At-risk youth can shut out teachers, parents and principals, but thereâ€™s one thing thatâ€™s impossible to ignore.
â€œYou get them in an arena with a horse and thereâ€™s no way they do not engage,â€ said Vicki Robinson, an equine-assisted therapist. â€œThey have met their match.â€
Shepherd Inc., a non-profit that specializes in equine assisted therapy, has programs helping youth, families, individuals, businesses and people with special needs.
All the programs center around horses, although 95 percent of the learning takes place on the ground.
â€œItâ€™s not about horsemanship and itâ€™s not about riding,â€ said Ashley Hayes, founder of Shepherd. â€œThere is so much more involved than that.â€
The organization is located at Victory Hill Stable in Lincolnton and participants in the program have shown positive changes.
Amy Claxtonâ€™s daughter, who has Down syndrome, improved her balance, strength and social interaction through working with horses.
â€œAshleyâ€™s a great motivater and I think when kids get around her, she challenges them to try,â€ said Claxton. â€œI think they do things they didnâ€™t think they could do.â€
Hayes, who has over seven years of combined training in education and counseling, first used dogs as therapeutic aids.
She found, however, that horses are more effective. Unlike dogs, horses are prey animals â€” always in the present, always in survival mode.
â€œPrey animals really rely on reading the non-verbals of predators to survive,â€ said Hayes.
That means horses are constantly responding to the cues humans put off.
â€œYou canâ€™t lie to a horse,â€ said Cindi Sain, owner of Victory Hill Stable. â€œThey just know.â€
Horses also require relationships to be built before they become friendly.
â€œUnlike dogs, they donâ€™t just latch on to you and love you unconditionally,â€ said Hayes. â€œYou have to develop that relationship and earn that trust.â€
For at-risk youth who face intimidating problems at home, 1,000-pound horses also serve as a force to be reckoned with.
â€œOnce they accomplish (working with a horse), theyâ€™ll see they can accomplish something that appears like a big task,â€ said Joe Parks, who works with Success Behavioral Care in Gastonia.
During a demonstration of equine-assisted therapy held last week, Kersten Edwards faced that challenge head-on.
The teenager, along with a small group, worked to place a bridle and saddle on a horse.
As part of the therapy, only certain members of the group were allowed to talk and other members could only use their arms. Edwards found the task daunting.
â€œI was kind of scared, man,â€ he said. â€œI think I slowed (the group) down a little bit.â€
In the end, however, the group succeeded at their task and â€œprocessingâ€ followed.
Members talked about their feelings â€” what it was like to lead and follow, how the situation could act as a metaphor for real life.
Hayes hopes such processing continues for participants throughout the week.
â€œWe do carry it into real life,â€ she said.
She says the process affects everyone, from individuals dealing with depression and self-worth to autistic children to inner city teenagers.
In order to keep the organization alive, she depends on gifts, sponsorships and donations. Fees operate on a sliding scale and financial aid will be provided for those who need it.
For more information on Shepherd Equine Assisted Therapy and Youth Ranch call (704) 806-5515 or visit www.shepherdeat.org.
by Sarah Grano