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At home on the range

Charles Agar
Jordan Curet/The Aspen Times
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It looks like your average suburban house from the outside, but the home of Ranch Good Days in the hills above Carbondale is a beehive of activity.

On a recent sunny weekday afternoon, staff members unloaded bags of groceries and supplies, teenage girls returned from school and activities, or finished lessons on the computer, and others loaded feed bags for horses in the utility room. With eight teenage girls living in bunk beds in a moderate-sized home, lost shoes, minor disputes and general chaos are the norm.In the middle of it all stands Donna Otabachian.In 2003 Otabachian founded the equine therapy ranch and home for at-risk teenage girls – many from unstable foster homes and situations of domestic violence and substance abuse – and her goal is to provide safe residential housing and support for girls, something similar to programs for boys in other parts of the state. She has a masters degree in psychology and a doctorate in education administration from the State University of New York at Buffalo, but Otabachian’s experience with horses and her compassion for people are just as important.”There is no housing for teenage girls in the Rocky Mountain region,” Otabachian said. “Families are struggling to keep it together and there are young girls falling through the cracks.”

After working with at-risk kids in Denver, Otabachian attended a think-tank at the University of Colorado and decided to respond to what she called “incredible need” in Native American communities, particularly Ute communities in the Four Corners area of Colorado.Now, she said, more and more girls of all ethnicities from middle-class families and foster care situations are knocking on her door. With space and licenses for just eight girls at the fledgling facility, Otabachian said she has a long waiting list.”I know what’s working with these girls,” she said, and if she is successful in a May 8 meeting with officials from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, Ranch Good Days is in line for as much as $5.2 million in federal funding.Otabachian wants to accommodate 40 more girls by 2008 and is in the process of acquiring 370 acres in Missouri Heights she hopes to develop.”We are going to be a sustainable nonprofit through and through,” Otabachian said, adding that area planners and foundations are helping her design a completely green building and she hopes to raise crops on the land – she also has an undergraduate degree in agriculture – and run the ranch on wind and solar power.Ranch Good Days has growing support from members of the Ute Nation, the indigenous people who originally lived in the Roaring Fork Valley. And Chairman Clement Frost, head of the Ute Nation, recently visited the ranch and pledged to contribute.

Her personal empathy for Ute people, Otabachian said, springs from her Armenian heritage – Armenian people were the victims of a genocide before World War II.”We’re incorporating culture into the home,” Otabachian said, adding that many Ute kids who need help find themselves in punitive situations in state facilities, and Otabachian hopes Ranch Good Days can be a stepping stone to connect with their Native American heritage in the very valley where Utes once lived.”They don’t have places to send their children to that do anything but punish,” Otabachian said of Ute families. “There are ways of connecting with kids that don’t have to be about punishment.”With a current operating budget of about $250,000 per year, Otabachian said the ranch survives on government grants and private donations, but once the federal funds come through it will grow, she said.”It’s expensive to do equine therapy,” Otabachian said, but it is effective, and brings children back into contact with themselves, other kids and the community.And watching a horse go from conception to birth of a foal that the girls must care for is a vital lesson about nurturing and responsibility for teenagers, Otabachian said.

In just the few minutes that we spent at the house before driving to the ranch’s horse pastures, Otabachian asked one of the girls to turn down the volume on the TV, checked over a feeding chart for horses and consulted her staff about her working hours. At once a mother, teacher, therapist and administrator, Otabachian adeptly juggles her duties with a sense of ease, comfort and purpose.”They’re great kids with bad stuff happening to them,” Otabachian said of the six girls now living with her – Otabachian and her two daughters (a third is away at college) also live at the ranch.Most of the girls take classes with an online school, Mt. Vista Academy, and said they enjoy sitting in on real-time classes and communicating with their teachers via e-mail or phone. After wrapping up homework and helping with kitchen chores, the girls hurried into their work boots and piled into the minivan for the ride up the hill to the ranch.Otabachian has one full-time staff member at the home, as well as a ranch manager and a number of volunteers who take care of the house and 13 horses the ranch has rescued or been given.Working with horses and having responsibilities is an important part of the Ranch Good Days program, she said. Each girl that comes to the ranch is expected to care for a horse, but the reason for the horses goes beyond responsibility.

“The horses also allow the child to feel they are wanted and needed and that they are loved,” Otabachian said. “The other thing horses do is connect with the children when the children can’t connect with an adult.”Wind whipped the grasses of Missouri Heights as the girls hoisted heavy bales of hay and hung feed bags on the horses.The girls wake every morning at 7 a.m. for the short drive to the pasture to feed and check on the animals, and return each afternoon to do it again.”There’s a lot of scooping poop,” joked Patricia Robins, 13, who came to the ranch from Jefferson County three months ago. But she likes her responsibilities and worried about one of the animals that was getting a little “ribby” and seemed to need more nourishment and care.Each girl is assigned her own horse, but they all work together to take care of the animals, and the girls also feed two feisty llamas that guard the horse pasture.”It costs just as much to feed a good horse as a bad horse,” Otabachian said, and she hopes the ranch will pay for itself one day by breeding Western stock horses, a cross between Arabians and American Quarter Horses that are used as “cutting horses” to work cattle.

Actress Michelle Pfeiffer recently loaned the ranch stallions as breeding horses, and in one corral are two mares pregnant with foals Otabachian said breeders are waiting to buy. In addition to their schoolwork and living together with other girls their age, girls at Ranch Good Days are learning about animal nutrition, bloodlines and the breeding history of horses, Otabachian said.”We need to get Rosy’s grain mask fixed,” shouts Hannah Planalp from across the pasture.Planalp, 16, who lived in Colorado Springs and Glenwood before coming to the ranch, is suing for emancipation from her foster family, and recently returned from a stay at her foster home.She gets up every morning at 5:30 a.m. for the commute from the ranch to high school in Glenwood Springs. She returns in the afternoon to do chores and help feed the horses. Planalp is taking classes at Colorado Mountain College and said she’d like to study English and possibly law one day.”I enjoy it,” she said of life at the ranch. “We have some tensions,” she admits, and it’s not always easy to live with so many other girls, but they get by and spend a lot of time talking about what’s going on in their lives, what they’ve been through and how they are coping.”I’ve lived everywhere,” said Felecia Dunn, 15, who is originally from Oklahoma but has moved to many foster homes across Colorado, most recently in Grand Junction.

Dunn, a Lakota Sioux who has lived at the ranch for 5 months, has worked with horses all her life and hopes to one day be a barrel racer and make it to the rodeo nationals. She too admits the ranch residents have their disagreements, but enjoys the ranch routine.”It’s typical girls’ things,” Dunn said of the occasional spats, usually over cooking duties or other petty things, but said the girls work it out.”I’m a success story,” said Christine Walker, 14, adding that she was one of the first girls to come to the ranch a year ago when there was just one horse and three mules. “It’s a lot safer up here,” Walker said, comparing the ranch to life at home. But she’s also proud that, after her time at the ranch, she’s been able to reconnect with her family.Walker said she’s seen many girls come and go – and many who’ve really changed for the better – and said being around good people and working with the horses helps a lot.”She came here and she found out how much she loves horses,” Otabachian said of Walker, who recently earned a grant to continue her training with horses.

“Communication is a big thing here,” Walker said. And the girls have regular family meetings to talk about issues, whether personal safety or cliques.”Our mission is to bring national awareness to the status of children’s plight,” Otabachian said. And with other states watching the Ranch Good Days program, she said she hopes to “show it will work.”June 9 and 10 the ranch will hold a horse clinic and fundraiser in memory of Aspenite Art Pfister.For more information about Ranch Good Days, go to http://www.ranchgooddays.org or call 963-9400. Charles Agar’s e-mail address is cagar@aspentimes.com.


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