There is a beauty in horses, Susan Kamlan says, that she always has loved.
But she didn't have any real experience with horses until age 11. Her family had moved from Japan, where her father had been stationed, to Colorado Springs, and she found some ponies near her home.
"I would walk over to them all the time," she recalls. Then she got her own pony and took care of it and the little herd nearby. But, she says, "I had so much to learn - and would learn it the hard way."
Hairline fractures. Concussions. Teeth broken when a colt backed into her. A knee split open by a horse's kick.
"I guess I always wished that when I was a kid, someone would have kept me safer and told me what to do," she says. So her goal with Iron Horse Christian Youth Ranch, the nonprofit she started more than a decade ago in the Falcon area, is simple: Keep kids safe.
The ranch combines her passion for horses with her faith in God. It's a faith that, like her knowledge of horses, took time to evolve. While she went to church as a kid with her family on Sundays, "I wouldn't have considered myself a Christian," she says.
Kamlan began to immerse herself in - and find comfort in - the Bible before her senior year of high school. In college, other pursuits took over until an Easter Sunday when, on the way to pick up a horse, her vehicle got three flat tires. Believing that "God was reaching out to get my attention," she went to church that day instead.
"As a Christian," she says, "for me the relationship that you have with the horse, the yielding that they have to do, is really similar to what we do as a Christian in order to become kind of who we're supposed to be."
After the hard-knock days as a young horse owner, Kamlan became educated on equines, with an internship at a local ranch and while working at an Arabian horse farm in Michigan. She is now a CHA, or Certified Horsemanship Association, instructor; the CHA's mission is "to promise excellence in safety and education internationally for the benefit of the horse industry." She began Iron Horse with a few classes for kids, such as horse care classes, and it has grown to encompass many activities, including riding lessons, horse rehabilitation and monthly equine education classes open to the public.
"Horses are so expensive," Kamlan says. Classes can be a way for families to learn what owning a horse entails - and for a child to figure out if he or she is truly interested.
Iron Horse also has equine-assisted therapy and EAL, or Equine Assisted Learning, programs. The Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International defines EAL as "an experiential learning experience" that nurtures the development of life skills. "Working with equines provides opportunities to teach critical life skills such as trust, respect, honesty and communication," it states.
"There's a lot of confidence built in dealing with horses," Kamlan says; horses are big animals, she notes, and it's not surprising that some kids might be afraid at first.
As an example of the learning environment, she points to kids on the autism spectrum whose social interactions in groups might be boosted by interacting with and learning to "read" the horse. One horse, a gelding named Frenchi, is partially blind, so kids working with him have to talk to him and serve as his eyes.
"It's different than being in a classroom," she says. "It's a different type of engagement and they remember better."
Iron Horse Christian Youth Ranch also offers summer day camps, including camps provided through a partnership with VillaSport Athletic Club and Spa.
The camps cover topics from rider safety to horse nutrition. "We have a lot of fun, but it's busy," Kamlan said. "We bathe the horses, we groom them, we do games with the horses. Each year, I do it a little bit differently."
Managing it all, even with the help of volunteers, is difficult and tiring, Kamlan said - but, of course, rewarding as well. She has seen kids get their own horses and go on to do other things in the "horse world."
"The challenging thing for me," she says, "is to make sure I'm doing the purpose that God intended me for, which is to keep kids safe."