students running

SLT Juvenile Treatment Center Youth Embrace Horses

00:00 AM - September 23, 2019

two students ride horses with two adults standing by

Students ride horses in the recreation yard.

It was a beautiful September day in South Lake Tahoe, as students, who have encountered challenges and temporarily reside at the South Lake Tahoe Juvenile Treatment Center (SLTJTC), received an extraordinary experience from dedicated volunteers and the Bureau of Land Management’s Wild Horse and Burro Program. The El Dorado County Office of Education (EDCOE) administers SLTJTC’s academic program and partnered with El Dorado County Probation to provide this day of learning to teach students about the animals, potential careers and social skills. Students started the morning reserved, quiet and hours later were smiling, conducting fun conversations, asking thoughtful questions and creating a sense of community.

EDCOE team members SLTJTC Principal, Carey Buchannan, and substitute teacher, Rich Andrus, share a passion for equine/inmate programs, and Rich is an accomplished endurance rider and volunteers at the Folsom State Prison teaching individuals how to care for and ride these animals. Carey explained how the idea was born, “A casual conversation with Rich about our shared passion grew into a collaboration with Gail Maduri, expert endurance rider and member of the Sweep Riders of the Sierras, and the Wild Horse and Burro Program. I’m so thankful for our innovative team and our partners.”

The day started with an introductory overview and safety briefing where students learned the importance of body language and interpersonal communication. “If you approach a horse’s face quickly, you can see that they become alarmed and tilt their ears back,” explained Amy Dumas, Wild Horse and Burro Program Manager. “The same happens when you approach another human’s personal space. It can come across as threatening and start a conflict.” The animals remained calm, as they received much attention and loving pets from awe-inspired adolescents.

One student expressed, “It was interesting to meet the horses and see that they have different personalities. One was very friendly while one stood back from you. I liked how this was a different kind of experience than what we are used to.”

After lunch, Rich taught the students about horse care, the equipment and how to mount a horse. Students were extremely attentive while learning interesting facts. “They were very inquisitive about horse anatomy and how they interact in the wild,” he noted. Rich demonstrated how to ride the horse and led the animals, as they carried students around the recreation yard. The air was filled with excited squeals and words of encouragement while they took turns.

While students showed off their riding skills and joked about their new need for large cowboy hats, several individuals took turns braiding horsehair. A female student noted, “I’m interested in cosmetology. When I’m released, I’d like to attend El Dorado Union High School District’s cosmetology program.”

Toward the end of the day, Carey noted, “Watching their transformation today was impressive. Several individuals have lived here for weeks not speaking a word to educators, and now we are having conversations,” she explained while pointing to a student petting a horse. “That’s the first time I’ve ever seen him smile!”

Animal interaction yields many benefits including emotional awareness, assertiveness, social skills, confidence, trust in self and others, empathy, impulse control, problem-solving skills, developing and maintaining relationships and more. According to a recent article in the Journal of the American Medical Association, “Evidence has continued to accumulate resulting in the emergence of a significant body of literature supporting the therapeutic value of the human-companion animal interaction…”

Amy has managed the equine program for years and agrees wholeheartedly with research findings, “There is an inherent therapeutic value with these programs where inmates learn patience, responsibility, humility and pride in their work.”

The planning and logistics of the entire day took significant, collaborative effort, “These unique experiences would not be possible without the strong partnership that exists between EDCOE and Probation. A special thank you to Chief Probation Officer, Brian Richart, for his commitment to an innovative partnership that focuses on creating conditions for students to experience care, hope, and possibility,” expressed County Superintendent of Schools Dr. Ed Manansala.

Chief Probation Officer, Brian Richart, added, “I used to say tongue in cheek that if evidence demonstrated pony rides were proven to reduce juvenile recidivism, we’d bring in ponies. I’m happy to say that Probation staff will do whatever it takes, including equine handling, to support youth in their community.”

For more information about EDCOE, visit the EDCOE home page

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