MSR News

Hillside Kids Get in the Saddle

Therapy Upon a Saddle for Hillsides Kids

Hooves aside, horses are a lot like humans. They can be stubborn, vulnerable, fearful and volatile, or, with patience, respect and the right approach, they can become gentle, trusting companions. This is the exact concept behind Mustard Seed Ranch, a nonprofit equine therapy program for at-risk kids and teens Howith backgrounds of trauma, abandonment and abuse. A horse may seem an unlikely teacher, but in overcoming the emotional scars of the past, these four-legged creatures can often break through in a way no human therapist can, creating a bond that helps halt the cycle of violence and gives its survivors new hope for the future.

“Abuse is something that is handed down to the next generation,” said Ken McCall, CEO of Mustard Seed Ranch. “Our passion is to give kids who have been abused or neglected in their past a place where they can come and it’s safe, where they can begin to look at life with hope and healing, rather than from the angle of being a victim.”

As it happens, Mustard Seed Ranch is not one place, but several. After initially launching in 1999 as a day ranch in Warner Springs, the program has since expanded to satellite locations in Orange, San Diego, San Bernardino and Los Angeles counties. Rather than own and operate one ranch, MSR now brings the ranch directly to where there are kids who need it, renting stables and horses and offering its program to nearby group homes and agencies free of charge. The latest of these partnerships has brought the program to Pasadena, where young residents from Hillsides are saddling up at San Pascual Stables.

Well, they’re not getting in the saddle just yet. The second group of kids from Hillsides since the partnership began last June has just started the 20-week program, which will see them visiting the stables each Friday afternoon. The program is being used in conjunction with Hillsides’ residential treatment services, with five kids at a time selected to participate based on their interest and specific behavioral challenges.

“The majority of our kids come from histories or backgrounds of trauma, so they’ve lived in families or foster families where they’ve been mistreated, either physically or emotionally,” said Hillsides residential therapist Christine Gonzalez. “There’s a lot of issues with anger, depression, patience and empathy, and being able to have them work with animals we feel is a really good way for them to learn empathy and how to take care of others.”

The first session of the program begins with a simple chat. Over juice boxes and cupcakes, McCall asks his new students what they know about horses. They talk about horse safety. What makes a horse safe or unsafe? How do they feel about getting on a horse? Scared? Anxious? Nervous? In expressing their thoughts or fears about the horses, the kids unwittingly share their feelings about human relationships — and McCall is listening closely.

He’s also paying attention when he introduces the kids to a horse for the first time. From the way they speak about horses and their reactions when meeting and touching a horse, McCall is able to gauge each kid’s personality and relational issues and assign them horses accordingly: timid kids are be paired with calm, gentle horses, while a defiant child may be matched with an equally stubborn animal. In the coming weeks, each kid will learn to groom, care for and earn the trust and respect of their horse, and in the process, begin to break down their own emotional barriers.

“The horses teach the lessons,” said McCall. “Kids might not trust adults or care providers because of their past experiences, but they begin to trust their horse, and they begin to connect with that horse, and for the first time, they begin to have a relationship. We use the horse as our tool to help the kid not only reconnect, but also learn about all of the areas in their lives where they still need help growing.”

While many state programs focus on changing the outward behavior of at-risk youths, MSR is more concerned with what’s inside, working through the root of a child’s issues to inspire a change of character. Working with large, sometimes unpredictable animals first and foremost teaches lessons in boundaries. As students learn what’s effective and ineffective in approaching, walking and eventually mounting their horses, McCall and his volunteers draw parallels to situations and choices in real life. Acting out in anger toward an uncooperative horse, for example, is not only a bad choice, but a potentially dangerous one. Comparatively, if a child reacts with patience and empathy, the same choice they make with the horse can be applied to how they handle frustrations in their human relationships.

“A horse is going to be a horse, and they have to learn to adapt to the horse’s ways,” said Raul Carreon, unit supervisor at Hillsides. “The horse sets limits and when we go back to the units, you can see the improvement in [the children]. Some of the kids who are less likely to verbalize their feelings are starting to verbalize a bit more and process better with this. It’s a great addition to their treatment plan.”

“We start to see the kids have a little more motivation, a little more stability,” added Gonzalez. She said the anticipation of each Friday’s “horse class,” as the kids call it, helps keep them on their best behavior during the week. “A lot of them don’t have a lot to look forward to, and when you’ve got nothing to lose and nothing to look forward to, it’s hard to strive to do better. So when they have an opportunity like this to do something they really enjoy, they start to make safer choices so they can participate.”

About five weeks into the program, the time finally comes to get on the horse. By that time, most of the kids have developed a mutual trust with their teachers — both hooved and human. The moment a kid gets on his or her horse, McCall said, represents the moment in a relationship where one exposes oneself to others.

But what happens after the 20 weeks are over? At Hillsides, some children go back to their families or to caregivers within a few months or a couple years, depending on the situation at home. For others in the group home and foster system, there may not be a stable home to go back to. When these youths emancipate, a positive support system makes all the difference in choosing the right path. Where a family structure may not exist, past participants of Mustard Seed Ranch can draw on the lessons learned in the program to establish safe, healthy relationships and create a new family around themselves. If in doubt, back-up is only a call or email away.

For legal reasons, McCall can’t make the first move, but program graduates who reach out after emancipating and turning 18 become permanent members of MSR’s extended family. Once former students have made contact, McCall and his staff become a resource for whatever is needed to help them succeed, whether it’s finding housing, employment or scholarships through connections in the areas the program serves. As Mustard Seed Ranch plants deeper roots in the Pasadena community, it hopes to offer even more opportunities for kids to rewrite the narratives of their past and start a new chapter in life.

“The real success comes still years down the road, when that child grows up and does not hand the abuse down to his or her children,” said McCall. “Every time I see a kid who leaves the program and has launched himself, the reward is we’ve broken the cycle of abuse in that kid’s generation. It’s all about helping kids, and that’s where our passion is.”