Erie program heals with horse sense



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LAKE CITY, Pennsylvania — Koby Weber was not sure about this, at all.

As his friends crowded around Oliver, an 11-year-old gelding with a handsome white blaze, Koby, 13, hung back.

"I am not going in there," he told his mentor at Blended Spirits Ranch in Fairview Township.

Within the hour, though, after Koby's classmates one by one volunteered to go into the riding ring alone with a horse, his hand shot up.

Koby, an eighth-grader with a slight build, stepped into the metal enclosure, long crop in hand and took command of Oliver, the 1,200-pound herd leader.

His shoulders square and expression stern, Koby flicked his wrist and cracked the plastic bag tied to the crop like a whip. He pointed his finger.

Oliver obeyed. For several minutes, the horse trotted around the ring and shifted directions on command, as if led by an invisible cord stretching from Koby's hand.

For Koby and the other kids who walked into the ring looking queasy, but came out grinning, the exercise in horse body language clearly boosted confidence.

"I saw everybody else doing it, and I thought if everybody else could do it, so could I," Koby said. "I learned how to become friends with them, how to be in a relationship with them," the horses.

Koby and the nine other Wayne School students gathered in the indoor arena on a recent Tuesday night as part of an eight-week class underway at Blended Spirits, the area's only equine-assisted learning and equine-assisted psychotherapy program.

The Blended Spirits class for Koby and the nine other middle-school students is offered as part of the City Mission's Urban University, a faith-based, after-school program.

Blended Spirits Executive Director Sandy Long and the volunteer mentors want to give the students the chance to experience something they might not otherwise have the chance to do — learn life lessons taught by a horse.

They also hope to plant seeds of faith, said Linda Pavkov, Blended Spirits' treasurer. Pavkov opened the session with a brief spiritual reflection and closed it with a prayer.

The relationship exercise Koby mastered, Long said, is meant to reach beyond the barn doors.

A horse communicates with body language, she told the class. If someone approaches from behind, deep-rooted instincts make a horse move, every time, she said.

It is a self-preservation skill the students can use, too.

"Be careful about who is back there pushing you," Long said. "They might be pushing you toward something you do not want."

If you want a horse — or a bully — to stop, she said, you stand tall and look them in the eye with confidence.

"It is going to work in here, as long as you are confident," Long said.

The communion is not for the kids alone. The horses at Blended Spirits need their own healing.

"Every horse out there right now is a rescue," Blended Spirits Board President Bonnie Shuey said, describing the herd.

Long and her late sister, Debbie Ellis, founded the ranch in 2007 to rescue horses and at the same time help inner-city kids and abused and neglected children.

"We wanted to blend the spirits of humans and horses to heal and make whole both of them," Long said.

The Urban University class held on Tuesdays is one of Blended Spirits' wide array of equine therapy programs and one of its only faith-based projects. While other equine therapy programs focus on physical rehabilitation, Blended Spirits focuses on emotional, mental and social recovery.

"It involves a lot of life coping skills," Long said. The lessons — all based on interactions with the horses — might focus on building relationships, trust, healthy relationships, controlling one's emotions, leadership skills, even resisting temptation.

They have hosted programs with Perseus House, Sarah Reed Children's Center and Hermitage House, among others. The programing in recent years expanded to include treatment for military veterans and their families, and those battling addiction and mental illness.

Horses "are nonjudgmental. They are not somebody who can criticize and judge and say no. These are kids and adults who have lost trust in human relationships because they have been abused or let down so many times. Attaching themselves to a horse is very nonthreatening," Long said. Nearly all the youth who go through the program show reduced depression and disruptive behaviors.

RoseMarie Lackey, director of Mission Ministries for Erie City Mission, called the Blended Spirits classes "very empowering."

The horse walks a person, be it a student or veteran or victim of trauma, through a discovery of him or herself for restoration and recovery, she said.

Urban University students Shayla Mims and Ashley Moyer, both 11, stood with their arms slung over each others' shoulders during the Tuesday session, animated by their success in the training round with the horse they share, Samson.

"I did not know if he was going to do it or not. But everybody was encouraging me. It was easy," Shayla said.

The horses — once abused, neglected or unwanted — heal, too.

"We give them as much time as they need to become horses again," before using them therapeutically, Long said.

Gus, the latest addition, still shows signs of the six years he lived alone, suffering from neglect. Healing cracks streak his hoofs, and his ribs stand out. But Gus, a quarter horse paint, was so eager for company, Long did not wait longer to introduce him to the kids and the herd.

"He is a hands-on guy, loving and affectionate," she said.

Long said each child chooses the horse he or she wants to partner with. The children tend to pick animals that reflect things about the child, she said.

Zamiyha Carson, 14, did not wind up with Oliver, the herd leader.

But she quickly showed she was the leader of the class.

Zamiyha was the first to raise her hand in the reflection on faith. Her best gift from God? "Life," she said.

She was the first to go in the round alone.

"Usually, I am scared to try something first. But I thought, if I mess up, at least I tried," she said.

Afterward, she listened to Pavkov pray, then asked if she could say a few words.

Learning how to take calm, confident control of a horse, she said, helped her understand the relationship between leadership and trust.

"Thank you, everyone, for being here," she said.


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