When school is out for the summer, a group of volunteers turns to horses to teach at-risk and disabled children some of life’s invaluable lessons.
At Harts and Horses summer camp, volunteers instill skills like responsibility and respect through the proper treatment and care of horses. The horses — most of which are rescues, meaning their owners no longer wanted or could no longer care for them — faced an imminent fate at the slaughterhouse or a life filled with neglect.
Rescued by Harts and Horses executive director Dori Tamagni, the horses are given a second chance and purpose in life.
Like the horses, many of the students who attend the weeklong camp are neglected and lack direction or focus. The camp gives them a second chance as well.
“It really is not about riding,” Tamagni said. “(The students) work to learn skills to succeed in life here.”
Tamagni uses the horses as a draw to bring students in, but then teaches them rules and accountability.
“I strive to promote education and social skills,” she said. “So many social skills are being lost today with all the texting.”
In a trend seen around the country, animals are being used to treat various ailments including depression, stress and mental and physical disabilities. People with disabilities often improve balance and motor function after riding.
Horses, like other animals, also have a soothing effect.
Harts and Horses takes this concept one step further. While the horses heal students, in return the horses are rehabilitated.
“Some of these horses have behavioral issues, but (students) earn the horse’s trust,” Tamagni said. “It is a circle of trust.”
Julie Haught, who donates several acres of her horse property in Star Valley for the program, said she has seen countless times a child arrive at camp and not say a word. However, by the end of the week, they are talking and interacting with new friends.
Volunteer Katie Vanover, 24, said students grow from the day they arrive.
“At first they are very skeptical and think they are above it,” Vanover said. “But by the end, 99 percent of them don’t want to leave.”
Students who wish to come back to the camp are invited to attend as “leadership kids” or mentors. This summer, seven students returned, including Jesus Ponce, 17, from Guadalupe.
When Ponce came to the camp as a seventh-grader he was in a lot of trouble, Tamagni said.
“He was natural leader, but his family could not handle him and his last stop was my ranch,” she said. After several summers with the horses, Ponce made huge strides and is now ready to graduate high school.
Ponce said getting in the program was a way to get him out of his destructive environment.
“Being here taught me how to be a role model to other kids,” he said. “I don’t want to go back home.”
For the last six months, Ponce has stayed with Tamagni and plans to start a career in bull riding after high school.
For volunteers like Ponce and Vanover, getting students over their fear of falling off a horse is the biggest obstacle initially.
“A lot of these kids have trust issues and we want to bring back trust,” Tamagni said.
Through grooming and riding, students bond with a horse and learn to rely on it, which Tamagni hopes will carry over to trusting people.
“They really are all healing horses,” she said.
Tamagni started the non-profit program in 1999 at her 20-acre, Marana ranch. The free program is open to any child between the ages of 5 and 18. Children are referred to the program though churches, schools and word of mouth. Everyone is welcome at the camp including children with disabilities like Down syndrome, tribal students and troubled teens.
“A lot of these kids don’t have anything,” Tamagni said. “Some are from the shelter, group homes or are at-risk.”
“Some of these kids come from real, rough, low-income backgrounds,” Haught said.
The program is funded primarily through a $95,000 grant from casinos.
For more information, visit www.hartsandhorses.com.