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Free Rein uses horses to help at-risk youth overcome mental health struggles

Free Rein uses horses to help at-risk youth overcome mental health struggles
Housed in the Huntington Central Park Equestrian Center, the Free Rein Foundation uses horses to help teens deal with painful issues, including bullying, abuse, depression and anxiety. (Photo by Catherine Pearlman)

First in a series about teens and mental health in Orange County.

Housed in the Huntington Central Park Equestrian Center, the Free Rein Foundation uses horses to help teens deal with painful issues.

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Some kids are affected by gangs, drugs or bullying. Others have difficult family situations that include physical and emotional abuse. Many suffer from depression and anxiety.

In a partnership with the Huntington Beach Police Department, at-risk students are identified by school personnel and asked if they want to be part of this optional activity. For eight weeks an officer brings the students to the center for three-hour sessions co-led by a credentialed mental health specialist and an Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Assn.-certified specialist.

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However, the horses are considered the foundation of the treatment team. Just being in the presence of animals can be calming and emotionally supportive, says Justine Makoff, the Free Rein president, adding that moods change when the youngsters drive onto the beautiful property.

“There is literally this collective sigh when they go through the gates,” says Makoff. “They see the gates and the horse arenas and Frisbee golf on 25 acres in the middle of an urban city. They garden, spend time outside in nature with trees and open space. Just coming here is a huge release.”

Every week the students are led into the horse ring where five or six horses roam freely. The kids explore without rules or instructions. Staff members monitor the safety of the participants, but they leave space for the kids to create stories about the animals.

The kids make up names for the horses and think about their behavior and what it might say about them. The young participants are given various challenges to help build self-confidence, develop problem-solving skills and deal with their emotions.

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Makoff offers an example. One of the specialists might say, “Take the horse, put the ropes on [they don’t even say harness] and walk the horse in a circle.”

Some kids can do the task. Others cannot get the horse to move. They yank and pull and become frustrated. It’s at that point the specialists can see how the child might react to a real-life frustration. The workers help the child learn additional coping skills.

Additionally, horses can be imposing and scary to some. Center employees can help children deal with anxiety inside the ring and at home.

Some kids see the horses as patient listeners. One young, female participant expressed how helpful it was to talk to the horses.

“Some of us have problems, and it was easy to talk to the horses,” said the girl, who TimesOC is not identifying because of her age. “We can connect to them. They don’t give opinions. They nod their heads, and we know they are listening.”

Just being in the presence of animals can be calming and emotionally supportive, says Justine Makoff, the Free Rein president. “There is literally this collective sigh when they go through the gates.”
Just being in the presence of animals can be calming and emotionally supportive, says Justine Makoff, the Free Rein president. “There is literally this collective sigh when they go through the gates.” (Photo by Davini Photography)

Kids also talk about the horses in parallel to their own experience. These horses have been rescued, often from abuse. Kids might not be able to talk about their own abuse, but they can work through it by talking about how hard it must have been for the horse.

Eventually, when the kids feel comfortable, they begin to open up about their own experiences. After every session in the ring, students and program staff sit together for a family-style meal. Then the children write in their journals about the experience.

At the end of the eight-week session, families are invited to a graduation ceremony where the kids share their experience.

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Throughout the program the teens learn they can talk about their problems without shame and condemnation. They learn others have similar problems. And they learn that it’s OK to ask for help.

Huntington Beach Police Officer Ryan Christie, who works with 25 schools around Huntington Beach, sees the impact of Free Rein.

“Free Rein has a way of opening kids up,” says Christie. “The biggest change is the kids go from not saying anything to revealing personal stuff to me and the staff in the program. Then they open up to their fellow students.

“You will never meet bigger skeptics than police officers. I don’t know how they do it. I just know it works.”

For more information, visit freereinfoundation.org.

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