Minn. couple wants to bring troubled youth and horses together

Farm Forum

Envisioning a healing magic between kids and horses, Jason and Jenifer Heath are seeking approval from the city of Burnsville, Minn., to open their rural six-acre ranch to children ages 9 to 17 who could benefit from doing outdoor chores and working with horses under the supervision of a mentor.

The Burnsville Planning Commission last week recommended that the City Council give the Heaths a five-year interim use permit to run a private, recreational youth mentor ranch.

The property, at Loop Road North and Judicial Road in Burnsville, is zoned rural residential, and the Heaths live there with seven horses in their stables. They would run the program under designation as a 501c3 charitable organization called Haven Acres.

Two or three days a week, they would like to invite youths who are suffering from depression, anxiety or low self esteem to come to the homestead for 90 minutes under the supervision of two adults.

Jenifer Heath told the Planning Commission that they are patterning their program after the Crystal Peaks Youth Ranch in Oregon, whose website says it welcomes broken children, horses and families to a safe and positive western environment where they can learn about “the saving hope of Jesus Christ.”

The Heaths said they plan to attend a seminar at the Oregon ranch about how to offer the program in Burnsville.

“There is something kind of magical about kids working with horses,” Jenifer Heath said. The Heaths could have a maximum of 10 horses. Two of the seven there now are boarded there and will not be part of the program. The other horses have various disabilities. One is 95 percent blind. One is missing teeth. One has feet problems.

“This helps the children recognize that although the horse has an issue it is still useful and valuable,” Jenifer Heath said.

Under the supervisor of the mentors and a trained instructor, the kids will work one-on-one with the horses, grooming them and feeding them, and may be permitted to learn to ride as their comfort with the horse and confidence increases, she said.

The Heaths had asked for a 10-year permit for the program and planning commissioners said they thought that was a long time.

“This is not something you take on in a whim,” said Jason Heath. He said he and his wife are in their early 40s and expect to be offering the program into their 70s. “We see it as a way to help the youth of the community.”

He said he expects a waiting list of kids to form. “We have been told that once our program gets up and running we will never have a shortage of kids and we will never have a shortage of horses,” he said.

The planning commission recommended that the City Council approve the interim use permit for five years with four conditions: that the program operate for no more than four days a week; that neither the children nor the mentors reside on the property with the Heaths; that a permit amendment would be required if the stable or riding area were substantially expanded, and that the Heaths abide by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency regulations for the management of manure.