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GTPulse: Life and Happiness at Reining Liberty Ranch

When Becki Bigelow’s father returned home from WWII he, like many veterans, struggled with PTSD.

“They used to call it shellshock. He was injured at every level. Back then there were no programs, treatments, nothing. So you came home and it was like, get over it.”

The trauma trickled into every crevice of his life, including how he related to his children. The shift in her father was earth-shattering for Becki.

“I lived the life of a child who can’t connect with their father. He was in the same room as me but so far. So what happened to me was I couldn’t please him. I think he thought he was protecting us, but it was very difficult. When you’re a kid you don’t understand war, so I thought it was me. In my teenage years I was suicidal.”

It was in these dark days as an adolescent that Becki began to withdraw from the people and things she loved.  As she got deeper in she began to exhibit all of the classic signs of depression. She was quiet and had lost interest in activities. That all changed when Becki met her first horse.

“At this point in time, someone loved me enough to give me a horse. At the time I had no idea what this horse could do for me. I was so down and in my thoughts that I didn’t even want to look at her. But I felt her approach me, and my head was down and she put her head below my face and looked up at me. After working so hard to disconnect from the world, all of the sudden I had a connection again.”

A spell had been lifted. Excitement and joy rushed through Becki’s veins and she came alive again. Other veterans and their children could surely benefit from experiencing a moment of their own like this, she thought. She made it her life’s mission to provide that healing for vets and their kids and has succeeded with Reining Liberty Ranch.

The Traverse City-based nonprofit organization is a place that feels like home for so many local veterans. Upon arriving at the ranch you can expect to be greeted by sprinting hens and a warm welcome from Becki. Situated on 11 acres is a farmhouse, horse stables, riding arena, henhouse, garden, and meeting space all available and open to veterans for use. She’s made the farmhouse feel like a cozy, lived-in home.

“That’s the feel I want. Come on in, have some coffee, make your own. I have people pop in to grab a cup and use the restroom throughout their day. It’s a landing zone for them.”

Each cushy chair in the living room has a view of the outside with its back against the wall.

“Wherever you’re sitting, nobody’s gonna sneak up on you,” she said.

Considerations like these are taken with all aspects of Reining Liberty. There are multiple therapeutic programs for veterans at the ranch, but Becki said she encourages new people to start with equine therapy, where everything began. Classes like relational horsemanship, therapeutic riding, hippotherapy, and other equine facilitated learning are taught free to veterans.

“We start with an eight-week program, once a week for two hours, where we train them in the language of the horse. We’re teaching them horse whispering. At the end of the eight weeks, they’re able to use just their hands and ask a horse to do things. That’s called liberty.”

Because Becki wants veterans to feel a sense of ownership over the ranch, she encourages them to learn and try out new skills in farm projects too. The Veteran’s Garden is a tranquil and beautiful walk with winding paths, a pergola, and a cedar bench. The fully fenced garden was designed and built by veterans. Some who had worked on the project had the inspiration and skills to create gardens at their own homes.

“When this property became available it was a mess and kind of a metaphor for my life at the time, and for some of our vets’ lives too. It was broken down and in need of renewal. So, over the last eight years, there have been a lot of improvements. We’ve worked together to renew it. Many of our vets have learned how to lay bricks, pour cement, build a fence. Everything we do here is an opportunity to learn and get a new skill.”

The positive impacts the ranch has made in veterans’ lives had been extended to the lives of local foster children. Reining Liberty Ranch regularly hosts kids in foster care through Child and Family Services of Northwestern Michigan. From making no-bake cookies to playing with the goats out back, time at Reining Liberty is comforting for the kids, and even sometimes for the vets.

“When I can bring a veteran who was a foster child back here to mentor foster kids now? It’s amazing,” Becki said, her eyes welling. “What happens is they get an opportunity to work through their own childhood experience that was not good. That’s the part that gets me – when that circle closes. It’s very powerful. And I mean it’s tangible. I can’t even be in the arena when that’s happening. It really blows me over.”

Along with the horses are goats and hens that provide soothing companionship to children and veterans too. A stroll with a goat can do wonders for a stressed psyche, and collecting eggs from the henhouse keeps the kitchen fridge stocked with them for the taking, and for use in a weekly dinner held at the ranch every Thursday evening. Last week’s was lasagna.

At Reining Liberty Ranch, these moments of hope, healing, and acceptance are all in a day’s work. And it’s through the ranch that Becki has closed a circle of her own.

“This place is a catalyst for healing, you can feel it as soon as you arrive.”

To donate time, money, or items to Reining Liberty Ranch, reach out through their or calling at 231-421-3958.


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