

— Alyssa Houk

According to Mental Health America, animal interactions are more important now than ever due to COVID-19 because the pandemic took a dramatic toll on people’s mental health. In 2021, U.S. mental health screenings increased by 500%. More people were diagnosed with anxiety and depression than prior to the pandemic, and their symptoms were more severe.

That’s where Jasper Ridge and its animals come in. The farm has gained popularity due to increased awareness of the organization and the benefits of spending time with animals.

Studies show that animals help people reduce anxiety and stress levels, aid veterans with PTSD, help children with disorders, and more. These people have everyday struggles that can be hard to overcome, and research is slowly emerging to show the benefits of animal interactions. 

According to the Frontiers in Psychology website, people of all ages and health conditions benefit from animal interaction. These benefits include reduced stress, fear, anxiety, heart rate, blood pressure, and the risk of cardiovascular diseases. These animal interactions release the hormone oxytocin, which is responsible for social bonding and is known as the love chemical.

Moreover, one does not need to own a pet to benefit from animal interactions. Multiple studies show that even petting an unfamiliar dog can decrease stress levels. Other research has shown that petting a dog reduces symptoms in children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). 

“Blood pressures were significantly lower when people were stroking a dog than when chatting or reading,” revealed a study in Frontiers in Psychology.  

Another study funded in part by the National Institutes of Health showed that anxiety decreased in autistic children when they played with guinea pigs. 

Whether it is through petting a guinea pig, riding a horse, or getting a tour of the farm through a video call, Jasper Ridge and its staff “are dedicated to enriching the lives of children and adults through the comfort and unconditional acceptance that interacting with animals can provide for people,” according to their website. 

Jasper Ridge Farm’s services are not considered animal therapy since no therapist is present. However, outside therapists have reported their clients are more open to sharing after a visit to the farm, according to Houk. 

Jasper Ridge Farm began in 2009. The founder of the farm, Wendy Mattes, became inspired when she gave horseback riding lessons to a young girl with a brain tumor. At one point, the girl could no longer physically visit the ranch. Mattes decided to bring a miniature horse to the girl’s house, Houk said.

“Wendy walked the horse up the walkway and through the front door. She said the horse just knew and went right up to the little girl in the bed and stood there. It was such a powerful moment that Wendy knew she wanted to do that for more children in need,” Houk said.

Jasper Ridge Farm started with visiting the children at the Ronald McDonald House. Since then, the farm has branched out and now has many different programs. 

Corie Thompson, the program director at Jasper Ridge Farm, has witnessed the joy of the children and their families when they see the animals at the Ronald McDonald house.

“Sometimes at the beginning of the hour, a kid will be like, ‘Oh no, I’m not going to touch that chicken.’ And by the end of the hour, we’ve coaxed them in, and we have a chicken on their lap,” Thompson said. “It gives them confidence. They go in and realize, ‘I overcame a fear today.’”

Another group that uses Jasper Ridge’s services is veterans. If veterans are physically and mentally able to, they learn how to ride a horse, either going around the arena or on a trail ride. Other veterans may opt to keep their feet on the ground and groom the horses. 

Approaching or getting on a horse doesn’t start out easy for everyone. 

“There was one veteran that was terrified of horses. She said, ‘I signed up for this because I need to get past being terrified of horses.’ And she has come such a long way, and you can see how she holds herself when she walks into the barn. Now she’s walking taller. She’s walking faster,” Thompson said. 

After participating in the program, 100% of veterans reported that their anxiety decreased, according to Jasper Ridge Farm’s impact report.

Ramona Peterson, a U.S. Navy Veteran, has first-hand experience with how horses help. 

“Instead of me living the life I was living with complex PTSD, instead of being numb with everything and going day to day living life, something in me clicked, and I decided I didn’t want to go through life numb anymore. It was while out on Hercules, a horse, that I decided I was going to change my life. That I wanted to get back to being that happy girl I was before anything bad happened,” Peterson said. 

Jasper Ridge also partners with the Kara Grief Center to help families. 

“The animals not only provide comfort for these children and teens, but the anxiety of managing their grief emotions seems to melt away after spending time with the farm animals,” said Josh Rebello, Assistant Director at Kara Grief Center. Many of the children are much more open to conversation afterward and can further engage in the grief support activities provided.” 

When Jasper Ridge goes off-site, clients are split into groups and rotate through different animal stations. When people visit the farm, they keep all the stall doors open and people explore freely and see the animals they want, depending on their ability.

Before COVID-19, Jasper Ridge had monthly visits to the women at Elmwood Correctional Facility

“The inmates just melt. It’s just the most adorable thing,” Thompson said.

Houk said Jasper Ridge Farm added a virtual option during the pandemic. At the same time, their popularity increased. Today, virtual programming is still available but less in demand. 

“We were able to serve the majority of our regular clients through virtual visits during COVID. We would take them on a tour around the farm, letting them spend time with the animals and ask questions. It sounds strange, but then you think about the millions and millions of views on YouTube and social media for animal videos. People love it,” Houk said.

For instance, during the pandemic, Jasper Ridge was unable to visit Elmwood in person. Through virtual sessions, the farm staff gave lessons about different types of animals at the farm. 

Soon Jasper Ridge Farm was video-calling the inmates every week, according to Thompson. 

“I knew nothing about chickens when I started this job, and now I feel like a little chicken expert,” Thompson said. 

In between laughs, Thompson explained one of her favorite memories.

“At one point, the women thought they had turned off their audio because it was the end of the class, and we were just about to turn off ours,” Thompson said, referencing an Elmwood virtual visit. “And this one woman went, ‘This is great. I love this s***!’ That’s the kind of moment you live for.”