Seven boys, lucky enough to get time with four special horses, have grim stories. One of them was sent to the Wyoming Boys’ School in Worland for gang violence, another for assaulting his mother, another for burglary. Almost all have a history of drug abuse; two suffered withdrawal symptoms when they arrived.
The four horses – Daylight, Emmy, Rosie and Splash – have stories just as grim. One has scars left from barbed wire being forced into his mouth. Another once had a rider who beat him so badly that he won’t let anyone on his back.
In a series of sessions early this fall, the seven boys led the four horses through a series of challenges, such as guiding them through a maze of logs. Boys learn hitting the horse doesn’t work. But they have to be assertive enough to lead.
The empathy the boys develop in working with these animals can help them develop empathy toward other people, said Jeanna Butterfield, a social worker trained in horse therapy. She works for the private, nonprofit Cloud Peak Counseling Center, which serves the school.
“Youth offenders commit offenses after facing years of failure, abuse, disrespect and poor choices,” said Maria Eastman, head of the Wyoming non-profit Rainhorse, quoting professional research on how horse therapy can help youth. Rainhorse provides the horse therapy program to the school.
“We want to help them develop trust, self esteem, empathy and respect – all crucial elements of community life,” Eastman said.
Operated by the Wyoming Department of Family Services, the Wyoming Boys’ School is located on a quiet, tree-covered lane just south of Worland. It houses about 60 boys ages 12-21. They are sent there by judges from across Wyoming.
These seven boys were picked because they demonstrated an emotional stability to work with animals, according to Butterfield.
Eastman, certified in equine-assisted therapy for cognitive disabilities, growth and learning, worked with Butterfield for three years to develop the Boys’ School program, winning approval from the Boys’ School administration and the Wyoming Attorney General’s Office, securing funding and identifying potential donors.
The Wyoming Episcopal Diocese and St. Alban’s Episcopal Church in Worland donated $6,000 to cover a pilot program spring. The Wyoming Community Foundation gave $5,000 for the program this fall.
But unless Butterfield and Eastman find additional federal funding or more support from the school or private donors, the program will likely end.
It will be the boys who ultimately prove the program’s worth. After each challenge with the horses, Butterfield directs the boys to write about the experience in their journals. These entries, more than anything, demonstrate what the program can do.
Editor’s note: Because of their ages, WyoFile has agreed not to print the boys’ names. For more information about the program, contact Maria Eastman at (307) 469-2289 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
The following are journal entries by Wyoming Boys’ School residents about their experiences in the equine therapy program, with permission to publish granted by the Wyoming Boys’ School.
Picked by a horse
The day our horses pick us was a good day. It made me think. How can they read us like books and know how we feel?
Rosie, she is a beautiful horse. I feel like I know more now that I been around her. I feel like she had a struggle to live, a fight like we do in life. And she’s been beaten and the spirit was going to be broken.
I feel like I have a connection with her, that she knows how it feels to have something taken away and it runs in your brains, ‘cause it is in your blood to do so. For her it is to run free on the land, and mine is to be free. It is my blood to do so, as well as hers. I feel that she has been beaten and understands my hurt and past. And her heart is big like mine. Wanting love from someone. That is what I feel about Rosie.
Life’s little obstacles
This program helped me a lot. Gave up hope at first, after I was doing good, I hit rock bottom here. No drugs, no drink. I was scared of the unknown and still today I am.
Life is hard at times and you just got to work through it.
When I came here I had a lot of hate and a lot of heartache. Feelings I never want to feel. Happiness I can’t find like the stars I can’t find out my window.
I felt like they were trying to break my spirit like a wild horse. But what good am I with my head held low? I don’t want to be that drunk at the park. That has no pride, no honor and a broken spirit. I get in trouble and sometimes I don’t understand.
Being around the horses is good; it takes away all of the (things) I don’t need to stress over. I just want to ride and feel the wind on my face and Rosie running free as a wild mustang. I like the feeling of true happiness, happiness I look for. It helps me take the negative into positive. The world around me just was different and it helped me let go of some of my past. I grew more every time I did this.
I just want to start by thanking everybody who was part of making this and everybody who was in it. I am very glad this could take place. Anyway, right now I feel like I should be going. I feel fantastic. It’s like every single piece of me defines who I am and I am a loving and caring person. I am calm and mellow, not this hard-core punk I try to come off as.
I’m not really, in fact, becoming a new me, but finding the old me that I need to have back. With the help of my new-found friends, I have been able to change myself from a mask-wearing, hard-core fronting man to a free-spirited kid who wants to have fun and laugh.
I know now that I can easily make friends with the real me rather than act hard and struggle to make friends. While as I say this out loud I can understand how foolish this sounds but it was a way of life for me. Now I can choose a whole different me.
I believe Daylight was abused or even hit more than once. I came to this conclusion because Daylight seems scared and timid but she gets very attached very fast, just like I do. And I have been through a rough life.
It feels like Daylight understands my life and it feels like she somewhat hurts for what has happened to me, even though I don’t know how she would know. I have missed Daylight. I became attached and she knows it.
She also knows I won’t hurt her and I also know she won’t hurt me. It is a very calming experience to be around an animal that you trust and you know they will never do you wrong. Daylight is a wonderful horse and she is very hard to read. I know for a fact that there has been a very traumatic event (or even more than one) in her life.
I got picked by the horse Emmy. I think Emmy is a very “open” horse that isn’t afraid of introducing herself. I think she is very enthusiastic at first, but she quickly goes into a “passive” state.
When I was allowed to talk to and pet her she went to eating grass and make it look like she didn’t care that I was petting her. I think that she is a very hard horse to read when it comes to her past. I think that she is shy when it comes to a thing that she doesn’t see coming, like when I approached.
I think that I have let off a lot of stress when I was with Emmy and the other horses. When I haltered her and led her around I completely (let go of) the world and all of the problems that it holds and focused only on Emmy. All I saw was a beautiful animal who could understand whatever I told her and never judge me, just comfort and console me while I while I let my heart out on her. I set down all of my burdens from my shoulders.
It seems odd that they can’t get funding. I understand that the girls’ school in Sheridan has the same or similar program, they have found it valuable and they have funding for it. If there is money for the girls’ program why isn’t there money for the boys?
Very admirable effort. Congratulations on such an innovative therapy commitment.
What a shame that this valuable program might be lost. There is strong research that shows what positive changes are possible through this type of program. Often the cost is an indicated deciding factor but it is so much less expensive in the long run than if this intervention is not provided. The goal here is to develop connections that allow these participants to become useful and productive citizens. What is the cost if we do not meet these needs?
Very moving but happens to these boys that are just on the brink of self-discovery through the interaction of the horses and the program ends? Are there follow up studies with other programs that show long term benefits? It seems almost cruel to show these troubled youth the light in the tunnel, only to let it be a train….What can we, the interested and concerned public do to help this program?
Fascinating story…want to know more!