September, 22 2017
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Horses help troubled teens down new trail
On nearly 200 acres in Minnetonka, teen offenders from Minnesota are paying for their crimes and learning how to stay out of trouble when they get out.
The Hennepin County Home School, a state-licensed, residential treatment center, is marking 100 years in 2007. It's the place where many juvenile offenders go to serve their sentences.
Many of the teens have mental health issues, behavioral problems and chemical dependency issues. The County Home School addresses those issues, but also gives teens a chance to earn their G.E.Ds and improve reading and math skills. They're also learning ways to succeed, to ensure that they don't re-offend when they return home.
That's where the horses come in.
The Hennepin County Home School has a unique partnership with a nonprofit agency called, We Can Ride. It's a volunteer-based therapeutic horseback riding organization. The horses are kept in a stable on the grounds of the Hennepin County Home School, where home school residents are learning a lot about the value of a little hard work.
"You have go to feed the horses," James Pigrum says. "You brush them when it's time to shed and this is the time right now."
It's grueling, messy and back-breaking work, and yet James Pigrum and DeQuan Bares-Stewart have found this work to be very valuable.
"It's like you're helping something that can't really help itself," DeQuan says.
Today they are responsible for the care of these horses. A year ago, James could barely look at one.
"I was so scared of the horses that every time they would bring a horse in, I would run out the door," James says.
James had never been to a horse stable before. He had other things to do.
"Selling narcotics, crack that is," he says.
Both James and DeQuan have lived a life beyond their 17 years. James was often in trouble with the law. He's been arrested for robbery and drug-dealing.
"I was in it for the money, which is basically all I can say," James says. "It was a lifestyle that I chose to live back then."
DeQuan led a similar lifestyle.
"I got caught with little marijuana bags. I was doing a little selling here and there when I was going to school," DeQuan, who was later arrested for breaking into someone's house.
In and out of homes for troubled young people through the years, James and DeQuan found themselves at the Hennepin County Home School. They're serving sentences for their most recent crimes, alongside dozens of other young criminals.
"Most of the kids are coming from the Minneapolis area and they are kids that have been adjudicated delinquent by the juvenile court," the Home School's Fred Bryan says. "Crimes ranging from felony-level property offenses all the way up to felony level crimes against persons."
"It was one of those things where I was like, man, I'm locked up and my sister was hurt and I was hurt because I put myself in this situation," DeQuan says.
"The first couple months it was horrible for me. I'd put it in that category. I was on the verge of getting kicked out," James says.
While time at the home school is time served, the program is only part punishment.
"It's an opportunity for the kids to be removed from the community because they've harmed somebody. They've done a bad thing so they have to be removed from the community, but we just don't expect them to come out here and do time. We expect them to address the issues that got them here in the first place," Bryan says.
"We try to make the lessons that we're trying to teach the kids as real as possible, as interactive as possible. Lecturing and just telling them about things is useful but it doesn't make sense as our only tool. We try to make sure it's something they can apply when they get back to the community."
It is a goal met through work in classrooms, with counselors and through hands-on lessons. The horse stable is part of the landscape at the County Home School and for James and DeQuan, it's also part of the program.
"It's just you and the horse, talking to the horse and I got comfortable with them and now I'm here just picking up manure and walking the horses around," James says.
"It wasn't too bad. I was like OK, I'm going to check it out. Horses can't be too bad as long as they don't bite," DeQuan says.
"A lot of kids are experiential learners as opposed to cognitive and classroom learners," Tom Bezak with the We Can Ride program explains.
"For kids who have never perhaps been around a horse in their life, this is a wonderful opportunity and you combine that with that experiential learning and we teach them a whole dimension about themselves that they haven't had an opportunity to experience before and the belief if that they will transition some of those skills back into the community into their own career goals and life skills and try to stay out of trouble."
It's what James and DeQuan plan to do when they get out. They both want to graduate, attend college and get jobs. For them, these are new goals they say were realized at the Hennepin County Home School.
"I'm going to say it's the best environment I could be in. It teaches you responsibility that's going to come in later on in life," James says.
"I feel that it could help somebody build their character. It could show them that there's more to life than what they were doing," DeQuan says.
Horses serve more people
There's more to life and a little more to this story.
The horses are indeed a kind of therapy for young kids like James and DeQuan, but they are also therapy for the even younger, a very special group of people.
We Can Ride allows physically, cognitively, emotionally and behaviorally disabled clients to ride horses. They use the class for exercise, stimulation and to make new friends.
James and DeQuan work hard to care for the horses by cleaning and feeding them. They then get to lead those horses around the arena during the class for disabled riders.
"Basically what I'm doing right now, it's like a therapy, it's helping him get his bones stronger and stuff like that," James says.
"You have go to keep your eyes focused on what's ahead of you. You got somebody up there you don't want to injure," DeQuan says.
"Isn't that pretty cool to see a kid that maybe was out on the street shooting or selling drugs to people or prostituting or whatever their crime was - to see them all of a sudden realize that 'I'm responsible for the safety and welfare of that kid on the horse,'" Bezak says.
It's a lot of responsibility for two kids, James and DeQuan, who were once on a road that led to nowhere. They are now looking ahead to a new path.
"I never thought I'd just be walking with a horse. It's shocking to me right now. I'm amazed at what I have overcome over these past eight and a half months," James says.
"It teaches you morals and it teaches you values. You start realizing that life is more valuable than what you were doing," DeQuan says. "Use the abilities that you have and use them. Go to the moon with it - and I believe that this place right here can help you with that."
"I think you've eliminated all the distractions in life," Bezak says. "Many times when you have equipment and technology and buildings and so forth, people get very distracted. To see kids working with all of the distractions removed and to see them work hard and see the results of their labor and to see an end product whether that's riding the horse or helping the We Can Ride riders is a very natural sequence of what life ought to be about."
The Hennepin County Home School has been treating juvenile offenders for a century. According to a study by the University of Minnesota, in 2003 the home school had a recidivism rate of 32.5 percent.
The national average for medium to high at-risk youth leaving a facility is about 50 percent.
Comments: It is amazing how work can be so therapeutic. To listen to the story of these two boys, two young troubled teen criminals, it makes you think about some things that we could do differently with our prison system. What would happen if prison inmates had opportunities like this, to not just sit in a cell, but think about how they can make their lives and their world better.
Not that horses are a must in treatment, but certainly it shows how taking kids out of an environment and putting them to work in a totally different environment with responsibilities, consequences, and therapy can change the way they look at the world entirely. The same type of result is often experienced in wilderness therapy programs, as well as in boarding schools. These are some of the great benefits of experiential therapy.
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