Rescued Horses, Rescued People
Story and Photography by Tim Keller
New Mexico’s Ride To Pride Partnership uses rescued horses to provide a new start for hundreds of troubled youth and their families.
The big black gelding stands tentative, letting the 14-year-old boy’s hands stroke the horse’s neck and right shoulder. The boy grooms the horse with currycomb and soft brush, slow and gentle, rarely speaking. He bends, using both hands to clean each hoof.
Richard Pacheco, Jr., was in the 7th grade last year at West Las Vegas Middle School in Las Vegas, New Mexico. Quiet and well behaved, Richard tolerated another boy’s teasing all year. Sensing easy prey, the bully grew meaner, crueler. Richard, big for his age, continued to ignore the kid, as much as anyone could, until one day, near the end of the school year, right there in the classroom, Richard snapped.
He simply clamped his hands around the boy’s throat and pressed, hard. That shut him up. Richard held. And held, calm in the center of a storm as the classroom erupted. When Richard finally set the boy down and let go, the boy was unconscious.
Richard left school that day in handcuffs. The bully left in an ambulance. (He recovered, and changed schools.)
It was the first time Richard had ever been in trouble. He was embarrassed.
The jail was full so he was processed and released to his parents, Sandy and Richard Pacheco, Sr., but there would be a price to pay. He was assigned a juvenile probation officer, April Montaño, who made a home visit and noticed lots of animals around the family’s 360-acre homestead 17 miles south of town.
Montaño is a big fan of a 13-year-old program serving youth and families in three counties from its facility on the outskirts of Las Vegas. Ride To Pride Partnership provides equine-assisted psychotherapy and youth programs, pairing kids of all ages with horses whose lives have sometimes been as troubled as the kids’ own. The kids come hurting for many reasons -- domestic abuse, drug or alcohol abuse, divorce, loss of a loved one, adoption or foster care, crime. Montaño gave Richard some treatment choices; he jumped at Ride To Pride. She said, “You are going to work on your issues. You are not just going to play in the dirt.” Richard said, “Okay.”
Greg Esquibel grew up in Las Vegas, the son of the superintendent of schools. An accomplished athlete and horseman, he found that one year at UNM in Albuquerque was enough for him. He worked construction, then pumped propane. At a team roping one weekend in 1995, he found himself chasing around with a 7-year-old boy on a pony. “Come on, I’ll race you to that post,” he offered, “and if I win I get the pony!” The kid laughed, and Greg lost. But, from a distance, the kid’s mother took notice.
She turned out to be the clinical director of Rancho Valmora, a residential treatment center an hour from town. Their program served troubled teens and used horses for recreation. Greg found himself in charge of the horse program. Two years later he hired Lorraine Moore, a California transplant who grew up with horses but had run away from a troubled life at the age of 14. “I hired her,” Greg says now, “and she put my life in order.” They married.
Lorraine noticed that kids talked to Greg about things they wouldn’t say to their therapists. Being around the horses loosened them up, and learning horsemanship provided metaphors for life. Some of the therapists began incorporating the horses into the kids’ therapy. Seeing an even larger potential for the use of horses, Lorraine suggested to Greg that the two of them lease an unused indoor arena at Las Vegas and create their own horse-based program.
Ride To Pride was born in 1997. It was successful from the beginning, and it grew faster than anyone could have imagined. Juvenile Probation and Child Protective Services were thrilled. It was cheaper than residential treatment, and the kids got to stay home with their families, providing added therapeutic opportunities.
Ride To Pride (RTP) merged with Community Partnership, a local non-profit organization, to create Ride To Pride Partnership. They bought the property and added stables, pens, and an outdoor arena. “We’re serving 240 kids now,” Greg marvels. “I wonder, sometimes, when does the list end? But then the next one comes, and you talk to these families and you can’t say no. So we hire more staff and keep going.” Each time they outgrow their warren of trailer offices, he brings in another.
Current staffing includes ten licensed therapists, three equine professionals, four office staff, and a dozen horses. Most of the horses have been donated to the program, with many rescued from their own abused lives; in fact, the kids and horses often rehabilitate each other simultaneously.
“We’re teaching Richard to read horses,” says his therapist, Carole Jackson. “Then we transfer that to reading people.” Each client is assigned a therapist, who schedules sessions with an equine professional and a horse. The four work together, usually for one hour, once a week. Greg Esquibel uses the horses to challenge Richard in specific areas of his life. He teaches Richard basic horsemanship, from the ground up, while Carole helps guide Richard to life lessons.
“We match the horse to the child,” says Greg. “A bully may get a headstrong horse, an apathetic kid a feisty horse. A kid who needs to develop assertiveness may get a lazy horse, an ADHD kid a calm horse.” Lorraine adds, “Horses are great for an ADHD kid because he has to stay focused and in the moment, yet have a plan and pursue a goal.”
Richard tried a few horses. One day he entered a pen to get another horse when Power Stroke, the big black gelding, walked right up to him. It was love at first sight for Richard. Power Stroke had chosen him. Greg says Richard needed a horse he could trust. “Power Stroke was donated to us when his career in junior rodeo ended. He’s honest, kind, dependable, and willing.”
During their session, Carole asks Richard, “What did you notice when you went to get Power Stroke today?”
“He came to me.”
“How did that feel?”
“It felt good.”
“How would you describe Power Stroke?”
“I call him the gentle giant.”
Carole thinks the two look great together, both of them big, dark, and quiet. “What can you do for him that he can’t do for himself?” she asks.
“I’m grooming him.”
“What can he do for you in return?
“He can carry me. I get calm when I’m grooming him.”
A photographer’s flash repeatedly startles Power Stroke. Carole asks Richard, “When the flash scares Power Stroke, who’s responsible for helping him to feel safe?”
“I am,” he replies.
“Could you do the same for a family member or a friend?”
“Everything we do is through trust and respect,” Greg says. “The kids learn patience and problem-solving. My motto is ‘You can always start again.’” Carole adds, “There’s a lot about asking horses to do things. There are no demands.” Kids learn the differences between passive, assertive, and aggressive approaches. Being passive gets Richard nowhere. Being aggressive is worse. In an assertive manner, he learns to ask Power Stroke for what he wants.
“We can help them link that to school, family, or life,” Carole says, “but a lot of times they don’t need us to do it for them. They get it.” Carole and Greg sometimes test Richard, purposely pushing his limits. They had him work with a new horse, letting Richard use his skills to assess the horse for RTP, even while they assessed Richard. “We can push his limits here, in a safe environment,” Carole explains, “and it gives us good counseling opportunities. Richard is learning coping skills, patience, and adaptability.”
Richard began the program shy and withdrawn, uncomfortable around the staff and the horses. Now it’s the highlight of his week. He hopes his parents will let him get a horse of his own. He’s taken to wearing Wranglers, western shirts, and a cowboy hat. His parents are thrilled. “I’ve learned ways to control my anger,” Richard says. “The horses have taught me to read body language, which is helping me in real life. I’ve learned when to stay away from a person. Carole taught me ways to relieve stress, like deep breathing. I’ve learned to go for a walk or a run to shed my anger. It feels good.”
Richard’s principal at West Las Vegas Middle School, Steve Sandoval, says Richard has become a better student this year, no longer withdrawn and quiet. “He’s open and talkative in class, in an involved, participatory way. I see him in the halls and he’s very respectful and friendly. The teachers say he’s become a model student.”
April Montaño, Richard’s JPO, says, “He really enjoys Ride To Pride, and he’s done well. He’s one of my most successful clients. I’m confident that Richard will continue to be successful.”
She adds, “Boys don’t like office therapy, sitting in a chair for an hour. Hands on and outdoors is much more effective.” In fact, she’s so sold on Ride To Pride that she’s arranging another staff-development training at RTP for juvenile probation officers and child protective service workers, like one they had two years ago. That training led to even faster growth of the program as referrals increased.
Board president Amy McFall, who discovered the program when her own daughter Maxine became a client, and business manager Vickie Sands both speak of the organization’s financial challenges. Services are billed through Medicaid, insurance, and state programs. The non-profit 501 (c) 3 organization seeks donations, sponsorships, and endorsements through its website at www.ridetopride.org. Growing the program’s services has been easier than making ends meet, and fundraising is an ever-present need.
Greg and Lorraine’s daughter, Callie Jo Moore, has grown with the program, from mascot to equine professional. (Her mom took the name Callie Jo from a 1989 Western Horseman magazine.) A third-year student at New Mexico Highlands University, Callie is earning a double major in social work and business with a mind to grow Ride To Pride even further. An avid member of the college rodeo team, she competes in barrels and breakaway (and dabbles in goat-tying and team roping). She sees a potential to franchise Ride To Pride in order to serve more people. She’d like to serve terminally-ill youngsters, as well. After earning her master’s degree, she plans to come on board full-time.
Back in the arena, Richard has now saddled Power Stroke. He follows Greg’s instructions, mounting the big horse, circling the arena clockwise, then counterclockwise. Greg’s voice, like Carole’s, is calm and understated. “Walk…Trot…Canter...” They watch Richard circle the ring, tall and straight in the saddle, boy and horse guiding each other, intent, knowing where they’re going, knowing how they’ll get there.
Tim Keller is a teacher, writer, and photographer based in Des Moines, New Mexico. See more of his writing and photography at www.TimKellerArts.com. Send comments on this story to email@example.com.