GARLAND, Maine — With his eyes closed and his arms outstretched last week, “Stan” shuffled his feet forward on the uneven ground like a zombie fearful that he would stumble and fall.
But something unexpected soon happened to the young man. Like a blind person, he zeroed in on the sounds around him. Hearing the footsteps of another person in front of him, Stan relaxed his posture and walked more confidently.
“Wow, that’s cool,” Stan, 17, remarked when he realized that he had relied solely on his senses of hearing and touch to protect himself from harm. It was a lesson he had learned from a therapeutic horse program he has been immersed in recently.
Stan, a fictitious name, and three other young men committed to Mountain View Youth Development Center in Charleston are in the fifth week of a six-week equestrian program at Northern Maine Riding Adventures in Garland, funded by a grant for at-risk youth.
The participants, who range in age from 17 to 20 but whose names could not be released because of state regulations, were selected for the program because they had successfully completed specialized programming and had some prior exposure to horses. All are nearing their release date from the youth correctional facility.
While similar therapeutic equestrian programs are offered throughout the country, this is the center’s pilot project, according to Lori Prestridge, Mountain View’s special education director and grant author.
The program’s aim is to “cultivate the mind and restore the spirit of at-risk youth by giving them real world experiences that cultivate job skills, community service, and therapy,” Prestridge said recently. Efforts are being made to extend the program to eight weeks, she noted.
Those two extra weeks would be supported by Stan, who said he had learned much about his mind and body from working with the horses. He said he realized that his mind controlled his body and there were ways to better cope with the unexpected.
“In this program, the students can develop some life skills that will help them on the outside,” Judy Cross-Strehlke, owner of Northern Maine Riding Adventures and a Level IV Centered Riding Clinician, said
during a recent interview. The students learn that horses talk through body language, the same as humans, but they rely on their senses to protect themselves and avoid confrontations. The young men are learning the warning signs horses give their handlers and learn how to respond to those signs, she noted.
Helping them deal with those signs last week were Wilma and Piet Nibblelink of Arnhem, the Netherlands, who were giving clinics on the mind-body connection and balance in relation to horses at Cross-Strehlke’s arena.
“We have a lot of emotions and they direct our body language. When you ride horses, your emotions can influence them,” Piet Nibblelink told the students. Horses give little signals — such as a shake of their head, a whinny, or a step back — to let people know there is comfort or discomfort, he said.
Nibblelink’s statement was borne out as one horse stopped in its tracks because a student lost eye contact with it and another horse shook its head because a student had moved too close to the animal for its comfort. The students recognized that they had to remain calm and identify what the problems were, rather than be upset that their horses were not doing what they wanted them to do.
Horses cannot see their feet while walking, so they rely on their senses to keep them safe, according to Nibblelink, who led the “blind” exercise Stan and the other young men participated in.
“Hearing is very important and feeling in your feet is very important,” he explained. “This is what horses pay attention to all the time.” That lesson is one humans would do well to follow, according to Cross-Strehlke.
“That’s how we get into trouble, by not listening to the little information we get,” she said.
Cross-Strehlke said the program gives the students a nonthreatening chance to find a way to positively interact with one another, an opportunity to establish a bond of affection, and experience so they can work with horses later in life. She has hopes of expanding the program.
“I’m dreaming that this program will grow and that this will be the facility where we can help them fulfill their dreams or help them dare to dream,” Cross-Strehlke said.
Stan, who wants to seek employment in a riding stable, hopes Cross-Strehlke fulfills her dream so the same opportunity he has had can help others who may have made some bad choices in their lives.
“It’s helped me improve myself and it has given me something to do” with my life, he said.
While those lessons are obvious to the students, Piet Nibblelink said they also have learned something of which they are not yet aware.
“I think they can’t know it now, but at some point they will. We put a stone in the river and the stream is now different. This program is kind of a stone.”