Alta. cattle operation provides tranquil haven

On the Farm: Blue Rein Ranch raises grass-fed beef while also offering animal-assisted mental health therapy services

FORT MACLEOD, Alta. — Up a gravel road and down a gentle hill lies a place of calm, where horses graze within sight of a big red barn, dogs drool over chew toys and cattle munch on prairie grass.

It’s Blue Rein Ranch, where a sense of serenity is a valued commodity on Marvin and Erica Vandenhoek’s dual operation of animal-assisted mental health therapy and grass-fed beef sales.

Marvin is a certified mental health therapist who offers a range of counselling to clients, much of it assisted by his “co-therapists,” the horses he uses to provide help for those who seek it.

“I was doing office therapy, face to face counselling. I just found it limiting, especially for younger clients. It’s challenging to open up to somebody face to face, often, so I started looking at other ways to connect differently with clients, and I was into horses, so naturally that seemed like a good fit. So now we integrate the horses into the counselling process.”

The 210-acre ranch has been in Erica’s family for years and with the addition of a riding arena, it has proven ideal for both equine counselling and cattle production.

There are 12 horses on the ranch but four of them are the mainstays for equine therapy. All are older, calm animals that are used to people. | Barb Glen photo

There are 12 horses, four of which are the core of therapy sessions. People dealing with anxiety, depression, grief or trauma are among the clients who visit the ranch.

“I often let the clients pick which horse they want to work with,” said Marvin. “We’ll come out here and we’ll just lean on the fence and I’ll talk about the horses and the clients will observe.

“It’s actually interesting to see how the client will select the horse they want to work with and sometimes the horse picks them.

“(Horses) have a natural ability to read emotion. A horse can tell what somebody is feeling and they provide biofeedback. So if someone is feeling kind of anxious, the horse will pick up on that,” said Marvin.

After a brief hiatus during the early days of the pandemic, business has been steady, with direct inquiries as well as referrals from other mental health professionals, doctors, social workers, schools and various support services.

Marvin is the sole mental-health counsellor and the rest of the family provide support for other parts of the operation. Erica manages day-to-day home operations, the activities of their three boys still at home — Markus, Conner and Kornell — and assists with cattle operations including calving, feeding and sorting.

“I help with all the background stuff,” she said.

Erica also manages a booth at the Fort Macleod farmers market to sell beef and provide information about the counselling service.

“The family of course helps with the care of the horses and the exercising of them and things like that,” added Marvin. “It would be pretty hard to run this whole operation without the family.”

The number of pairs of cowboy boots sitting at the ready in the arena show there has been lots of activity. | Barb Glen photo

The couple also have three older daughters, Robin, Carissa and Meghan, who are working or in post-secondary pursuits.

The beef side of the operation focuses on direct sales from the farm. The family has 15 cows and 45 head in total, which are all grass-fed from start to finish. Herd expansion is a goal but 25 to 30 cows are probably the limit.

“I think with the land we have, that’s what it will sustain”, Marvin said about the property.

They have two animals butchered at a time and then make up packages of various cuts to suit customer needs. The herd is mostly Red Angus.

“I’ve always had a thing for healthy eating and healthy living so we decided to get into raising grass-fed beef. That’s been a process of a few years by the time you have your herd established and animals old enough to put up for market.”

The beef has proven popular with customers but it is clear that counselling is the core of Blue Rein Ranch. It opened its doors this summer during Alberta’s Open Farm Days so visitors could see the horses and the facilities.

Counselling sessions take place in the new arena, a safe and confined environment. Clients don’t necessarily ride the horses, depending on their comfort level and desire to do so. For many, said Marvin, it’s a case of wanting to become more assertive or attain a feeling of being in charge of their own lives.

“That’s what makes it different than just a riding lesson. I see everything through the lens of mental health because that’s my training. I’ll ask the client, what’s going on for you right now and how can this animal help to regulate your emotions?”

Samantha Cooley, a practicum student, is assisting with mental health counselling services at the ranch. | Barb Glen photo

In addition to expanding the beef herd, Marvin wants to expand the practice and is working with a practicum student, Samantha Cooley, who is pursuing her masters in mental health counselling.

Such services come at a cost that not every client can manage so Blue Rein has established a non-profit foundation that has raised funds to pay for some clients’ counselling. Most recently the foundation received $25,000 from the Lethbridge Northern 4-H Beef Club, which donated the proceeds from this year’s charity steer project.

As for the chosen name of the ranch and the business, Marvin said its background is simple.

“One of my kids had purchased a set of blue reins at one point, years ago, and as we were discussing the whole idea of starting a therapy business and so on, of course the idea of a name came up and those blue reins were lying on the kitchen table.

“It has a nice ring to it and I find blue a very calming colour, myself.”

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