Friday, March 21, 2014 | 2 a.m.
Map of Floyd Lamb Equestrian Park
9200 Tule Springs Road, Las Vegas
Sophie Juhl skips toward the petting zone at the Horses4Heroes ranch. She’s on a mission.
“Roger, Roger, Roger,” she sang, calling out the name of her favorite miniature horse on a recent Sunday afternoon at the nonprofit organization’s new ranch at Floyd Lamb Park.
Sydney Knott — the nonprofit’s founder — tasked the little girl with bringing the ranch’s two miniature horses to their stall. Sophie’s tiny cowboy boots shuffle in the gravel as she leads her mother to the gates. They pass the alpaca and miniature cow and goats, the children petting them, and the smiling volunteers to reach the miniature horses: Roger and Bravo.
Sophie is the height of a normal horse’s leg. Even the minis are larger than her, but that didn’t matter as she hooked up the harnesses to lead them to their stall for a break. Sophie is fearless around all horses, big or miniature.
She rides them, pets them, brushes them and obsesses over them at home with horse blankets, stuffed animals and toys. They are her escape from the hours spent inside sterile hospitals getting poked with syringes full of steroids and vitamins to control her rare blood disease.
Sophie suffers autoimmune lymphoproliferative syndrome (ALPS), a sickness that destroys her red blood cells. It could kill her if left untreated. Only a risky bone marrow transplant can provide a cure.
But every weekend, Sophie comes to Horses4Heroes for lessons. They’re free because her father is in the military. When Sophie’s here among the horses, trees and dirt, she is the cowgirl who dreams of becoming a veterinarian by day and a barrel racer by night. She is Miss Horses4Heroes.
“This place is amazing,” said Deanna Juhl, Sophie’s mother. “She is fearless now. She loves all animals.”
Helping people like Sophie is what the Las Vegas-based nonprofit organization does. The ranch offers free horse-riding lessons to the families of community heroes: the active-duty military, veterans, police officers, nurses and others who make sacrifices for the valley or country. The horses offer an outlet and therapy they might not get anywhere else.
“You cannot be a timid, shy person and have a successful lesson with a horse,” Knott said. “Whether you’re 3 or 30, when you learn how to be boss of the animal and earn his trust and respect, it’s a magical thing.”
Knott and her family started Horses4Heroes in 2006 out of her home at Diamond K Ranch. She knew horse therapy was a popular method for people with disabilities or recovering from injury, so she thought why not provide the same service to people who make sacrifices for the community?
Today, her nonprofit has more than 260 associated ranches across the country, and it recently moved to a larger property at Floyd Lamb Park. The group helps about 20 people a day in Las Vegas, but the Knotts hope to expand their program with its new location.
The basis of the nonprofit is a free four-lesson program that teaches riders the basics of a horse. They learn how to approach one, how to take care of one and, finally, how to ride it. Through those interactions, the person develops a bond that becomes therapeutic.
Knott said the teamwork and relationship with the horse can help veterans and their families deal with post-traumatic stress disorder and reacclimation, while others find the interactions clear their head.
“People go out and tell them about their day and what happened, and they don’t get a raised eyebrow,” Knott said. “They need that outlet. They need that place to go.”
For some, like the women staying at Shade Tree — a nonprofit that helps victims of abuse — working with the horses imbues them with confidence. They learn to be assertive without fear of being hit or attacked. Women come into the program withdrawn and end it assisting the newcomers.
“All of it applies with these women and how they deal with people,” said Desiree Fullam, Shade Tree case manager. “Maybe it’s going out to the workforce or how they communicate with their body language. It’s really therapeutic.”
The ranch has become an escape for the entire Juhl family. They make it a family outing, visiting the ranch every Saturday for the past year and a half. Sophie rides the horses, while her father, Ken Juhl, mucks the stalls. Deanna Juhl watches and helps where she’s needed.
It gives them a chance to think about something other than bone marrow transplants, medications and hospital visits.
“Someday we’ll be in the hospital for a while,” Ken Juhl said. “Because of that, we want to have the most fun together as a family as we can.”
For now, Sophie is Miss Horses4Heroes, on a mission to lead Roger to his stall.