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Kids heal and grow by caring for horses at Gainesville ranch
Whispering Angels Youth Ranch pairs children with rescue horses to develop bonds
One of the horses at Whispering Angels Youth Ranch named Manchee shows off his teeth as Alex Sexton strokes his neck Thursday afternoon at the ranch. The ranch is a faith-based nonprofit dedicated to providing hope, healing, love and acceptance to young minds using horses in a nurturing farm environment. Whispering Angels serves about 25 children a week, with the children grooming and riding the horses.

Whispering Angels Youth Ranch

Address: 4549 Clarks Bridge Road, Gainesville

Phone number: 678-725-0735




Whispering Angels Youth Ranch is a place to heal and grow.

And at the Gainesville ranch, sometimes it’s unclear who exactly is helping who.

One prime example is Jan Nichols’ family. The 52-year-old Gainesville woman has been bringing two of her grandchildren to the  ranch for the past year after they were permanently placed with her in 2014.

The program at the ranch matches children with a rescue horse and mentor, allowing them to bond and develop a relationship. The child meets with the same mentor and is involved with the same horse throughout their time at the ranch.

“When they met the horses ... to watch that connection between the child and the horse in that moment, it’s magical,” Nichols said, adding she gets chills just thinking about it.

Nichols found out about Whispering Angels through the Court Appointed Special Advocates program. CASA is a community-based program that recruits, trains and supports citizen-volunteers to advocate for the best interests of abused and neglected children in courtrooms and communities, according to its website.

Marie Allen founded Whispering Acres Youth Ranch in 2012 as a way to reach out to children and equine that are hurting and provide a sanctuary for the horses and children at the ranch. It also provides a channel to Jesus Christ and to show the children hope is alive through his creation.

“It was an instant match for the situation at hand that I had and what she (Marie Allen) had to offer there,” Nichols said.

Nichols said her grandchildren didn’t feel loved or couldn’t connect to anyone prior to coming to Whispering Angels. Since then they’ve gained self-confidence and feel more in control of their lives after working with the large animals.

“They absolutely love those horses,” she said.

According to the organization’s mission statement, Whispering Angels Youth Ranch is a faith-based nonprofit dedicated to providing hope, healing, love and acceptance to young minds through the spirit and love of a horse in a nurturing farm environment. The ranch facilitates healing to those children who are facing challenging circumstances in their lives.

“When we established this, we established it with the mission of reaching out as a sanctuary and rescuing broken hearts and just give them hope,” Allen said.

The ranch serves about 25 children each week. Allen said they try to serve children who have no organization dedicated specifically for their needs. When children come to the ranch, they first go through an orientation process and meet each horse. Then the horse chooses which child it would like to work with.

“They go around and meet each horse and we watch for that submission, usually it’s just one horse,” Allen said. “Then we choose one of our mentors (who) is best suited.”

During a regular visit, the children meet with their mentor and review their week. Sometimes the mentor will touch base with the child’s caretaker. Then the children choose a chore from the board and complete it. From there, they groom the horse and go for ride later. It usually takes several sessions before the child is ready to ride.

During the rides, the mentors always lead the horse. The children ride outside or in an arena. They play games with the horses — such as balancing items on the horse or placing things on their ears or backs while riding — to establish trust.

“We’re teaching them trust primarily when they’re on that horse,” Allen said.

Children also learn how to care for horses and about horse safety.

“We’re really trying to express this is not horseback riding lessons and it’s not hippotherapy,” Allen said, stressing Whispering Angels is a ministry, not therapeutic or medicinal.

Hippotherapy is the use of horseback riding as a therapeutic or rehabilitative treatment, especially as a means of improving coordination, balance and strength.

“It’s nothing like that,” Allen said. “So it’s a privilege when they get on that horse. ... It’s just being one with the horse and using it for that purpose.”

David Mcneilly and his wife, Judy, of Gainesville, volunteer as mentors at Whispering Angels. They have a farm with three horses in Hall County and thought volunteering at the ranch would be a good fit.

“I think it’s about helping those (who) can’t help themselves, due to circumstances they can’t control. They’re in trouble or are troubled children,” Mcneilly said. “We do work with them once a week. By staying with the same child each week, you really build a bond with a child and I think that’s what makes it work with the child.”

From a mentor’s point of view, conversations with the children vary from talking and joking to more.

“They’ll talk about things they like a lot,” Mcneilly said. “They’ll tell jokes and then eventually the conversations get around to things they don’t like and I think that’s why it works.”

Some days the kids don’t want to work with the horse, and that’s OK, too. They can walk through the woods or enjoy the community gardens on the property.

Mcneilly said he feels sometimes children are looking for someone to take on the role of a father or mother if they only have one parent.

“It’s a Christian-based farm and we can talk, if it comes naturally, about God,” he said. “And I’ve had some good conversations with a couple of these little guys about God and I think God knows more than we do that it works best having father and a mother.”

Allen said they couldn’t operate the ranch if it weren’t for the mentors. Since the ranch has been in operation, they’ve slowly taken on mentors. Most are retired teachers or church staff.

“I really, really check these mentors out,” she said. “They have to be just the right people.”

She strives to find upstanding people in the community who have experiences with horses.

For Nichols and her grandchildren — as well as the many other children the ranch serves —  Whispering Angels has been a dream come true.

“I still am in awe at someone who can dream that, have that passion and can make it come to life,” Nichols said of Allen. “When you get up to that ranch and you just see God’s work in motion and her (Allen’s) passion for that, it’s so huge and you feel it.”

For more information about the program offered at Whispering Angels Youth Ranch, visit