Musical Ride horses help build character and confidence for troubled youth
'Kids who have a hard time connecting with people have a great time connecting with horses,' trainer says
When you approach Jewel View, a farm northwest of Toronto, it's the big country sky and the pastoral scenery that holds your attention.
But not for long.
At the end of the winding driveway, near a barn, is Ellen Downey, a petite blond with a commanding presence.
"There are a few basic rules about the farm and the barn," she announces to a group of new arrivals. "First rule: No yelling. Second rule: No running."
The ground rules are aimed at six teenagers from the Youthdale Treatment Centre, a residential facility for at-risk youth.
"Leave your issues at the door, guys," says Downey. "Horses are very emotional animals. So they pick up on your emotions. If you're angry or upset or mad, they're going to feel that."
The teens have just arrived from Toronto; this is their first day at the farm, located in Hockley Valley. Over the next 10 weeks, they'll have the opportunity to learn basic horsemanship skills.
Downey has worked with troubled adolescents for 30 years. An accomplished rider, she has offered equine therapy to at-risk youth since 2001 through the Youthdale Riding Program.
"There are many programs that are out there for disabled kids — they're fabulous," she tells CBC News. "[But] there's no other program that I know of for kids that are in treatment, that are at risk."
The teens in the riding program come with a lot of emotional baggage and "social problems," she says, rhyming some of them off. "ADHD, anxiety disorders, suicide, ... self-harm."
"I designed [the program] with these kids in mind because I really felt they needed to have an opportunity to experience what I experience with horses, which is just this great bond and partnership."
Most of the teens have never been around horses, so Downey and her team of volunteers work on building their self-confidence around the large beasts. Today's lesson is grooming and leading the horses. But before that, each youth will be paired with a horse.
One of the girls is already caressing Rocamo. The black gelding is imposing at 17 hands high. Still she can't hide her excitement. "I can't wait to learn how to ride him," she tells the group later that night.
Because the youth are minors, and living in a group home, CBC News is not using their full names.
The Mounties are here!
Rocamo is short for Royal Canadian Mounted. He and two other horses — Kracker and Matt — are former members of the iconic RCMP Musical Ride.
When the horses were retired a few years ago, they were donated to the Youthdale Riding Program, believed to be the first time RCMP horses have been used in such a program. RCMP Const. Terry Russel helped clinch the deal.
A community relations officer for the GTA, Russel was invited to come see the riding program in 2013, when he learned that Downey had always hoped to get an RCMP horse. He had once been part of the Musical Ride in the '90s, so he made a call to Ottawa.
Russel was so impressed with the program that he stuck around as a volunteer, teaching the kids Musical Ride moves.
"There's something about these horses," he says. "They know these kids are not experienced horse-riders, but they take care of these kids. They don't run off. They don't buck the child off the horse. They take care of them."
Downey coaxes a young boy to get closer to his assigned horse, Carusso. He's been standing back, still not sure what to expect. The pale grey gelding is the gentlest of all the horses here.
"He's so sweet," Downey reassures the boy. "He won't kick you. He will never kick you."
Allison Guzman, 18, isn't so shy with her horse, Kody. She's trying to lead him around the farm's brightly lit arena — but the chestnut-coloured quarter horse is having none of it.
"Let's go! Let's go! Let's go!" she shouts. One of the instructors notices how Guzman has taken control of the situation. "Good job, Allison. That's showmanship quality right there!"
Guzman and Kody are old friends. She was in this program last year and liked it so much, she asked if she could come back, even though she's no longer a resident at the Youthdale Treatment Centre.
"I feel, with people, it's complicated because you don't know what they're thinking. Are they judging me? But with the horse, it's just so raw. If the horse doesn't like what you're doing, the horse will show you. There's no mixed messages."
Guzman was sent to her first group home when she was 12. The last two years, she was at Youthdale. She says she was an angry, at times violent, young girl. There wasn't much stability at home, she says.
"Growing up, I had a lot of anger-management problems and I wasn't able to contain my anger. If I was angry at my teachers, I wouldn't hold back, I would just yell at them. [Other] students, I would yell at them and get in fights."
A few weeks later, nearing the end of the 10-week program, it's clear the horses' therapeutic effects have made a difference.
In one stall, Guzman is gently fixing Kody's unruly mane, making sure he looks his best. "His hair is really weird," she says. She fiddles with the bridle, worried it's too loose.
Nearby, another young rider is having problems saddling his horse. But he turns down an offer of help from his trainer. "I can try it by myself," he says. The self-confidence doesn't go unnoticed. "Good job," says the trainer.
For several weeks, the group has been practising one of the routines used by the Musical Ride, which will be performed during a graduation ceremony. Const. Russel, who's been coaching them, signals for the music to start.
"They perk up and they know it's showtime," he says, referring to Rocamo, Kracker and Matt.
Horses are 'great neutralizers'
Nearby, Ellen Downey watches her young charges with pride.
"The horses are the great neutralizers. They just bring an amazing calm to the kids, an amazing amount of confidence. [They] somehow bring out just the most magical unconditional response with the kids."
For Guzman, the anger she felt all those years seems to have gone away. She credits Kody for that.
"This is nice," she says. "I only get it once a week, but I kind of want more [of] these kinds of relationships.
"It's funny because it's a horse," she laughs. "And I'm like, OK, I need friends now."