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Whispering Canyons: Bonding with horses to heal and learn

December 17th, 2013 Posted in Arts and Life

‘If you can take care of a horse you can do just about anything’

Story and photos by Chelsea Hunter

LOGAN — Madelyn Petty battles the muddy ground in order to lead a buckskin mare named Allie to a hitching post outside the stall, where she grooms and loves on the horse after mucking out her stall. She does this every day in spite of the frigid temperatures typical of Logan this time of year as she proves her devotion to this horse and the program at Whispering Canyons Foundation.

Madelyn Petty with the buckskin mare she cares for. Photo by Chelsea Hunter.

Madelyn has been around horses most of her life, and has been riding for about seven years. Her mother Sherrie volunteers as one of the trainers at Whispering Canyons, and Madelyn continues to learn from her about horses and their teaching and healing abilities.

“The thing I’ve learned the most is learning how to work hard,” says Madelyn. “You have to put the time into it. The kind of horse you’ve got depends on how much time you put into it. If you can take care of a horse you can do just about anything.”

The Pettys are among many who contribute to the foundation and have witnessed the changes in every person involved.

Merrill Gould is the founder, and started the program about five years ago with just a few of his own horses. He had a neighbor girl who wanted to learn, so he let her come over to learn the skills of horsemanship and it grew from there. Girls are there every day except Sunday. They come and take care of their horses after school by cleaning their stalls, feeding, and grooming them as a minimum.

“A lot of the girls we have here are more of the ‘at-risk’ category,” said grounds manager Corey Hansen. “There are girls with all different backgrounds. Merrill just takes them in and tries to teach them; not just about horses, but about growing up to be good people.”

Gould said he assigns one of own his horses to each girl, and it’s her responsibility to come and take care of her horse. All but three of the 14 girls come from broken homes, and he has seen improvements in every girl.

“A horse is probably one of the best companions a young girl or a young man can have,” said Gould. “They just come down and put a lot of love on them, and put a lot of care on them. Some of them are getting to be really good little riders.”

Gould said he’s seen a lot of the girls’ grades go up due to learning responsibility and hard work.

“As crazy as it sounds,” said trainer Kyson Smith, “the busier you are, the better your grades will be. If you’re busy you don’t have any time to be lazy. So when you do finally get that time to study, you have to use it wisely and really study hard, and this program does that for these girls.”

“I’ve seen girls come in here that you could barely get a hello out of when they came,” said Hansen. “But after they’ve been here a month or so, they change. Most of the girls here have some kind of social disorder, they have trouble interacting with other kids, or have learning disorders of some type or another.”

Because the foundation is non-profit and runs almost completely by volunteers, they are always in need of extra help. If anyone wishes to witness the magic for themselves check out their website to get started in volunteering. They say no horse experience is needed.

In addition to horses teaching people what hard work and responsibility is all about at Whispering Canyons, they also have many therapeutic abilities. Through her mother’s experience with horses and certification to work in equine therapy, Madelyn has witnessed how it can work first hand.

According to the Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association, equine assisted psychotherapy is a method used to treat behavioral issues, attention deficit disorder, substance abuse, eating disorders, abuse issues, depression, anxiety, relationship problems and communication needs.

“All that kind of stuff my mom has learned through her past certification,” Madelyn said. “I’ve learned a lot just by going down with her to the National Ability Center and just volunteering. She’s taught me all about that kind of stuff and it’s something that I’d be interested in doing when I get older.

“Horses just bring out a different side,” she continued. “Because they’re so honest and so gentle. They don’t hide anything, and you have to know how to look for certain body language sometimes. You always know whether they’re frustrated or happy. It’s really nice because people are the exact opposite a lot of times. They let you know if you did a good job and its just a really rewarding experience.”

Where some people may go to a therapist in an office, there are also options where you can go to someone with a minor in psychology and go work with a horse. “It’s just really cool that once you put a horse in the arena with someone that has PTSD, or Autism or someone who’s in a wheelchair, there’s so many things you can do with them,” said Madelyn.

“People who are in wheelchairs, when you ride a horse it works the same muscles that you do walking. So a lot of people who are in wheelchairs use that as their physical therapy. They still can’t move or anything but they can develop those muscles and stimulate those muscles and be able to have that motion. It’s really cool what horses can do.”

Utah State Rodeo team member Amberley Snyder can attest to the miracles horses are capable of, after she was involved in a tragic car accident that resulted in her legs being paralyzed, leaving her to live life in a wheelchair. Before the accident she was a decorated barrel racer with a bright future ahead of her, until everything changed. Doctors said she would never be able to ride again, but she proved them wrong and credits her recovery to getting back in the saddle.

“At first it was hard,” said Snyder. “At first it was hard for me to be able to handle that it was different; it wasn’t the same as it was before. But now horses are the biggest reason that I am still able to be the person that I am. I’m able to go out with my horses and feel like I can be myself again. So when it comes down to them helped me with my recovery, really it’s the biggest reason that I am emotionally, spiritually, mentally able to wake up every day and keep going with a smile on my face.”

Another Utah facility, Courage Reins, located in Highland, is dedicated to improving the quality of life for people with disabilities by providing a safe, fun and challenging environment where physical, cognitive, social, and emotional growth can occur through therapeutic riding and other equine-based activities.

Peyton Ford is an instructor and barn manager at Courage Reins and started out as a volunteer before deciding she wanted to make a career out of it. “Horses are always there when we need them,” said Ford. “They love us unconditionally. They love and accept with no judgment.”

For Madelyn horses will always be her escape.

“Just being around them for me is very therapeutic,” she said. “It helps me to just forget everything else and just focus on the horse. I don’t have to focus on the paper due on Monday or the test I have coming up. All I have to focus on is my horse and what I need to do to make her successful and to make me successful.”


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