When the Rancho Milagro Foundation, a northern Scottsdale-based nonprofit, faith-based ministry that helps heal survivors of extreme trauma, was founded in 2014 by Vanessa and Bob Kohnen, their first client was a young woman named Julie.
Julie was trafficked in Phoenix from the ages of 10 to 18.
“I just literally packed what I could carry on my hands, and I just ran,” she said.
Living with trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder, Julie tried traditional counseling for five years but found it wasn’t helping her.
“It’s really hard finding counselors who are trauma-informed,” Julie said. “We’ve gotten a lot better over the years.”
Julie then visited Rancho Milagro and was immediately drawn to Mickey – nicknamed Mic – one of the therapy horses at the ranch.
“He was really the first living thing that I was able to connect with,” she said. “He symbolized freedom for me, and he walked through a lot with me.”
Mic was a performance horse that was severely abused before coming to Rancho Milagro. He had burn marks all over his body, Vanessa said.
“When I set eyes on Mic, I knew he understood the pain I was feeling,” Julie said. “Mic overcame his abuse and taught me how to be brave and face my fear.”
Julie spent five years with Mic, learning the skills to bring trust and healing back into her life.
But on Christmas Eve 2018, Mic took his final ride on Cow Poke Trail. He stepped off the trail and took his last breath.
It was a loss that was felt so deeply by the entire Rancho Milagro team.
“That was a tough day,” Bob said.
“He’s been in my life for probably over 10 years,” Vanessa said, getting choked up. “He always showed up for me.”
Bob recalled a moment with a veteran suffering from a motorcycle group who came to the ranch. He suffered from PTSD.
“On the exterior, he was tough, pretty tough,” Bob said. “But Mic just walked right up to that veteran, and they stood out in that arena for probably 20, 30 minutes in just silence together.”
Vanessa has received letters upon letters from countless people who shared how Mic has affected and impacted their lives.
“I didn’t realize was how many people he really touched,” Bob said. “After Mic died, on Facebook, we started seeing all these people sharing their stories.”
The plan is to get “Mickey’s Point,” the place where Mic died, recognized by the City of Scottsdale and the McDowell Sonoran Preserve.
Vanessa and Bob want to dedicate a trail in Mic’s name.
“It’d be a great place for people to visit and just reflect on how that horse changed their life,” Vanessa said.
Vanessa, who was sexually abused until she was 17 years old, credits horses for saving her life.
“About 20 years ago before [northern Scottsdale] was built up, I used to come out here and there were wild horses everywhere,” she said. “It wasn’t wanting to talk to God anymore, and I was just in that really dark place and horses started representing different things in my life that gave me that hope.”
Vanessa, a now-retired paramedic from Sun City West Fire District, had recurring visions and dreams for 20 years that inspired her to start Rancho Milagro.
Most of Rancho Milagro’s clients are victims of domestic or sexual abuse, but the nonprofit also serves veterans and first responders struggling with PTSD.
“Being in this outdoor setting with these horses is really impactful for men who don’t typically want to talk about therapy or counselors,” Bob said.
He believes Rancho Milagro has helped anywhere from 100 to 200 people over the past five years.
Equine-assisted therapy can help individuals – particularly those who are recovering from substance abuse, trauma, depression or a number of other psychological issues – develop a work ethic, identify and process feelings, and learn how to trust.
“Horses are fight-or-flight animals, which means they’re very keen to their surroundings. So they pick up on any emotion or any trauma or anything that we’re experiencing,” Bob said.
Because horses are herd and prey animals, they have a strong emotional sense and can often be an emotional mirror for humans.
Such was the case with Julie.
“Being trafficked and having to suppress those emotions and not be able to feel, they’ll oftentimes mirror what you’re feeling,” she said.
Through engaging and working with horses, individuals learn how to work hard and show up in a healthy way.
“It’s really amazing how they interact with people,” Bob said. “We work with the horses and the people to sense what’s going on and then we work with them to see what the foundation of that issue is and then we just start talking and ask questions and see where it goes. That’s typically how that works.”
Every client’s journey is different, he said, but many often report immediate benefits when working with the horses.
“We see transformation and healing within moments of people working with these animals,” he said. “We work with licensed therapists that come out and they’ve made comments that we get more done in an hour than they get done in months with traditional office therapy. That’s how impactful it is.”
Rancho Milagro hosts Milagro Morning open house events the first Saturday of every month from 8 to 10 a.m.
Here, attendees can meet-and-greet with staff, interact with the horses and learn more about the nonprofit.
“We’ve had people stay for about a half hour and just visit with me and open up about their life,” Vanessa said. “One lady, she told me things that she’s never told anyone about by just coming here and just hanging out. It definitely cultivates a very safe place.”
Currently, Rancho Milagro is in need of volunteers and donors. They have eight volunteers who garden, landscape, walk the horses, help clean stalls, care for the horses and more.
Those interested in volunteering and/or donating can visit ranchomilagroaz.com.