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Horses do the Teaching

by Ilima Loomis
Maui News, August 2001

Children learn about relationships by caring for the animals and have fun riding them.

Because he wants to teach them that horses are more than four-legged vehicles, Franklin Levinson insists that all his clients spend time on the ground, working with their mounts at eye level.

For three years, Levinson has been accepting groups of children from Child and Family Services and other agencies through his nonprofit Horses Helping Kids program at his Huelo ranch.

Clients benefit from spending extra time learning to lead and handle the horse because it helps them focus on and understand the animal, he said.

"Riding's riding, but on the ground's when the relationship stuff comes in," he said.

And the relationships formed with the animals is part of the program's benefit to kids.

"They learn kindness and respect, how to care for themselves and others," said Susan Abraham, a mental health specialist with CFS.

The ground work Levinson requires can take a number of different forms. For a group of learning-disabled youths from Child and Family Services, it meant taking the horse by the halter and leading it around a simple obstacle course of colored buckets.

Proper handling of the horses, learning to control them by gentle body language and voice commands, also helps his groups of "tough teens," who often try to dominate the horse through aggression when they first begin the program.

Levinson said they learn quickly that anger isn't effective. "In order for them to lead the horse gently, they have to do it through trust and respect," he said. "They get more from loving and kindness than by being rough and abusive."

Through training, the teens learn how to make the horses come to them, follow, stop, start, and move at different gaits. By the time they get in the saddle, they've bonded with the animal and feel confident that they'll be able to control it.

The culmination of their summer program will be an oceanfront trail ride led by Levinson on his ranch.

The compulsory ground work met resistance from some of the Child and Family Services group. Cowboy hat on his head, the biggest of the three teen-agers wanted to ride, not spend time leading the horse around an obstacle course.

But during a break a few minutes later, the three youths had surrounded Levinson's big chestnut gelding, "Uncle," and were stroking his neck and face.

Touching and petting the animal is an important part of bonding, Levinson said, and the horse will often respond by delivering a "hug" in return - bending his neck over the child's shoulder and pressing his face against the child's back.

"When that horse comes over and puts his head on your shoulder, it's magic," he said.

In addition to the emotional bonds that are formed, trips to the ranch are also simply an outing that the children enjoy and look forward to.

"They have fun, they relax and they exercise," said Donnie Archer, a therapeutic aide with CFS. "When the calendar comes out they're all excited. From two weeks ahead they're talking about it."

Horse-therapy programs exist all over the country, serving a variety of different clients and addressing different issues. Haku Baldwin's Maui Horse Center in Makawao has provided equine therapy, mostly for riders with physical challenges, for several years.

Levinson says his program is "love-based," and focuses on the emotional benefits of working with horses and developing close relationships with the animals.

He has been operating Adventures on Horseback, a commercial trail riding operation, for about 20 years on his Huelo ranch.

Levinson started The Maui Horse Whisperer Experience, in which paying clients learn his gentle training techniques, about three years ago.

While he originally conceived the sessions as educational for horse owners, he soon realized that they were also therapeutic and began offering the program free of charge to groups for disadvantaged and disabled children.

Levinson has been trained in equine-facilitated therapy, but he credits his gentle, four-legged partners and the children themselves for much of its effectiveness.

"The horse gives them compassion, patience and a sense of confidence. It also gives them its size and strength," he said. "But of course, the kids have to come forth with a little bit of courage, too."