The foundation is named in honor of, and based upon the experience of, a young man named Ben, whose struggles with bipolar disorder were suspended and his life greatly enriched by his 18-month adventure on a mustang ranch in Wyoming during his late teen years. The positive impact that experience had on Ben is the foundation for, and inspiration behind, this program.
Ben’s True Story, As Told by His Father
When Ben was about 14, he began to display symptoms of serious emotional problems. Not long afterward, he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. By the time he entered the large area high school as a freshman, he was in a complete crisis. He couldn’t get out of bed, couldn’t handle school work, was at war with his parents and siblings and was becoming violent, angry and resentful.
By this point we knew, as most attentive parents of young people with mental health problems soon discover, that juvenile mental health problems are often poorly understood and served by the medical, community health and educational communities. The medical services, counseling, medications and special education services available to young people with these challenges can be a poor match for these cases.
A smaller, private school helped for a while. But, by the middle of what would have been Ben’s junior year of high school, he was floundering again, and nothing seemed to help. Getting him up, to school and to perform was becoming impossible, and the whole extended family was being destroyed along with our son. Jobs were being placed at risk, and marriages and siblings were being harmed.
What were our options? Institutionalization is scary, far away for most, and prohibitively expensive.
One day, our son’s counselor happened to make a fateful comment. “It’s a shame he isn’t growing up on a farm. He needs to live… in a very quiet, remote, isolated, gentle environment, where he can feel safe and be removed from the sources of stress around him….”
It so happened that our son loved horses, especially mustangs, and through his teen years we used his love for horses as a way to hold onto him, to give him something constructive to do with family and to build his self-esteem.
To raise his spirits, we traveled one summer to northeastern Wyoming to visit a remote ranch where Ben’s favorite mare had family roots. I cannot exaggerate how remote, quiet and modest this wonderful place was. The gentle, humble family who lived there was third or fourth generation ranchers, whose forefathers had homesteaded the ranch after the Civil War. A couple of the original shacks that served those homesteaders still stood. My son would eventually live in one of them.
Some months after we left that little slice of heaven in Wyoming, as the crisis grew unbearable at home, I picked up the phone and called that ranch family to discuss our situation and raise an idea.
Did they need help on the ranch? Would they be interested in hosting my son for the coming summer; maybe for longer? Did they understand that he faced serious challenges? Could they help him get in front of a doctor, if needed?
The answer was “yes” to each question. “Yes? You mean ‘yes’? Really?”
So, the day after he completed his junior year, I packed my son, some clothes and a couple of sleeping bags in our SUV and we drove 1,000 miles west, leaving behind a panicky family, worried sick about the great experiment just beginning. Believe me, the plan was controversial!
A few days later, as I drove away from the ranch that would become our son’s temporary home, and watched him in the rear view mirror, I could only pray it would work. Our son dropped out of high school and lived for the next 18 months in a one-room shack with no running water, and a space heater and a Franklin stove to protect him from the northern Wyoming winter.
During his very successful stay, he survived a serious injury resulting from a fall from a mustang, extreme cold winter, rattlesnake encounters and much more. I’ll never forget his voice when I spoke to him by telephone after his fall and injury. He was proud. He had survived and had won the admiration of his peers. He was reassuring his dad, “I’m a survivor, Dad. I’m OK.”
During his 18-month stay out west, my son learned to gentle wild mustang colts, he worked cattle, climbed windmills, and grew stronger. Later, he would impress a visiting group of horse buyers when he rode out a bucking bronc in front of the crowd. Days later, as he related the story to me, he beamed with self-confidence.
And, you know what? He got better.
He earned his high school diploma far from home, among many tough kids from across the country.
Eventually, he grew homesick and asked to come home.
For the time he was there, and for some time thereafter, we believe the ranch experience prolonged, and improved his life, and the separation saved our family intolerable damage. It gave Ben much needed self-confidence and time to mature.
Years later, at the age of 24, Ben died of an accidental overdose - an early victim of fentanyl. But, because of his time on the ranch, he felt proud, earned his diploma, paid for his own car and apartment, attended night classes and enjoyed friends.
In the months and years that have passed since my family went through this experience, I’ve spoken with many parents who learn of our experience. I often see a look on their faces—a look of desperation—that says, “Boy, I wish I could find something like that for my child.”
Ben's Ranch Foundation is working to create similar benefits for teens struggling with common mental health challenges by creating jobs for them at farms and stables near their homes, and helping them find a little bit of what Ben found out west.