Quietly Making a Difference: Hay Day Ranch

By Daniel Jones | March 24th, 2015

One of many nonprofits in town is making a difference in the community.

In 2011, Susan Clark saw a remarkable change in her daughter Elena. Before being adopted from Russia in 2006 at age 9, Elena had developed reactive attachment disorder. As a result, the young girl couldn’t trust others or build healthy relationships, and she spent much of her time angry, timid and withdrawn. Traditional therapy had been ineffective in aiding her transition to her life and family.

But when she attended a camp offering equine-assisted therapy, “she just had a way with the horses,” Clark says. “She noticed how they were mirroring her behavior.” Elena, now 18, grew calm and confident. She began developing a kind, nurturing side.


Later in 2011, Clark, a Henrico County Public Schools gifted resource teacher, got an idea. “As soon as I started seeing this was something that worked for her, I wanted to start my own program,” she says.

However, because these kinds of programs were generally expensive and therefore exclusive, she wanted to keep hers free.

Clark then envisioned Hay Day Ranch, an outdoor camp where emotionally conflicted children ages 4 to 18 could ride, groom and spend time with horses. She imagined it would bring them self-growth, comfort and joy.

Working with these gentle giants, she says, would also initiate a healing process in the kids, since “emotionality often gets in the way of a gift that hasn’t quite developed.”

The volunteer-based Hay Day Ranch reached nonprofit status in August 2014, after Clark took in five rescued horses (three of which are ridable) from the United States Equine Rescue League.

A month later, the first campers visited the 5-acre ranch in Goochland County for a couple sessions a week during the six-week-long camp. Prior to the camp, some of the children had exhibited behavioral problems or lacked impulse control. Others had difficult family situations.

Once the camp concluded, Clark noticed changes in each child, including improvements in attentiveness, confidence, nonverbal communication, responsibility and empathy.

“Around the horses, kids are free to be who they are,” Clark says. “There’s still structure, there’s boundaries, but it’s more about being than it is about doing … And it’s not so much about riding as it about the relationship [they develop with the horses].”


Preparing for the spring session (March 10-April 27), the ranch recently moved to a larger facility in Goochland. It is now reviewing applications for future campers.

Caring for the horses is expensive; donations and sponsorships are needed. Getting enough volunteers is also a challenge. Clark hopes more children can be accepted into the program as more people believe in Hay Day’s vision and give their time.

The goal right now is to keep Hay Day free. “I really don’t want kids to be turned away because they couldn’t afford it,” Clark says.

Parents interested in having their children attend the ranch’s programs can fill out an application on the organization’s website.

Also, the camp is not necessarily only for children living in the immediate area. “I’m pretty open right now. I’ve put it out there,” Clark says, “and we’ll just see who takes interest in it.”

For more: visit haydayranch.com or email haydayranch@gmail.com 


More from Boomer