‘It's About Humanity': California Therapy Program Helps Both Kids and Horses

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Arnold Guevara started with his Huntington Beach, California-based horse therapy program two weeks after losing his dad in a work accident.

"Where I grew up there was sometimes shooting and fires and things like that," he told NBCLX. "And it gets me worried because I feel like... that's going to happen to my family."

On one of his first days in the Free Rein program, Guevara was talking to a group of other students and volunteers about his dad when a nearby horse noticed his distress.

"The horse is facing away. The horse literally turns, does a double-take," LAPD officer and program volunteer Joe Marrone said, getting emotional. "Walks over to the child, and starts to rub his face on the child. And then rests his head on the shoulder of this little boy.

"The horse was basically saying, 'It's ok. You're going to be alright. And if you're not, don't worry. I'm here to take care of you,'" he said.

Free Rein is based on a ranch just south of Los Angeles, and it teaches at-risk youth how to manage "difficult situations, fears, attitudes, and ways of being in relationships and society," according to the foundation's website. Students learn through interacting with the foundation's horses, a form of therapy known as Equine-Assisted Psychotherapy (EAP) or Equine-Assisted Learning (EAL).

"This program has helped them [the students] get through some of the most traumatic situations kids can ever face," Moore said.

Student Jacqueline Marchan grew up without her grandfather in her life, but she met him for the first time when she was 10 years old.

"I was scared to meet him because I said, 'Why come now? When I'm older?'" she said.

Her time at Free Rein has allowed her to find a sense of comfort and safety.

"You come from home with all of these problems, with all of these hesitations, and then once you get here it's like an open environment," Marchan said.

One day during one-on-one time with a horse, Marchan says she cried, something she didn't want to do in front of the other students.

"I don't know what was going through the horse's mind but I started seeing the scars that it had, and it started reminding me of all of the scars that were in my life," she said. "That I had to get back up and heal from it."

The horses in the program are also in therapy, head trainer Virginie Rouleau said. Most of them are adopted from overpopulated parks. The Bureau of Land Management estimates some 83,000 wild horses and burros roamed public rangeland last year – more than three times what the agency says the land can support. As a result, the horses in these areas are rounded up and either adopted out or taken to a slaughterhouse.

In 2019, Free Rein adopted out six horses, bringing them to the ranch to work with the kids. But they expect to have fewer horses this year due to the coronavirus pandemic.

"Our job is extremely important. We're saving these horses' lives and finding them people who can take care of them for the rest of their lives," Rouleau said.

As for the students, there are many benefits to working with horses, therapist Nicolas Silva says. The kids are able to talk about their experiences without being forced to do it, and they're often able to open up quicker than they would in a traditional therapy office setting.

The program helps the volunteers recognize the kinds of neglect and abuse the kids may have experienced, and understand what kind of help they need, Marrone said. But it also "teaches" and "humbles" the volunteers on the ranch.

"It doesn't matter where you're from... this is about children. It's about humanity. That's what this program's about," Marrone said.

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