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Skyland Ranch

March 15, 2011
by Gold Bar, Wash
| Reprints

“Change your attitude and see what happens.”

The serene atmosphere of the Skyland Ranch treatment campus about 50 miles northeast of Seattle might be the first impression experienced by arriving residents, but on day one of treatment these clients are exposed to what should prove to be the signature contributor to a successful stay.

Each resident at the 23-year-old facility is assigned to care for a horse during an average stay of six to eight months at Skyland Ranch. Program founder Dave Pitkin says working with horses allows residents to shed the egocentric ways they have carried throughout their addiction and to look outside of themselves.

“Sometimes a resident will say, ‘My horse hates me,’” says Pitkin. “I say, ‘No, it hates your attitude. Change your attitude and see what happens.’”

Usually the positive results occur fairly quickly, Pitkin says, and the daily care of a horse becomes a cornerstone of the 12-Step based treatment offered at the nonprofit, private-pay facility for men.

The vision for the 116-acre property on which Skyland Ranch sits has changed considerably over the years. Pitkin and his brother, a federal prosecutor, bought the land as a retirement property in the late 1970s, but everything changed after his brother died in 1980 at age 44.

Pitkin would sell his own law practice and move to the area, where he operated a recreational resort on the property. But in 1987, the self-described “maintenance drinker” would receive a family intervention. “I then realized what the ranch was supposed to be for,” he says.

The program started as an adolescent facility and has been an adult treatment operation for about 13 years now. It admitted both men and women for a few years, but the complexities of the relationships that would form in that setting convinced Pitkin to offer men-only treatment.

The residential part of the campus includes one building with 13 beds and two cabins with two beds each. Each resident has a roommate in what Pitkin describes as a “bunkhouse” setting.

Skyland Ranch has become so well-known in its Snohomish County community that most of its interior renovations occur thanks to furniture donations from the community. The facility also has a full gym and a recreation room, although Pitkin says residents spend a great deal of time outdoors.

After breakfast and an assigned chore each morning, residents attend a morning meditation followed by two hours spent with their horse. The positive feedback that the resident receives from this interaction is seen as building much-needed self-esteem.

Often a resident who develops a rapport with the horse assigned to him will graduate to working with a horse that is more difficult to manage, Pitkin says.

He explains that many of the residents at Skyland Ranch have fared poorly in more traditional treatment settings. They notice the difference in the Skyland Ranch environment right away.

“One guy had been in treatment five times, and when I drove him in from the airport and he first saw the place, he started laughing,” Pitkin says. “It was a sound of relief; it was different from anything he had seen before.”

Skyland Ranch also rents horses to the public, and Pitkin was struck one time by the presence of a woman who was visiting every Sunday morning to ride a horse and spend some time at the campus. When he asked her about her visits, she said she felt there was just something special about the place.

“I said, ‘God lives here,’” Pitkin says.

Addiction Professional 2011 March-April;9(2):38-39