Horse Program Gives Kids Confidence

By Stacy Trevenon [ ] | Posted: Thursday, July 23, 2015 1:54 pm


Harrison Mahler and Franklin Levinson

Harrison Mahler, 15, leads Dee, right, back toward horseman Franklin Levinson during a Horses R Us event for children at Renegade Ranch.

The man in the white cowboy hat spoke gently, yet his clear voice carried to the big brown mare at the end of the lead rope and to the teen boy standing nearby. The horse responded with pricked ears, but the boy looked at them both with trepidation.

A horse is a big animal, the man explained, yet “if he trusts you, he’ll want to stay with you. You’re his source of trust. You’re his source of peace. You’re his source of safety. You’re the leader.”
He told the boy to let the horse sniff his fingers instead of immediately petting it, since he called the horse’s face its “personal space.”

Then the man, Franklin Levinson, put the lead rope into the boy’s hand, and directed the boy, Pedro, first to lead the horse around inside the small circle of hay bales and then outside the circle in figure-eights around orange cones.
The boy flawlessly followed the directions. His hesitant steps became more sprightly each time Levinson called out “Bravo!” and “Good work!”

“We play with the horse,” he said. “We interact with it, not as an inanimate object.”

When the boy finally stopped, a big smile lit up his face.

“He’s really good at this for the first time,” said Levinson

Watching it all were parents Joey and Cynthia Carrillo, who brought Pedro from their Hayward home to this first day of the Horses R Us clinic at Renegade Ranch in Montara.

What he was doing was “equine facilitated learning,” an approach discovered by Levinson as a form of therapy hinging on the intuitive empathy of horses.

“Horses live or die on instinct,” said Levinson. “I want them to know I’m trustworthy. They respond to that. It’s about being in integrity. I want to be like a horse in that way.”

The clinic was presented by Campbell-based Autism Spectrum Knowledge — A.S.K.-NOW — to give youth on the spectrum an experience with horses that professional horseman Levinson calls “magic.”

“The horse doesn’t judge. It accepts the child,” Levinson said. “It’s a passive acceptance which kids don’t get a lot. Horses just accept the child and I think that’s a big part of it.”

Pedro’s parents seemed to agree. “We are touched,” said his mother. “This is Pedro’s first experience dealing with a big animal. We never knew he could do something like that. It’s very touching. Very rewarding.”

“It was awesome,” Pedro murmured.

Such scenes recurred all day Saturday and Sunday as young children through teens worked with Coastside resident Nicole Anderson’s two sedate, mature Andalusian mares Daesa, 9 and Esa, 16.

Next came Harrison, 15, whom Levinson guided to focus on the horse and then wind round the cones. “Perfect!” Levinson boomed at the boy. “That was big. You lead this mare well.”

Harrison was slow at first to lead the big horse but ended the session prancing, like a young colt, up to father Ed for a hug.

“This is amazing,” his father said huskily.

Then came Avis, 10, a Half Moon Bay resident who gingerly took the “flag” — a plastic bag tied to a stick, used to guide a horse — and practiced both stepping backward and forward.

“It’s a nice thing to do with a horse — dance with them,” said Levinson. “Good man!”

“Magic happens,” he said during a break. “The child discovers things about him- or herself they didn’t know before. The horse responds to those feelings of esteem.”

Little Gabby, 8, got more out of grooming the horse brought to her. In the afternoon, brother and sister Jacob, 9, and Chloe, 5, the children of A.S.K. founder Mandy Tapia, spent time with Daesa. The energetic Jacob calmed down as he took the flag to direct the mare, and his little sister did the same.

“It felt great,” said Jacob.

“You watch self-esteem grow in seconds, just being around these big animals,” said their mother. “For them to feel in control when they live life they’re so not in control of … They finally have something they can be proud of.

“My son was very focused, very calm, very decisive when normally he’s all over the place,” she continued. “He knew what the job was and he did it.”

Levinson credited his four-legged colleagues with the success of the day. “I didn’t do much, just offered guidance,” he said. “The magic comes from the horse. That’s the way it should be.”