With today’s modern way of living, it can be hard for some people to find a balance and inner peace, but drive about 8 miles West on Devils Hollow Road, away from the hustle and bustle of the city, you’ll find Kamp Kessa at Cedar Fire Farm.
“Modern living causes us to negatively impact our capacity for mystical awareness,” said Anthony Howard, co-owner/co-founder of the camp. Anthony founded the camp, which is a nonprofit 501(c)3, with his wife, Thecla Helmbrecht Howard, 21 years ago.
“We get overwhelmed with technology. We need to get out of our heads and come back into balance with the natural world, and be taught by the natural world. Mysticism is about being fascinated with life.”
That’s exactly what Kamp Kessa offers.
Thecla and Anthony started the camp after leaving their jobs with the Kentucky Department of Juvenile Justice. Anthony was the superintendent at Cardinal Treatment Center in 1996, an alternative school in Louisville run by the Department of Juvenile Justice. They met when Thecla came to inspect his program at CTT.
They connected over sharing concerns about the juvenile system and how kids seemed to be discarded after completing the program and in desperate need of more help to better integrate into society.
They married shortly after quitting their jobs and bought the farm in the western part of Franklin County to use as a means to teach at-risk youth horsemanship.
They lived in a tent for the first three years and had just a few horses to start. Their herd eventually grew to at one point 75 horses, Anthony said. They now have about 30. The horses are typically brought to them. Their herd is made up of retired race and show horses — some have disabilities, like Jack, who was only born with one eye. Others were surrendered by their owners because they could no longer care for them.
The horses are free-range with more than 100 acres to roam.
“They can find what they need from the environment like a wild herd,” Thecla said. “The older horses know when to dig in the ground and get minerals to rebuild their immune systems.”
Thecla said when they get a new horse it’s treated like a baby and has to follow an immersion program. Many of the horses they receive haven’t been ridden in years.
“We do all the ground work with them,” she said. “They relearn how to be a partner to humans. The horses are allowed to pick their friends and their people.”
Anthony said there are two or three social groups within the herd.
“You give them the space to rekindle,” he said. “It’s all about relationships.”
When they first started the camp, Thecla and Anthony would host residential camps and have boys in one tent and girls in the other. They would teach the kids horsemanship — how to groom, lead, ride, communicate and care for the horse.
“The kids are going to take risks and really we all need risk,” Anthony said. “We need to push edges.
“We make the risk as sheltered as possible.”
Thecla said they call that “a positive peer culture approach.” After a kid learns a skill they teach that skill to another kid.
“We’ll have a circle with them that’s dialogue based,” Anthony said. “It follows the American Native tradition of passing the feather. Because they accomplished something, they are proud.”
Many of the practices at Kamp Kessa are based around Native American traditions. Anthony is part Cherokee and Thecla grew up in northern Wisconsin living a communal lifestyle with an Ojibwe tribe sharing resources, time and services. Anthony has a master’s in school psychology and Thecla has doctorates in educational leadership and health psychology.
Within five years, Thecla said they started to make the focus more around families instead of just the kids.
“Soon we started working with families and developed a discovery model of intervention,” she said. “We were looking at the kids’ gifts instead of their deficits. We’ll have kids come in with someone who cares about them and will follow through with what they learn here.
“It’s about how to get along in the world based on your gifts and how to interact with the environment in a sustainable way. How to become earth friendly.”
And now, those families are helping other families at the camp.
At the start of the pandemic, Thecla said she did have to suspend many of the programs at the camp and overnight retreats. In March, she began to offer Intuitive Horse classes again. This summer she hopes to offer family day camps.
On a recent cool Sunday morning in March, about a dozen people, along with their horses, gathered in a circle at the farm for the Intuitive Horse Level 1 class led by Thecla.
She began with a performance of a Willie Nelson song about a mustang he used to own. She played the guitar and sang while participants Paige Waggoner played a drum and Angie Impellizzeri played secondary guitar. After the song, each participant shared how they were feeling and a tip for grooming horses.
The curriculum for the class is based from the book “Zen Mind, Zen Horse — The Science and Spirituality of Working with Horses” by Allan J. Hamilton, MD.
Thecla went over the four “Fs” to be used while grooming a horse — friendliness, fairness, firmness and final. The first steps of connecting with a horse are met through grooming with patience and knowing how to read the horse’s body language being key.
Thecla also discussed how a horse sees, smells and hears.
Toward the end of the class Paige offered a horse yoga demonstration. Participants climbed atop their horses, bareback, and performed stretches to help them better connect to their horse.
“Doing yoga with your horse settles you into your body and your horse and allows you to connect with your horse more,” Paige said.
After the circle and yoga demonstration, participants groomed their horses and readied them for an hour-long trail ride around Kamp Kessa.
One of the participants was 17-year-old Eveline Clark with her horse Boomer. Eveline has been attending the camp for seven years.
“When I first came out here, I was angsty and had problems with my parents,” Eveline said. “Working out here with my mom, helped me work through a lot of stuff. On a horse I feel free. It’s helped me a lot. It’s like therapy.”
She said she also enjoys the responsibility of horsemanship. She has learned how to groom, lead and tack a horse and has been able to teach other people those skills. She has also learned to break horses, and even got a job helping a neighbor break a horse.
“I think it’s so cool to work with an animal of this size,” Eveline said. “You can connect with horses and they can teach you a lot. Horses always live in the moment. If you’re not in the moment with a horse, that’s when accidents happen.”
Thecla said some kids will come to the camp saying they know everything about horses and try to lead the group with negative behavior.
“Horses never lie,” she said. “They only know now. They don’t care about your past. What are you right now and how do you present yourself? They give us the opportunity to see a person in seconds.
“If you’re really faking, they might go to amazing ends to tell you you’re full of it.”
Thecla said that horses are natural healers and they possess the ability to read people and get to the truth.
Participant Shelly Sutley has been attending the camp for the past six months as a means to treat her multiple sclerosis. She was diagnosed with the disease at 25 years old.
“The lessons I’ve learned through the last 25 years of physical therapy, cognitive and speech therapy, I found myself using those tools and lessons while riding,” Shelly said. “My brain made the connection once I started working with Derby.”
Shelly said the day after she has ridden Derby, she becomes aware of muscles she forgot existed.
“It is a relief from the held up tension from feeling numb and physically desensitized,” Shelly said.
Thecla said the act of riding a horse has medical benefits. The jostling stimulates your spine, which is the core of your body.
“By riding bareback your stimulating nerves in your tailbone,” Thecla said.
Shelly said working with Derby has helped her to “stay in the moment” and concentrate on riding and what her body needs to do.
“He grounds me,” she said. “I keep hearing to trust the process. He was grounded and patient with me … he can sense when I am daydreaming and scattered.
“My time at Kamp Kessa has enhanced mindfulness practice.”
The bond that Shelly has created with Derby is priceless and radiates across the farm. When she sees him, a brightness fills her face.
“Horses are the best partners we can have in life,” Thecla said. “Horses are healers if you give them a chance. They are amazing. For me, they’re my life and passion and reason for getting up in the morning.”
For more information on programs being offered at Kamp Kessa, visit www.cedarfire.net. You can also donate to the farm at that link.
Also on the farm is an AirBnB cabin that helps supplement the cost of hay for the horses. To book a stay, visit https://www.airbnb.com/rooms/16362866?s=67&unique_share_id=8dae8ae8-e4be-479f-ac52-95c85e3c784a.