Finding your place in the world
Words by Christiana Roussel
The first thing you notice when you meet Daryl Fletcher is his sheer size.
The founder of the equine-assisted coaching center Stretch Out on Faith Again Ranch (SOOFA) in Newnan, Georgia, Fletcher stands about six feet seven inches tall and emits a rich, soothing baritone voice that seems to align not only with his stature but with his calling in life. Here he is able to combine his lifelong love of horses with his training as a youth pastor to connect therapeutically with clients and change lives.
HOW IT BEGAN
A former youth pastor who grew up around horses on his grandparents’ property in central Florida, Daryl is as comfortable with these massive creatures as he is talking about the struggles he sees people facing today. “The time I spent on my grandparents’ farm with my father was invaluable. I first found the horses to be intimidating, but in learning how to overcome that fear and anxiety, I learned something about myself. I found a spark. I knew I wanted to eventually work with young people. I figured that if I can show young people how to work with and control a 1,400-pound animal, they can stand up to a bully.”
In short, Daryl learned early on that he can use horses to change lives, that a connection to a horse can improve connections between humans.
WHAT’S IN A NAME
Stretch Out on Faith Again Ranch—that is a heck of a long name for this place, and I want to know what the moniker means to Daryl. He pauses for a moment, but in so doing, I realize he is more than prepared for my question. His whole life has been preparing him to answer this question. In that gentle cadence, he replies, “The name is a call for individuals who may have experienced some sort of setback in life. Everyone has tried something and failed—was it a job, a relationship, a career choice?” How do we recover from those failures? What are the tools we have in our arsenal to help us get back up? For many of us, it is faith that gives us the springboard to come back from defeat. Daryl goes on to say, “We get to a place where we are stuck mentally and emotionally—maybe it didn’t work the first time—but after reassessing the situation and getting some external help from people with the best intentions for you—try again. It is OK to fail, but it is not OK to give up.”
“I can tell Grace really trusts you,” he says as I hoist myself up into the saddle on the massive Percheron mare. This surprises me, and I am curious to learn how he knows this. Because while I thought Daryl and I had just been talking, chatting with one another, brushing out the horses and saddling them, there was a whole different level of dialogue going on. This was a separate conversation going on between Grace and Daryl; she was reading me and my behavior and approach to her, and Daryl was innately dialed into her cues.
Daryl has given his horses names that immediately resonate with people: Wisdom, Truth, Peace, Patience, Purpose, Gentle, Justice, Freedom, Joy, Greatness, and Grace. He’s lost count of the number of times someone’s whole countenance changes when he hears the name of the horse he will be riding. Daryl can hand the reins over and say, “You are riding Peace today” and be met with a response, “Wow—that’s awesome. I actually really need peace today.”
THE RULE OF THREE
As a former youth pastor, Daryl learned a thing or two about effectively communicating in ways that are both easily digestible and memorable. After all, the greatest of lessons are the ones we can call upon again and again in our daily lives. The Rule of Three states that when ideas are conveyed in groups of three, they stay with you. Daryl deftly employs this practice from the moment guests arrive at SOOFA. “When someone comes to the barn, they get registered, then meet one of us to cover The Three C’s: Connection (with the horse), Comfort (in handling the horse), and Confidence (in riding).”
These basic concepts apply not only to a morning of riding but can be employed in everyday life.
He chuckles when he thinks about all the riders who come to the ranch, cell phones firmly in hand, eager to capture the perfect selfie. Time and again he has seen riders missing the basic cues the horses are sharing with them because they are too wrapped up in their lives online. Once these clients put the phones away, they are ready to learn another important Rule of Three: Balance, Engagement, and Communication—all crucial when perched atop a cantering horse or in one’s day-to-day life. “Riders learn that they need balance, no matter how fast or slow they are going. They need to be engaged, no matter what is going on inside themselves. And they learn that everything they are doing is communicating with the horse.” Clients are encouraged to “use these horse-based experiences in everyday life. What does balance look like in your own life? How engaged are you in your life? How you show up in the world communicates how you are engaging.”
Located just a short drive from downtown Atlanta, SOOFA is easily accessible to folks who might not otherwise have the opportunity to ride horses, much less participate in equine-assisted therapy. That is by design. It is also important to mention that as one of the first and only equine therapists of color in the area, Daryl is uniquely positioned to influence minority youth with his work. He notes, “It definitely influences how I coach and my style because most of my clients have a minority background. I have an immediate cultural relationship. I see my minority-owned business as representation. I am letting a young person see that this is a possibility for them too.” In addition to offering trail rides and overnight bed-and-breakfast stays, SOOFA hosts summer internships, which provide a deeper level of engagement. The results are proof positive that the work is effective. “We had a young man complete the program with a confidence that empowered him to try out for and join the robotics team at his school. We are not telling kids they need to become farmers or ranchers, but instead, we are giving them the space to show them they can do hard things.” This ethos comes from his belief in the teachings of Frederick Douglass who once said, “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.”
Daryl has a vision for what he hopes to create with his work, and part of that includes expansion. To reach more people and change more lives, SOOFA needed more space and resources. He and his team recently completed an acquisition of 70-plus acres with a formal barn and living spaces. His plans are vast: bunkhouses for overnight retreats and summer camps, additional barns, farm animals, and a training arena. His plans are bolstered by a strong partner in his wife Sharon, as well as by a board of directors who are uniquely invested in seeing him succeed. A recent partnership, facilitated by a board member, with Cornell University, is opening doors for him and the work being done in Newnan. Stretching into these goals, Fletcher leads by example, giving others the safe space to follow, building Connection, Confidence, and Character, one ride at a time.