By Diana Pikulski
This past Monday was the fifth and final week of the ACTT Naturally Teen Leadership program for selected high school students from Mechanicville High School just outside of Saratoga Springs, NY. During the five-week program, funded by Thoroughbred trainer and alumnus Chad Brown, the students learned about body language, assertive versus aggressive behavior, and the predator-prey relationship between horses and people. The goal at 'graduation' was to connect with their horses while at-liberty (no halters or leads) in the round pen.
“The goal of the at-liberty exercise is to put all of the sessions together and build the bond with the horse which signifies that the horse is seeking solace or safety with you as their leader,” said Valerie Buck, who conducts the program. “This helps teens in countless ways as the horse accepts them and chooses to be right with them up-close and nowhere else.”
These teens were chosen by their two guidance counselors because of problems in communication, socialization or depression, or because they were experiencing some difficulty at school or home. For week five, it was warm enough to be outside using the outdoor round pen where grass and other distractions make the connection exercise more challenging. Yet, the teens showed real skill in reading their horses' body language and adjusting their own accordingly.
“Over the five weeks, we do exercises to teach communicating with clarity and intention as well as how your energy affects others and how to control it,” said Buck. “In the end, when all the lessons come together and the horse attaches himself to the teen, it is very emotional.”
At first, Brandon, who has been teamed with Harlem Rocker for the full five weeks, had trouble using his energy to send his horse to the outside of the round pen. Once he figured it out, the Thoroughbred dug in and showed his graded stakes winner style as well as a few aerials.
“Trust him,” instructed Buck. “Just drop your shoulders and ask him to come in.”
Brandon softened his shoulders, asked for a hind-end yield and Harlem Rocker trotted right up to him and then followed Brandon around like a puppy.
“He was so confident and calm,” said Suzanne LeForestier, school psychologist who was in attendance at the program for most weeks. “I am so proud of him.”
“It helps that these are really cool racehorses, ” said Buck. “The students' time here is like nothing else that they ever experience. It has an impact. They learn awareness of healthy boundaries and to help them find mutual respect among their peers, parents and teachers. They learn better communication skills and how to work out conflicts and situations with a more rational approach.”
One teen said of the program: “From going to the horse farm I see a different me–like a calm, focused, determined me. I think the horses helped bring that out of me and helped me find it. This experience also teaches people like me that if you are focused, you can do anything, like build trust with an animal. I now realize the horses aren't just animals, they are kind of like people. I say this because they have feelings, they learn right from wrong. They need to build trust and helped me in the right direction, just like people do. So, going to the farm was not just a grade it was a way to find your true self and what you're capable of doing”
Brandon, when asked what part of the program he liked best, he replied: “I liked every part of it.”
Brandon hopes to volunteer at Long Shadows Farm this summer to learn more about horses and keep working on his horsemanship skills.
Diana Pikulski is the editor of the Thoroughbred Adoption Network.