By Diana Pikulski
By now, almost everyone recognizes the emotional benefits derived from people’s interaction with animals. But the one-day change in the selected high school students in Chad Brown’s hometown of Mechanicville, New York, was striking enough to earn attention.
This Monday started week one of a five week program for students at the school just outside of Saratoga Springs. The program was created by Valerie Buck of ACTT Naturally, a non-profit organization dedicated to off-track thoroughbreds in need of retraining and re-homing. ACTT Naturally’s Thoroughbreds participate in equine-assisted healing and learning programs as part of their transition from racing to a second career.
At 2:30 p.m., the teens filed off the school bus at Long Shadows Farm with eyes down, shoulders rounded, and their hands in their pockets. These teens were chosen by their two guidance counselors because of depression, or because they were experiencing some difficulty at school or home. The program took place in Long Shadow’s massive indoor arena which has a large open space alongside the actual working part of the arena. We circled up and sat in the open space and behind us was the arena wall, which is close to five feet tall. The four Thoroughbreds, who were quietly mingling, had not yet made themselves known to the group. The most talkative person was the bus driver, who said he loved horses and used to live next to trainer Chad Brown’s family. Brown is an alumnus of Mechanicville H.S. and he funded this program for the students with ACTT Naturally. The quietest person was Brandon, the only boy.
“The goal of the program is to help teens build self esteem, learn awareness of healthy boundaries and to help them find mutual respect among their peers, parents and teachers,” said Buck. “They learn better communication skills and how to work out conflicts and situations with a more rational approach.”
“The pilot for the Teen Leadership Program with East Greenbush High School was so successful, I couldn’t wait to get started again.” said Buck. “The change in one hour is remarkable and then over five weeks is astonishing. One mother called and thanked me for giving back her daughter. We are extremely grateful to Chad for sponsoring the Mechanicville students.”
Said Brown of his involvement, “Valerie Buck contacted me about the program a couple of years ago and told me what she was doing. She was going to try to add some schools, including Mechanicville. She knew I had graduated from there, and asked if I would be interested in helping them. Of course, I agreed. It sounded like a great cause, not only helping my high school, but the horses. I’m happy to hear that it has started off with such interest from the students.”
Buck went around the circle and everyone introduced themselves. The teens spoke very quietly. Buck, who exercised racehorses for 20 years and then studied natural horsemanship, gave an introduction to horses and their language.
It was when High Conviction (Arch) put his head over the wall to see them that the first real magic happened. In an instant, the teens came to life and one girl cried tears of joy. The horses, Three Lions (Hennessey), Harlem Rocker (Macho Uno), Fuhrious Warrior (Langfuhr) and High Conviction are big, fit and very engaged. Buck spends untold hours working and playing with them to prepare them for the programs.
The teens’ first exercise with the horses was a silent grooming activity where they became comfortable with the energy and feel of the horse as they groomed and petted them. It is a chance to put into practice the body language lessons they just heard and to start to understand how the horse as a prey animal learns to trust humans who are predators.
The teens were focused with a new intensity. Their eyes were big and faces were open as they ran their hands and brushes over the horses. They stayed aware of the horses’ actions and reactions to see if they were liking the grooming or sending signals that they weren’t. They always returned to the horses’ faces to give them a rub and get that satisfaction when a horse braces his face against your flat hand.
The counselors smiled widely throughout the entire process while they walked from pair to pair.
“I can’t get over it,” said Guidance Counselor Christine Dugan. “Brandon is like a different person. This is amazing and so much more than I ever imagined.”
“It was truly like watching a flower that was initially in bud form,” said Bill Nizolek, an ACTT Naturally volunteer who held Harlem Rocker while Brandon groomed him. “Then, slowly and steadily he bloomed into a beautiful flower. He went from not looking up to smiling and looking proud. I shed a tear of joy experiencing this horse inspired miracle.”
And this is only week one.
Buck said that the timing of this program couldn’t have been more opportune. “This morning I read the heartbreaking story of Kendrick Castillo who was killed on Tuesday trying to stop a fellow student who was shooting classmates in his Highland Ranch high school,” she said. “In our Thoroughbred athletes, we have sensitive, intelligent animals gifted in helping people. The more programs that the industry can fund, the more teens and other people can make what is possibly a life-saving connection.”
“It’s a great idea not only to help provide an opportunity for the horses, but additionally an opportunity for some students who might not otherwise get exposed to working with horses,” said Brown. “Horses covered many important things in my life, and I feel lucky to have been asked to participate. Though I don’t know the individual (students) (the change) doesn’t surprise me, just knowing my experience with horses. It makes me feel really good that the program is off to a great start and they’re seeing immediate results. I’m optimistic that it’s going to lead to great things, really enhancing the lives of these students, and maybe even leading them to work in the horse industry. If that’s not what results, that’s okay, too. Maybe this exposure to horses gets them thinking about pursuing other things that they might not have had the confidence to do.”
For more information, go to www.acttnaturally.org or contact Valerie Buck at [email protected]
Diana Pikulski is the editor of the Thoroughbred Adoption Network.