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Working With Wild Horses: The Mustang Project
Bringing wild horses and troubled children together to benefit therapeutic riding centers.
Article by Heidi Genoist
Moving in close, he loops one arm under its head to cradle its thrashing muzzle. He rubs the horse’s nose gently, while repeating in a low voice, " Whoa … easy."
Then, he motions to a nearby boy, slouched against the fence. The boy, about 15 years old, walks toward the horse. The man unties the horse, puts the rope in the boy’s hand, and backs away.
The man is Lee Kyser, director of the Mustang Project at the Assurance Home, a residence for abused, neglected and homeless adolescents in Roswell, N.M. Yes, that Roswell. This isn’t a story of aliens or X-files, but it nonetheless relates an extraordinary phenomenon: a program that saves wild horses and troubled children by bringing them together.
One Man’s Calling
Kyser’s understanding of horses comes from a long history with them. He rode for the first time when he was 4 or 5 years old. " We lived out in the country, and Dad got us this old horse named Nellie. I really liked it," he says. But when the family of seven moved into town, they had to leave Nellie behind.
In college, Kyser rode with girlfriend Margaret at a local stable. " When we got married, I told her that I’d get a horse and a ’57 Chevy by the time I was 25." For his 25th birthday, Margaret gave him a toy model of a ’57 Chevy. Kyser bought the horse — a real one — for himself.
That was more than 30 years ago, and horses have been his passion ever since. When he wasn’t working as a teacher, then guidance counselor, then principal for the Roswell Independent School District, Kyser rode the trails of the Sacramento Mountains in southeastern New Mexico, competed in team roping events, or taught his Appaloosa to do flying lead changes and to side-pass.
Retiring relatively young from RISD, Kyser couldn’t bear to pass his time on selfish pursuits. But what does one do with a Master’s degree in counseling and a knack for training horses?
During his recent years as a school administrator, he’d missed the close contact with kids from his earlier days as a guidance counselor. This may be what led him, in 1996, to apply for a position as director of an after-school program for kids at an athletic club, the Cross-Training Center.
When the Cross-Training Center closed in 1997, Kyser went to work herding cattle at the Roswell Livestock Auction. Later that year, a former school colleague told Kyser of a vacant counselor position at the Assurance Home, a safe haven for adolescents who’ve been failed by their families (both real and foster) and are at risk of becoming statistics in the correctional system.
Kyser knew there were a couple of horses at Assurance Home, and he knew his new job would entail helping at-risk youth. But he had no idea that all the paths he’d taken until then were about to converge in one unique opportunity to make a difference.
In early 1998, the Roswell Association for Retarded Citizens began using the equestrian facilities at Assurance Home to develop Roswell’s first therapeutic-riding program, Trailblazers. As he watched the program unfold, Kyser was astonished to see people with physical, cognitive and emotional disabilities making breakthroughs during supervised activities on horseback, or hippotherapy. Recognized by the American Physical Therapy Association and the American Occupational Therapy Association, hippotherapy helps improve balance, flexibility, muscle tone and interpersonal skills of riders with a variety of disabilities — from developmental delays and autism, to multiple sclerosis and spinal-cord injuries.
Perhaps because one of his own four children is mentally handicapped, Kyser took an active interest in hippotherapy. When a Trailblazer’s spin-off program, Reins for Life, offered him a part-time job, he jumped at the chance. In 1997, while working at Reins for Life, Kyser became a certified therapeutic riding instructor through the North American Riding for the Handicapped Association. The certification process required him to demonstrate both his riding skills and his ability to give lessons to handicapped riders. He also received training in CPR and first aid.
Kyser says, " This experience taught me the importance of safety and what makes a good therapy horse. It’s been invaluable in helping me prepare mustangs for therapeutic programs."
Horses Healing Humans x Three
Robin Bowman founded the Pegasus Program (similar to Trailblazers and Reins for Life) in Littleton, Colo., in 1997. She knew about an agreement between the Bureau of Land Management and Cañon City Prison, whereby prisoners are engaged in breaking or gentling wild mustangs. The program helps BLM control the mustang population and raises the auction value of the horses it also helps the prisoners by teaching them the patience and empathy required to tame a wild animal.
" One day," Bowman says, " I was just talking off the top of my head about using the mustangs tamed by the prisoners in our therapeutic riding program." Before she knew it, word spread to the media.
While researching a story about the 1998 shooting of several wild horses in Nevada, a CBS news team came across a newspaper article about the Pegasus Program and its possible involvement in the BLM-prison mustang program. When CBS contacted Bowman for an interview, she knew it was time to make her idea a reality.
" We’d used mustangs in our facility before," she says. " They have a certain temperament and physical build that make them good for working with children. I thought, ‘Here’s a good opportunity for us to help out the BLM, the guys at the prison, the horses and the kids. Everybody wins.’"
Bowman presented her idea to Brian Hardin, who heads the mustang program at Cañon City Prison J.D. Hays, director of Juniper Valley Prison Industries and Fran Ackley, who supervises the prison adoptions of mustangs for the BLM.
In March 1999, Dan Rather presented a story about the multifaceted mustang project on the CBS Evening News. By fall, the Pegasus Program was acquiring prison-broke horses and training them for hippotherapy. In November, Frank Bell, a clinician based in Larkspur, Colo., suggested that Bowman outsource the hippotherapy training to add yet another dimension to the program.
" Frank had the idea of using the at-risk teenagers to get the mustangs ready for therapeutic riding," Bowman says. A firm believer in the psychological benefit that can be gained from working with horses, Bell felt that using troubled adolescents to perform the last stage of the gentling process made perfect sense. At-risk kids could benefit from the contact with the mustangs in the same way the prisoners do. In addition, the youth could accustom the horses to being around young, unpredictable riders.
Operating under the name Horses Healing Humans x Three, Bowman and Bell coordinate the transfer of mustangs from prison programs to centers for at-risk youth. Meanwhile, they locate therapeutic riding programs that adopt the horses once their training is complete. " About 6 months into the program, we got a lot of interest and decided there was really a market for this," Bowman says.
" We’ve hit such phenomenal growth today that we’re in the middle of doing a capital campaign so that we can expand, buy some land, and have our own facility outside the city."
The Mustang Project
In November 1999, Bowman and Bell both spoke at NARHA’s annual conference in Cleveland. Ron Malone, executive director of Assurance Home in Roswell, had accompanied his wife, Brenda, a hippotherapy instructor, to the conference.Malone says he went to hear Bell’s talk " just for fun." But as he listened to the presentation on Horses Healing Humans x Three, Malone became more and more convinced that the idea was perfect for Assurance Home. After the presentation, he approached Bell about enlisting Assurance Home in the program.
By February 2000, Kyser and Malone were traveling to Colorado to pick up their first two mustangs from Bowman. Four months later, they returned. With them was Buddy, a mustang ready to be placed in a therapeutic riding program, and the group of Assurance Home residents who’d helped train him.
" They seem like really nice kids," Bowman says. " And they were so excited about working with Buddy. They sent me a video of the training they do, and it’s really impressive."
To date, four horses trained in Assurance Home’s Mustang Project have been placed with therapeutic riding programs — two in Florida, one in Nevada and one in South Carolina. Dozens of children already have benefited from the Mustang Project’s contribution to Horses Healing Humans x Three by receiving young, healthy horses specifically trained for hippotherapy. And for Malone and Kyser, there’s no end in sight. " We’re hoping to get into a routine of training three to four mustangs per year," they say.
Steve and Buddy
When asked to describe what Kyser does with the horses and kids in the Assurance Home Mustang project, Malone says, " It’s difficult to describe. You have to see it for yourself." He pauses, then says:
" There was this one kid, Steve. We’d just brought our first mustang, Buddy, to Assurance Home. Steve was bugging us to let him ride the horse and saying how it didn’t look so wild to him. So Lee told him, ‘If you can catch it, you can ride it,’ and handed him a rope.
" Steve took the rope and ran into the corral after Buddy. Of course, Buddy ran away. The more aggressively Steve charged after the horse, the more skittish it got. After a while, Lee called Steve over and told him, ‘You won’t ride that horse as long as it’s afraid of you.’ He told him he could only gain the horse’s confidence gradually, and by being very gentle.
" So, Steve really put his mind to it. He started by just speaking softly to Buddy and leading him to the stall. He set limits and worked on it every day. And before we knew it, he was riding that horse. Steve learned that his usual way of dealing with challenges through force wouldn’t work."
Malone says the Assurance Home kids have learned many such lessons from the mustangs through Kyser. " He gets them to calm down and think about how to get what they want," he says. " Once they do that, they understand the value of patience. And they see that people react to them differently, based on their own behavior."
" We’re not trying to make horsemen out of the kids," Kyser says. " But they can really relate to the fact that those horses were once wild and are now tame. They understand how it feels to be mistreated. By learning how to read the horse and respond to its fears and needs, they learn valuable communication skills. They must have confidence in themselves and in the horse in order for the relationship to work."
Participants in the Mustang Project also have the responsibility of readying the horses for their ultimate use. People with a wide variety of disabilities seek therapeutic riding treatment, so the horses must be trained to tolerate many kinds of noise and movement. " We use noise makers around them, simulate mounting and dismounting with
ramps, scatter lawn chairs around the riding path, and play catch with balls while riding," Kyser explains. " Therapeutic horses are used under close supervision, so they’re leading horses, not reining horses. The kids here take turns leading and riding, teaching them to respond to the cues of the leader, not the rider."
Assurance Home kids bond with the mustangs throughout this process, which means that separation can be difficult later. " The kids here have mixed feelings about having a horse around for several months, then sending it on," says Kyser. " The saving grace is that they know it’s going to help other kids." Assurance Home residents have the further comfort of a complete recreational-riding program, in addition to the Mustang Project, so they’re never at a loss for a horse to ride.
Riding into the Future
Kyser acknowledges that some therapists feel it’s inappropriate to use mustangs in therapeutic-riding programs. They believe that a horse not domesticated from birth is too unpredictable and, thus, risky to be used around people who are already in a fragile physical state.
" The jury’s still out," Kyser says. " But I think any horse that’s trained for hippotherapy works better than a horse that has been trained as a riding horse."
Bowman says she follows up regularly on the mustangs she has placed and almost always gets " glowing reports."
In June 2001, the group picked up a mustang from Bowman. Named Rosie, the horse had been placed before but came back to Bowman for further training. Kyser says the experience has been good for the kids, teaching them that it’s always easier to start a relationship with a clean slate than it is when there are scars. " Some of those kids have had bad experiences. This helps them understand why they have trouble building relationships with others," Kyser says.
Although still in its infancy, the Mustang Project has a promising future. " I’m really impressed with the work that Lee and the kids are doing," says Bowman. " They’re incredible. At this point, Ron probably hasn’t made one penny off Horses Healing Humans x Three — in fact, he has probably lost some money in the deal. I have a feeling that without them, the program would not be surviving. We need more at-risk youth programs like theirs to participate."
Malone adds, " Even if Robin Bowman and Frank Bell couldn’t run the adoption program anymore, we’d still do it. We’d just pick up the horses from the prison and try to place them ourselves."
Malone has plans to expand the Assurance Home Mustang Project this year. Thanks to some charitable donations, he’s able to purchase a truck and trailer. He also is developing an educational program with an elementary school.
" Lee is going to take one of our mustangs and show the children a BLM video to teach awareness of the environment and the plight of the mustang," he says. By showing how prisoners, the Assurance Home project and the therapy programs all benefit, Malone helps to build awareness, provide a community service and get kids to think about helping others.
As for Kyser, he has found his calling. By simply doing the thing he loves most — and being supported by others who share his idealism — he may ultimately help better the lives of hundreds of children. " There’s a foot of snow on the ground," Malone says, " it’s cold and windy today. But Lee is out there with the kids working with Rosie. What a guy."
Author Heidi Genoist lives and works in the Los Angeles area. Article reprinted with permission from Western Horseman Magazine.
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