Unicorn Ranch

Lorane nonprofit provides therapeutic services to kids and horses

Story and photos by Craig Reed

Matilda Brannon sits on Fuego as they wait for instructions during a riding lesson at the Lorane Unicorn Ranch. Matilda, 10, is in her third year of riding at the ranch.

Smiles light up the faces of young riders sitting astride their mounts.

The four-legged animals—ranging from small ponies to big horses—probably enjoy the time also.

They calmly give the kids rides—sometimes at a walk and sometimes at a trot—across the arena at the Unicorn Ranch in Lorane.

Walking or jogging along with each animal and rider is a volunteer “sidewalker” who provides safety and encouragement for both the two- and four-legged participants.

The hour-long riding session is under the guidance of Katarina Cernozubov-Digman, ranch owner and director of the ranch’s nonprofit program that provides therapeutic services for kids and animals.

Katarina, who has a doctorate in psychology, has offered the program on her Lorane property since 1990.

Now 80, she is small and lean in stature, but strong of voice and full of energy. Katarina walks among the horses and riders, giving instructions and encouragement. When it is time to trot, she quickens her pace, encouraging horses and riders to transition from walking to trotting.

“It’s incredibly meaningful for me to do this work,” Katarina says. “It gives meaning to my life. It’s very rewarding to see the progress in the kids, in their families and in the horses to where they’re all feeling confident.

Katarina Cernozubov Digman, owner of Unicorn Ranch, works with rider Mandala Surasky and horse Taffy during a riding lesson at the ranch. Katarina and the ranch provide therapeutic services for people and horses.

“It’s not just the horses and the people, but nature is incredibly healing. We’ve tried to create a place here with a natural world that can have a calming effect.”

Scientific data shows humans and animals can develop special relationships that are psychologically and physically therapeutic for both.

Some of the kids in the riding program are shy or dealing with health or family issues. The ponies and horses they ride can help them learn skills to deal with problems.

The kids are shown and told if they can develop a relationship with an animal, they can do the same with people, young and old.

Many of the ponies and horses in the program have had their own issues. They have been rescued from abusive situations or donated because owners don’t have or take the time to work with them.

Like the kids, these animals need a calming, comforting hand—first from Katarina for an extended time to get them settled, then eventually from the young riders who learn how to groom a horse before saddling up and riding.

The ranch also has dogs that give the kids another friend or two, and chickens and ducks roam the grounds. The ranch is designated a wildlife sanctuary by the National Wildlife Federation.

In the past, Katarina has worked with up to 30 kids in the program, but now has only 12 who ride once or twice a week.

Coral Hagerwaite rides Dolly, and Kristin Brannon is the sidewalker providing encouragement to riders and horses.

In addition to riding, the kids participate in exercises and activities aimed at improving confidence, coordination, concentration, accepting both winning and losing, setting goals and following up on them, not giving up and always trying one’s best.

Matilda Brannon, 10, is in her third year in the program. She rides Fuego, a big horse.

“I know Fuego is my friend,” Matilda says quietly. “He’s not going to be rude to me.”

Sister Scarlett Brannon, 7, says she loves to hug Leah, a pony. Mandala Surasky says Taffy, a horse, comforts her and cheers her up when she is feeling blue.

“She’s there for me, and I’m there for her,” Mandala says. Coral Hagerwaite says Dolly, a horse, somehow knows “we are friends. She understands me.”

There is no set fee for the kids to be in the program. Their parents or guardians pay what they can or volunteer their time at the ranch.

While the kids are riding, having lunch, and in positive group settings, the adults can be sidewalkers, clean horse stalls, fix fencing or do other maintenance jobs that pop up around the property.

In addition to the kids riding at the ranch—either in the arena or on trails—Katarina reaches out to seniors in assisted living and nursing facilities. Those folks can visit the ranch and its animals. Beethoven, a pony, and service dogs also make trips to the care homes.

Encounters between seniors and the animals are a highlight for the people, Katarina says, noting the dogs and pony love the attention.

Katarina and her therapeutic riding center have been recognized and honored several times, receiving awards from the Department of Health, the Department of Justice, the United Way, and a First Lady Award and commendation from the U.S. President Bill Clinton.

Katarina was born in Yugoslavia. She developed an early interest in horses, listening to her grandparents tell stories about the horse-and-buggy days in Europe.

She came to the United States in 1968 and taught psychology classes at the University of Hawaii for 20 years. While there, she got her first horse—an animal that was “too crazy” for the polo fields, according to its former polo riding owner.

Katarina was told if she could calm the horse, she could have it. In time, she did. The two became the team that started the therapeutic program for kids and animals in Hawaii before Katarina moved to the Lorane ranch in 1990.

“If children don’t feel good about themselves, I will help, and a big animal like a horse will help,” Katarina says. “Horses can help bring positive changes to a kid.”