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Behind The Walls: Horses helping troubled youths

There I was, sitting at the steering wheel of my truck, feeling nervous anticipation as correctional officers encircled the vehicle. We all

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By: Lori Leach |

I note that the soccer field is completely surrounded by buildings and high fences. From a coach’s perspective this was perfect – no chance of losing a horse here!

I pulled up beside the soccer net and used the trailer ties and the goal posts as make-shift cross-ties for the grooming stations. I thought to myself, “This is actually happening – a chance to share my passion about horses with a group of kids in need.” Kids who, by and large, come from backgrounds that no child should live through. Kids who may never have really felt love or safety. Kids who live with anger. Kids who missed out on a childhood because of poverty and abuse. Kids who were left behind by our mainstream school systems.

Their histories were not unfamiliar to me; for several years I had worked with survivors of incest, sexual abuse and domestic violence. I had often thought of incorporating equine therapy into my time with those remarkable people. It did not happen then, but now was my chance to give the “gift of the horse.”

Planting the Seed

I work with the Apprenticeship and Occupational Certification Branch of the Government of New Brunswick. Recently, I was afforded an opportunity to work at a trade expo at the New Brunswick Youth Centre (a correctional facility for youth in conflict with the law) to offer these youth exposure to, and hands-on experience with, a variety of trades. The hope was to generate interest and provide knowledge about healthy pathways to a fulfilling life. I witnessed the enthusiasm sparked by exposure to the trades and was convinced I could ignite a similar appeal regarding horses and reveal the rehabilitative qualities they offer.

Over lunch with Michael Boudreau, the director of Programs and Planning with Public Safety responsible for the administration of the provincial correctional facilities, the seed was planted. This down-to-earth director was intrigued with alternative methods of dealing with the youth. A short time later, he struck a conversation between the centre superintendent, Bruce Tripp, and myself, and the plan for bringing horses to the NBYC was cast.

Now, only a few weeks after that initial conversation, there I was with volunteers from the NBYC staff, unpacking tack and walking the horses around the soccer field to ensure they were comfortable in the setting. As I watched Dez, my 13-year-old Warmblood/Thoroughbred cross, munching on grass, I wondered if there were therapeutic riding programs for this client base anywhere. I knew about the wonderful work of the Canadian Therapeutic Riding Association, but had never heard of it servicing youth in detention.

Introductions

We began the event with a sharing circle. I brought water buckets, turned them upside down, and set them in a circle in the grass to use as seats. The circle concept was important, because I wanted to ensure a sense of equality in the group and wanted any hierarchy of authority to be removed. It was also important to use the circle to bring all the potentially nervous energy from the youth down a few pegs before approaching the horses.

After introductions, I shared how horses have impacted my life. They have not only been my partner in equine sport, but have also been my best friends, my confidants, and, more than anything, my personal therapists. I explained how after a hard day at work or when I am in a bad mood, I just have to see my horses, smell their scent, and let myself get lost in the routines of our world together, and all my problems go away. As I shared how I lose myself in their unconditional love and gentleness, I could sense that talking from this emotional place brought feelings up in the youth as they diverted their eyes.

I described how horses amaze me – that they are huge beasts that could easily harm us, but instead offer nothing but kindness and a desire to please. How they trust us to put a piece of steel in their mouths and lead them around. How they carry me over big cross-country obstacles when I am sure they would rather eat grass. How they sense fear and sadness. How even the best horse can be mean if he is abused.

I asked each youth to share whether they had any experience with horses and how they felt about being there that day. I could see each group member brighten as they had the opportunity to talk. I was impressed with the honesty about their apprehension in regard to horses that both girls and boys admitted.

Next, the two horses, Fred and Dez, were introduced. I described a bit about each horse’s personality and accomplishments. We passed around a photo album filled mostly with competition photos of both horses, and finally (yet very importantly), Michael, the director (who was also part of the circle), reviewed safety rules about being around horses.

Up close and personal

Fred, my retired Thoroughbred CCI* event horse, who is now 25 years old (although he doesn’t know it!), is as safe as a horse can be, so he was used for lunging. Dez, my current event horse, is very social and loves cuddles, but is also very fit, so he was only used for grooming. I’m sure they both wondered what a strange horse show this was, and where were the jumps?

One at a time, each youth learned hands-on about grooming while experiencing, close up, the power and gentleness of these beautiful creatures. There was laughter as they got whacked by the horse’s tail as he swished flies. There was concentration as they moved the rubber curry in circular motions. There was a warm smile (and a pleasant surprise!) as Dez nestled his nose into their chest while the forelock was combed. There was determination as they waited patiently for the horse to lift his foot so it could be picked out. There was anxious anticipation as each felt the soft muzzle of the horse on their flat hand as he carefully took the offered carrot.

The youth centre staff were fantastic. A couple of them had experience with horses and held horses for us throughout the day. They were all smiles, watching the faces of these kids enjoying themselves.

Empathy builds empathy

With helmets, half-chaps, and lunging apparel in hand, I asked for a volunteer to get on the horse. A girl was the first to raise her hand. She had no experience with horses and deserved recognition for her courage. I could tell she was nervous, but after a few minutes in the saddle, walking and telling her about how Fred would take care of her, she relaxed and started beaming with joy. Her fantastic smile was contagious. I encouraged her to reach down and pat Fred, which she did without hesitation.

This same scenario played out for each youth – not one of them backed out of riding the horse and each one actually did a little bit of trot! They faced their fears, found pride in their accomplishment, connected at an emotional level with the horse, and forgot for that short period of time the current realities of their lives.

Riding also helped to remove any prejudices or imbalance between the youth. An excellent illustration of this leveling was seen when a more dominant youth, a large, strong boy, was the first male to mount. His daunting power was instantly reduced as he clung to the neck strap and showed that he had fear. He became a little boy as he said to me, “Wow, I almost fell off twice,” and I warmly replied, “No worries, Fred and I will take care of you.” With that, he volunteered to try trotting. As Mary Gordon, international child advocate and founder of the Roots of Empathy program says, one must show empathy to build empathy. Imagine what a regular program of horse care and riding could do for this young man.

Then there was the other end of the spectrum – a younger male, smaller in stature, who was physically shaking in nervous fear of riding. He was scared to death, but he did it. As with each rider, I explained how to make Fred halt and told him, “Don’t worry, Fred will listen to you.” His comment brought tears to my eyes as he replied, “Fred would be the only one who does.”

We walked for quite a long time to build confidence and then I asked if he would like to trot a few steps. I am sure he felt the pressure of his peers. He agreed. “Okay, but not too fast.” Instead of lunging him, I trotted beside Fred to give the boy an extra sense of security. To my amazement he did posting trot immediately. “Wow!” I said. “You have amazing rhythm; you must be a good dancer.” Startled at the comment, he looked at me with wide eyes and an equally wide grin and replied, “Yeah, I used to be really good at breakdancing.” I could almost see his chest puff out with pride. I called out to the correctional staff to watch him trotting and everyone cheered.

Taking part in this activity was an exceptional experience for me. We all have preconceptions about who reside behind the walls of these facilities. Spending time with the youth demystified all that for me. I felt honoured to be there and so very humbled by the almost visible emotional needs of these youth and touched by how, if only for that short time, Fred and Dez filled some of those needs. It reminded me that we are all human beings that have the capacity to communicate on an emotional level with others, be that human or animal.