Vallecito resident Dawn Solomon knows firsthand the therapeutic power of horses to help individuals with mental illness and substance addiction.
Solomon, 42, began smoking marijuana at age 13. By age 26, she faced 16 years in prison for selling and manufacturing methamphetamine. She struggled with various forms of addiction treatment until she learned to break a wild horse.
“I did treatment on myself, I guess, and 15 years later, they put a name with it, and started to use it to treat people with addiction,” Solomon said. “I was like, ‘Oh, this whole time the Lord was breaking me, not that horse.’”
Solomon, who has been sober 15 years, plans to open a 30-day inpatient treatment center north of Vallecito Reservoir offering equine-assisted psychotherapy to those with a dual diagnosis of mental illness and substance addiction.
She and an investor, Vincent Franco of Denver, paid $2.8 million for 63 acres at Wit’s End Ranch near the north end of the reservoir. The ranch includes a main lodge and 18 cabins ranging in size from one to four bedrooms.
She hopes to open the retreat within a month, but much remains to be done: She has to hire certified counselors, cooks, groundskeepers and other staff to run day-to-day operations. But many of her land-use permits are in place, and she is close to obtaining her state license.
She says 15 to 20 people are waiting to attend. The ranch will accommodate up to 50 clients at a time, she said.
She wants it to be a five-star experience. Clients will live on the ranch for a month, attend classes, work with horses, have chores, eat healthful meals and participate in outdoor activities.
The cost: $16,000 per month for self-paid clients, $20,000 for clients with private health insurance and $30,000 for Medicaid patients (which the state collects a part of).
They’ll have access to a pool, tennis courts, rec room and thousands of acres of natural lands. They’ll hike, sing karaoke, attend movie nights, eat prepared meals, and, of course, care for horses.
“I want them to walk out with the impression they had the time of their life getting sober,” Solomon said. “They’re going to be on such a strict program and such a strict schedule that from morning to the time they go to bed, their day is pretty much planned out for them.”
For the most part, clients will attend on their own volition; there will be no guards to keep them on site. To be eligible, they must have a dual diagnosis in substance abuse and mental-health affliction, such as bipolar, depression, anxiety, attention deficit disorder or post-traumatic stress disorder. They must have already gone through a detox program.
The dual diagnosis allows Solomon to bill Medicaid and private health insurance clients. She expects most clients will come from the Denver area but also from out of state and Southwest Colorado.
As part of their therapy, clients will work with a horse on a daily basis. They’ll brush it, clean it and teach it commands – for example, how to walk over a stick. They’ll learn how to care for something or someone other than themselves, she said. It also transports them back to a time when forming those bonds with a mule or horse were essential.
Solomon has 10 horses on site and expects to have more once the retreat opens.
“They’ll have to start bonding with that horse, and that is going to teach them how to bond later on in life with other people,” Solomon said.
Horses live in the present, she said. They can sense emotions in people, even if individuals don’t recognize the emotion in themselves, she said. If a client is walking a horse and the horse pulls away, it’s an indication the client has anger issues, she said.
“It breaks through the treatment a lot faster, so we get a lot further,” Solomon said.
Currently, the only inpatient treatment center in La Plata County is Peaceful Spirit in Ignacio. Most residents with substance addiction have to go out of state or to the Front Range to seek inpatient care, said Rick Jacobsen, a licensed clinical social worker and licensed addiction counselor at Axis Health System, a nonprofit mental-health and substance abuse center in Durango. But family involvement and visitation is a valuable component of rehabilitation, he said.
Money can be a barrier for many patients, he said.
“I do feel that it is something that is needed, and I hope they’ll be able to serve all demographics and ethnicities,” Jacobsen said.
Wit’s End Ranch, a historic dude ranch that sits at the base of 12,000-foot-tall mountains, has been vacant for about seven years. One of the nice things about using it for rehabilitation is that it won’t need a name change, Solomon said.
“You’re at your wit’s end when you’re done with your mental and drug addiction, let me tell you,” she said.
An earlier version of this story misspelled Dawn Solomon’s last name.