Refuge on the range

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Christian McPhate/DRC
Buffalo roam on the range at Meritt Bois D’ Arc Buffalo Ranch north of Denton.
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Nonprofit on ranch aims to heal those in need

It was the same dream every night. She was standing at one end of an arena inside the center of a large barn, watching children as some of them rode horses and others groomed them. She watched for several minutes before making her way outside, where she saw three buildings in a U-shape around the barn.

One of the buildings was a wooden-frame schoolhouse converted into a day care where children played and learned. Another building was an old-time courthouse that acted as a vocational school for people trying to rebuild their lives. The whole setup looked like an Old West town but offered modern amenities.

Julia Jacobs believes this recurring dream was sent by God, and she set out to follow his message by founding Remember When Ranch, a family-organized, faith-driven nonprofit to provide services and implement programs using equine therapy for the entire community, with a special emphasis on reaching at-risk children and youths.

“I think [the horses] are the vessels God uses, angels with horse hairs,” Jacobs said.

Remember When Ranch is located at Meritt Bois D’ Arc Buffalo Ranch, just a few miles north of Denton. Jacobs works as the ranch manager and takes care of animals.

Bob and Jackie Meritt bought the ranch in 1996 but didn’t start raising buffalo until 2006 when they received Curly, a 2,600-pound bull whose lineage can be traced back to the 700 buffalo that survived Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer’s slaughter.

They had to build a special fence for the buffalo, which cost $20,000, because they didn’t want their new animals to come in contact with “Texas cowboys because they like to chase cattle,” said Bob Meritt, “which can kill them.”

After acquiring more buffalo, they decided to convert two pastures into prairie land with the help of botanist Ben Tyler and offer education programs about the buffalo for youths in the county.

They met Jacobs in 2006, found out about her idea to start a nonprofit organization and thought it would be a perfect fit for what they have planned for their ranch: to offer a place of “redemption, restoration and a refuge” for broken people.

“[It will be] a light on a hill,” said Jackie Meritt, “and create an atmosphere of love.”

Horse therapy

Jacobs came up with the idea to use equine-facilitated therapy after dealing with mental illness, drug addiction, alcoholism, child abuse and incarceration in her family. She also lost her daughter last year. Misty Lowder of Denton went missing in May 2013, and Denton police and the Texas Rangers haven’t been able to locate a body or make an arrest in the crime.

Jacobs found comfort in her faith and with the horses on the ranches where she worked.

She began researching therapeutic horsemanship and found a mentor in Kim Meeder of Crystal Peaks Youth Ranch in Oregon, a place where broken children can find hope with the help of horses.

Meeder shared a story of a young boy who was so severely beaten between the ages of 2 and 5 by his father that he couldn’t talk. Child Protective Services had called and asked if they could bring the boy to her ranch. His teeth had been broken, and his father would take “pop shots” at him with a gun, so he wouldn’t respond to therapists.

Meeder let the boy spend each day grooming a horse, which slowly built a bond between him and the animal. By the end of the third week, the boy looked up at her and said, “Can I please ride him?”

Equine-facilitated psychotherapy and equine-facilitated learning are fairly new disciplines. The idea that horses would be helpful healing people struggling with mental health issues was developed because horses are extremely sensitive to its rider’s emotions, according to the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International website.

“The horse acts as a large biofeedback machine, providing the client and the therapist with information regarding the client’s moods and changes within those moods,” according to the website. “If a client arrives anxious the horse will act and respond one way. If the client is able to reduce his or her anxiety, the horse’s behaviors will also change. This provides a plethora of information and skill building opportunities for both the client and the therapist.”

The future

Jacobs plans to start a mentoring program, vocational education and community outreach programs as well as incorporating education information about the buffalo located on the property.

But first she must build a new barn to host the therapeutic program.

On Sept. 21, Jacobs and the Meritts held a fundraiser for the therapeutic horse program that would also house the “Curly Bill Horse Hotel.” A couple hundred people showed up to listen to guest speakers, musicians and a sermon. They cooked food and enjoyed the day on the ranch with a herd of 15 woodland buffalo watching the attendees watch them.

The event raised about $2,500, but they need more sponsorship — possibly corporate — to help make their shared dream a reality. They plan to hold another event on Nov. 2 to celebrate National Bison Day, which takes place the day before.

For more information, call 940-448-0797 or visit

CHRISTIAN McPHATE can be reached at 940-566-6878 and on Twitter at @writerontheedge.

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