Written By Monique Balas/

Photos ThomasBoyd/Staff |

For The Oregonian

Seven-year-old Haven Zaw-Tun isn't afraid of much, according to her adoptive mother, Becky Zaw-Tun, so it's no surprise that she adores horses.

What is significant is that the Newberg first-grader recognizes when the large animals show fear, and she can adjust her behavior accordingly to ease their anxiety.

"You don't want to be all crazy because the horse gets scared," Haven says. "I know [a horse is] scared because he backs away, lifts his head up and his ears go back."

Since last July, Haven and her brother, Alec, 6, have been participating in a therapeutic horsemanship program at Wild Horse Mountain Ranch in Sherwood.

While they do learn to ride horses, the program focuses on the relationship between horse and human. It's less about having fun than learning to "speak horse." In most cases, that helps improve their communication with people, too.

"In our program, we teach students which physical cues to look for to see if the horse is worried or calm," Harnew-Swanson says. "We hand over the responsibility to the student to read the cues from the horse and make adjustments accordingly." 

Harnew-Swanson earned a Master's degree in education and taught for more than 20 years. In 2005, she began researching equine therapy with mustangs adopted from U.S. Bureau of Land Management wild horse herds in Oregon, working with kids of varying ability levels.

Using techniques in the tradition of natural horsemanship advocates Ray Hunt, Tom Dorrance and their student, Buck Brannaman, she teaches the kids to "listen" to the horses and read their nonverbal cues.

The program focuses on special-needs kids, but Harnew-Swanson will include any student whom she feels can benefit from the program.

Many of the participants have difficulty interpreting human behavior, which can make it hard for them to interact appropriately with other people.

Haven has something called sensory processing disorder, a neurological condition in which the brain has trouble receiving and responding to sensory information. x

"She has trouble reading facial cues and didn't get when people were upset with her," Haven's mom says. "She's had to learn the body language of the horse."

Aside from observing the animals, the kids also learn equine body language through touch, which teaches them to be attentive to the animal's response and allows them to interact compassionately.

Unlike simply petting, which people often do to satisfy their own desire to feel a horse's soft fur, the goal is to focus on what makes the animal comfortable.

To that end, Harnew-Swanson has incorporated massage sessions with equine massage practitioner Jessica Eggleston into the riding lessons.

"The children are taught to interpret the horse's cues and therefore become aware of more subtle forms of communication, such as non-verbal cues," says Eggleston, owner of Sound Movement Equine Massage.

They learn that if a horse is enjoying his massage, he may have closed eyes and a soft jaw. Meanwhile a "stern eye" or flattened ears may indicate he's uncomfortable or want a change in pressure or contact.

At the end of a riding lesson, the kids "thank" the horse for all the work it did that session, which Eggleston hopes will nurture compassion for animals and other people.

Working with the horses also instills the kids' self-confidence, she says.

"Being around a large animal, such as a horse, requires a strong presence and awareness in both the child's own body, and of the horse's body," Eggleston says. "Safely sharing space with an animal as large as a horse is empowering because it requires assertiveness and builds confidence."

Alec Zaw-Tun, 6, has really come into his own since he began taking lessons at Wild Horse Mountain Ranch, says his mother.

Alec is a very empathetic, sweet boy who sometimes feels he can't do things as well as his more athletic sister, Becky Zaw-Tun says.

"He's benefited by having more confidence about himself," she observes. "This has been the one area that he's been able to do as well and also shine on his own."

Alec now rides independently – without "sidewalkers" that initially flank new riders for protection – and the boy can even stand up atop a horse's back.

For Tigard resident Kimberly Heye and her family, the program has had a "life-changing" impact.

Her son, Malachi Heye, 8, was adopted from the same Ethiopian orphanage as the Zaw-Tun kids.

He has been diagnosed with reactive attachment disorder, a rare but serious condition that occurs when infants or children don't establish healthy attachments with parents or caregivers. 

A common trait of reactive attachment disorder is minimal social and emotional responsiveness to others.

When he first enrolled in the Wild Horse Mountain Ranch program nearly two years ago, Malachi was standoffish with the animals, reluctant to pet them or show affection.

"Now my son will actually make eye contact with the horses," Heye says, "which is huge."

Lately, he's been wondering about the welfare of a horse with hoof problems – a milestone for a boy that rarely expresses concern for others.

The blossoming kinships between horse and humans is powerful to watch.

"We are so thrilled at how connected the horses and the kids become after even a couple of sessions," Harnew-Swanson says. "Honestly, it is a real tear-jerking experience when you see a child with a slew of diagnoses touch an old horse and have that horse melt."

Meet the Mustangs event: The public is invited to learn about the mustangs and burros at Wild Horse Mountain Ranch during a special open house, 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturday at the ranch, 27400 S.W. Ladd Hill Road, Sherwood.

Events will include horse grooming, tours and demonstrations of the therapeutic riding program featuring volunteers and current participants. Admission: $5 entry fee. For more information, send an e-mail to info@wildhorsemountain.org or visit wildhorsemountain.org.

--Monique Balas; msbalaspets@gmail.com

Oregonian, July 2012

Excerpts from a few articles regarding programs at WHMR

Pet Talk: Horsemanship program teaches kids skills that work with humans, too

Saving Mustangs and Sharing the Healing Power of Horses since 2005

Oregonian May 2015


Sherwood ranch owner teaches youths life's lessons with the help of mustangs

Seven Kiger Mustangs seized in animal neglect case arriving at ranch today for rehabilitation.

In the News

Oregonian March 31, 2011

Portland Tribune, June 2012

Riding the Range--Wild Horse Mountain Ranch allows people from all walks of life to benefit from working with horses

Wild Horse Mountain Ranch​ 


Seven Kiger Mustangs seized near Burns in an animal neglect case are arriving at a ranch in Wilsonville today for rehabilitation. 

It’s exciting because this is a breed of horse that’s on the verge of extinction,” said Stacey Harnew-Swanson, owner of Wild Horse Mountain Ranch in Sherwood. She said the horses will be rehabilitated in Wilsonville at the Nine Star Ranch, which has seven empty stalls. 

She said on a scale of 1 to 10 for malnutrition, they ranked very poorly, about 1.5. 

“My plans are to get these guys fat,” she said. 


Kiger Mustangs are descendants of ancient Spanish horses brought to North American by the conquistadors. They're considered to be very smart.

Harnew-Swanson would like to introduce young people, seniors and anyone else who’s interested about the breed, which developed naturally in Oregon and is now sought after in other parts of the world.

“People in Oregon don’t know that we have this breed that’s desired in Germany and Australia,” she said.

She said the seven horses are buckskins or grulla, a dark silver. Like all Kigers, they have dark points on their legs and ears and stand between 14 and 15 hands. A hand measures 4 inches.

Harnew-Swanson urged anyone who’s interested to email her at info@wildhorsemountain.org.Type your paragraph here.


Published on Thursday, June 14, 2012 Written by Barbara Sherman | Portland Tribune| 

Wild Horse Mountain Ranch allows people from all walks of life to benefit from working with horses

by: Jaime Valdez, Stacey Harnew-Swanson pauses a moment and smiles while feeding Mariquita and her newborn (no name yet).

                                                                    [by: Jaime Valdez, Stacey Harnew-Swanson pauses a moment and smiles while feeding Mariquita and her newborn (no name yet).]                                                                                                                                                                                                     The name 'Wild Horse Mountain Ranch, Rescue and Therapeutic Learning Center' is a bit of a mouthful, but every word is needed to explain this magical place on Ladd Hill where rescued Mustangs are trained for use in therapy riding lessons.

'We certainly work with folks with special needs, both physical and emotional,' said founder Stacey Harnew-Swanson. 'The cadence of the horse, the feeling of height, the need to learn to direct the horse - all help those with special needs. It is fascinating to watch the various ways people benefit.

'I heard a 4-year-old girl say her first word here, 'Trot.' She learned that when we said that the horse would go fast, and fast was fun. Having had a daughter with special needs, I really enjoy working with these folks.'

However, Harnew-Swanson pointed out that she also offers riding lessons to those without designated special needs 'because people from all walks of life can benefit from working with horses.'

She added, 'And many folks volunteer and reap the same benefits.'

Clearly, Harnew-Swanson loves working with both people and horses, and for her, the No. 1 horse is the Mustang.

The Bureau of Land Management manages wild horses and burros on public rangelands, including 17 Herd Management Areas (HMA) in southeast Oregon, plus it co-manages the animals in a couple of other areas in Oregon.

Oregon herd numbers increase annually by about 20 percent, and based on rangeland monitoring studies and wild horse census numbers, the bureau annually gathers three to five of Oregon's herds to remove some animals and balance the population numbers with their area's ability to sustain them.

'We currently have horses from the Kiger herd, Jackie's Butte herd, Palomino Butte herd, and our rock star - Rocky, who is from the Cold Springs herd and is representing Mustangs this summer at Bend's High Desert Museum,' said Harnew-Swanson, who with the help of many volunteers has rescued and trained 20 Mustangs.Part of her mission is to educate people about Oregon's unique herds that include those with Appaloosa markings, pintos, palominos, tall Calvary remount horses and the unusual heritage breed, the Kiger, which is related to the horses of the conquistadors.Right now, Harnew-Swanson and her husband, Greg Swanson, own 12 horses at their 8-acre Ladd Hill Road spread, where they have lived for 2 ½ years.

'I had horses as a kid, and I used to volunteer at this ranch,' Harnew-Swanson said. 'In 2004, they had a little Kiger Mustang mare. I decided to go to the corrals in Burns to check out the Mustangs. I really was just going to check them out, but somehow I bought a horse. I had it delivered, and I was off and working with wild horses.'

Harnew-Swanson has delved into horses' psyches as much as she has humans', noting, 'Mustangs want to hang out with their leader, and they pick out their favorite person. They don't let you get away with anything, and you have to respect them. We have personal relationships with them.' As for the people she helps, 'From the get-go, we worked with teens with anxiety disorders and assertiveness issues,' she said. 'My background and my love is people with special needs - both physical and mental.'

Harnew-Swanson said over and over that she could not do what she does without a cadre of loyal volunteers. Right now, she has about 20, with 12 of them coming twice a week to the ranch.Harnew-Swanson has been offering private, one-on-one lessons free of charge to those with disabilities, although now she must start charging for lessons and will ask $25 per hour or use a sliding-fee scale.Each lesson requires three volunteers, according to Harnew-Swanson.'There is one on each side of the horse, plus another one leading it and me instructing,' she said. 'I like to do it one-on-one, but I am getting certified with PATH, and they want me to teach two students at a time for their certification. But we will still offer one-on-one because for some folks, it works best, and I like it best.'

PATH International is the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship, and its registered instructors are qualified to conduct safe, basic-equestrian lessons to individuals with disabilities, according to its website.

However, Harnew-Swanson wants to do more than teach people how to ride - she wants then to learn to understand horses and work with them rather than against them.

'I don't teach 'riding lessons,'' she said. 'That is like treating horses like motorcycles. Students have to learn about horses first and how they think. A horse might have the attitude of 'I've got your number, and I'm not doing that,' so you have to have a bag of tricks up your sleeve."

'Much of our knowledge base comes from the work of a few amazing Great Basin cowboys,' she added. 'Buck Brannaman is perhaps the most famous, but his mentors Ray Hunt plus Tom and Bill Dorrance are others we study very closely. We then try to pass this on to the students who study here.'This style of horsemanship teaches fairness in leadership as well as assertiveness and balance. Many life skills are learned even if our students never work with horses again, and they will learn many patterns of thinking that will help them in other aspects of their lives.'

Watching Harnew-Swanson feed a wild mare she purchased last October with a 5-day-old foul at her side, it's hard to tell whether she or the horses are enjoying the moment the most.

'I feel that we all have special needs, and people from all walks of life can benefit from working with horses,' she said.

By Monique Balas | For The Oregonian/OregonLive 

Randy L. Rasmussen/The Oregonian

Wild Horse Mountain Ranch, in Sherwood, hosts a summer camp to teach kids leadership and horsemanship skills while working with mustangs. Genevieve Foley, 16, work with Sassy at the camp Monday.

Mustangs are often admired as beautiful symbols of freedom and the American West. They're also great teachers.

The 10 rescue horses at Wild Horse Mountain Ranch in Sherwood proved that this week for seven teens learning valuable life lessons during a day camp for kids ages 12 to 18.

"We want the kids to learn how to interact with the horse in a way that inspires leadership for the kids," says ranch owner Stacey Harnew-Swanson, who launched the camp as a pilot program this summer. "The horse is a great biofeedback machine. They'll let you know how your leadership skills are doing."

The ranch horses were born or conceived on U.S. Bureau of Land Management rangeland, and some are from the specially designated Kiger Herd Management Area in southeastern Oregon. The Kigers are mustangs descended from the horses of the Spanish explorers and have unique physical characteristics; They're intelligent, agile animals accustomed to herd dynamics and aren't as difficult to connect with as one might think.


"They really do try to integrate into your world, and when they do that, it's a real honor," Harnew-Swanson says.

But the mustangs have varying levels of experience around humans, just as the camp participants have a range of exposure to horses. That's why the campers start with simple trust-building activities, such as matched walking, in which the campers lead the horses while measuring their gait to keep pace with the horse.

She wants to teach the kids that horses can read their energy, and that their body language communicates messages they don't even realize.

"You have your own bubble, kind of, and when you get near the horse, it actually backs up and feels your energy around you," says camp participant Amanda Dwornicki, 16.

Dwornicki also learned how to groom a horse, starting with the basics: letting the horse sniff the comb to familiarize itself with the strange object. The mustangs must be desensitized to equipment, gear and human touch -- all which they were never exposed to in the wild.

Dwornicki doesn't have a horse, but she's an eager equine enthusiast.

"I felt like I want to learn more about them so I know actually what to do with them," she says.

Harnew-Swanson runs a therapeutic riding program and a mustang rescue at the ranch. The camps started after people said they wanted their children to experience the healing power of horses.

Wild Horse Mountain Ranch, in Sherwood, hosts a summer camp to teach kids leadership and horsemanship skills while working with mustangs. Jenica Ocker (left), 12, works with Sage, assisted by Volunteer Lisa Brice.

She doesn't teach riding lessons. Instead, she and the students work on building the horse-human bond, in the tradition of natural horsemanship advocates Ray Hunt and Tom Dorrance, and their student, Buck Brannaman.

"This isn't about making them go over jumps," she says. "That can come, but it's really about your relationship with the horse."

The camp incorporates lessons about how to rope, as well as cowboy culture, cowboy poetry and the role and history of wild horses in Oregon.

The kids also learn how to solve problems because they need to figure out how to get a horse to do what they want it to do in a way the animal will respond to.

"Kids will say, 'My horse won't X, Y or Z.' You know what? It's not the horse's problem," Harnew-Swanson says. "Just like with any other problem you might have in life, you just figure out the variables, and figure out what you need to do to get to where you want to go."







Mustang camp

Stacey Harnew-Swanson teaches teens how to handle formerly wild Mustangs at a summer camp at her Wild Horse Mountain Ranch in Sherwood.

Genevieve Foley, 16, says she was drawn to the mustang camp to learn training techniques she hopes to use now and in the future.

The camp has helped her learn to pay closer attention to her horse's subtle movements and inspires her to be "lighter" with him.

Foley hopes to start a ranch for troubled youth on the West Coast, so she wants to gain as much experience with horses as she can.

"I feel like horses kind of saved my life, and I could do that for other people," she says. She recently earned her GED and is eager to embrace her future -- one she hopes will include horses.

Harnew-Swanson enjoys inspiring that passion in her students.

"That's kind of what we're about is just trying to get kids to listen to the horse," Harnew-Swanson says. "The kids have a real natural connection with the horse, and if we just build on that, it turns into a pretty magical experience for everybody."

-- Monique Balas