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Horses provide therapy for troubled youth

Published June 13, 2013 7:51 pm

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

GOODING, Idaho • Jordan Oneida Orozco slowly approached the horse warming itself in the late afternoon sun, its head hung low, eyes draped by long lashes. He started to slip a purple rope halter over its nose, but the horse turned away and the rope went limp.

Jordan might not have known it, but this simple task revealed a great deal to trained observers. Did he ask for help? Do family members try to fix his problem? If so, what were the dynamics?

This was the first of his 16 sessions with Idaho Horse Therapy Inc.

Jordan smiled shyly and fiddled with the rope, not quite making sense of the loops, before equine specialist Johnny Urrutia stepped in to lend advice.

"He was really worried and scared," Urrutia later noted. "He was afraid of making a mistake. He asked, 'Is it going to hurt?' He was already planning on getting hurt."

On paper, the 13-year-old appeared to be a violent, troubled child: On probation a second time, now with three charges and one pending. Hospitalized twice and medicated since age 5. In counseling for years.

"I've literally tried everything," said his mother, Lacey Oneida, from classes for parents with angry children and those with mental illnesses to reading "The Explosive Child."

"I did everything that people suggested to me. I literally took everything from him, including his clothes, his bed ... he had to earn it back. Four months ago, he got (accused of) attempted arson, and I took everything away."

Nothing worked until Jordan started weekly visits to Urrutia's ranch between Gooding and Shoshone.

Equine therapy is the best thing that has happened to him, Oneida said, largely because he is with a positive male role model.

Urrutia "treats him like a human, like a little man. He lets Jordan find the solution and doesn't tell him, 'That's wrong.'"

When Jordan complained that his arm was tired from holding the rope, Urrutia had him do 10 pushups before each session to build his strength.

When the boy wouldn't make eye contact while Urrutia was explaining something, Urrutia stopped talking until he did.

And for an hour or so each week over the past five months, Jordan not only learned how to work and care for a horse, but also got to interact with a good man and gain confidence in equine therapy and in himself.

———

In the arena, Jordan was quiet and timid, even when the horse wouldn't back up because it had fallen asleep. It might have been because his trigger points hadn't been pushed yet or because rather than being corrected, he was guided by Urrutia's gentle voice.

"Where are you looking?" Urrutia asked, leaning against a green gate.

Jordan's goal was to get the horse to walk backwards to the rear of the barn. He applied a little pressure to the halter, pushing forward slightly with his left leg, and the horse stepped back.

"There you go, you're doing good, relaxing, keep it right there," Urrutia said. "Nice you're recognizing that he's starting to move. Keep focused."

Jordan said, "It's easier to just turn a horse around."

Urrutia grinned and replied, "Of course it is, but a horse can't see behind them."

The point was never to get the horse to the back of the barn. It was to get the horse to trust Jordan.

"The horse is doing all the work," said Urrutia's wife, fellow equine specialist Karla Davis. "Our role is, as facilitators for the horse, to teach them. The horse is going to treat Jordan how Jordan treats the horse. The horse only exists in this moment. Everything Jordan does, they are going to react to it. Our role is to watch the horse and the horse's reaction and hope learning follows."

———

Clinician Melody Kerner still remembers the first time she considered using horses as therapy. A depressed girl sat slumped in the rocking chair by her desk, struggling with memories of sexual abuse. She suddenly perked up as images of horses flashed across Kerner's computer screen. It didn't take Kerner long to find Urrutia.

Urrutia doesn't remember a time when he wasn't on the back of a horse.

After graduating from Shoshone High School in 1971, he attended Idaho State University on a track scholarship.

He got a math degree and became a high school teacher. But other skills and talents took him from Idaho for many years.

"My favorite part of teaching was the counseling," Urrutia said. "I didn't leave teaching because I didn't like it. I loved it."

While teaching, Urrutia competed in local rodeos and eventually hit the professional rodeo circuit.

Then, in 1983, he started a country music career, producing 10 albums and six top-10 songs in Europe. For 15 years, Urrutia toured the nation 300 days a year. Finally he decided to come home and combine his love of horses and desire to help youth.

Urrutia is a Level II equine specialist certified through Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association (EAGALA), an equine-assisted psychotherapy service founded in 1999.

"It's not what we obtain in life, it's what we become doing so," he said. "And if I ever got back into teaching, counseling, I'd have more to offer because of EAGALA."

Kerner, a clinician with the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare, started working with Urrutia and Idaho Horse Therapy in March 2012. She works with children from Twin Falls and Blaine counties and is known as the local clinician who prescribes equine therapy.

"Some kids don't want to sit across and talk to a therapist," Kerner said. "I've rode horses all my life. When I've had a very stressful day at work, I like spending time with my horse. And that's what I see happening with the kids."

An hour-long equine therapy session costs $60 per child. Participants are on probation and have had a mental health assessment. The probation officer for the girl or boy applies for the program through the Department of Juvenile Corrections, which pays for the service.

"All of us have kids on our caseload, and we are always coming up with ideas, things in the community that can help them," Kerner said. "We have a lot of kids on probation. And though court has them in required therapy, equine therapy ... puts them in a whole different realm and opens them up to new types of learning."

A child who hasn't been around horses has an advantage because the idea is to get him out of his comfort zone and improve self-esteem.

———

"A horse has the power to go forward and backwards, but not to go sideways. When he wiggles his head, when you let go, you reward him," Urrutia told an equine therapy youth group recently at the Twin Falls Country Fairgrounds.

Urrutia then explained the underlying lesson.

He asked a boy his usual response when asked to mow the lawn. Did he whine and pout? Sometimes.

"Same thing with the horse. If the horse disrespects you and you let it, then it learns how to whine and pout to get what it wants."

How do you get people or the horse to listen?

"Any association you have with people, if you do it out of respect, it will last a lot longer. If you do it using fear, one day when your back is turned, he'll get you," Urrutia said. "Hold your ground, breathe, good energy. They (horses) sense fear or anger better than you."

Lars Langdon, 18, brought a camera to that group session. He "graduated" from the program last year but came to take photographs for his senior project at Filer High School. His project is about the equine therapy program.

"It's really different," Langdon said, "and it helps more than people think. It's a really good metaphor for relating to life."

Before the program, he said, he was reserved and introverted. Now he is outgoing and vocal. He liked the program so much, he even bought a horse.

Brandon Davidson, 16, of Filer, has been on probation since he was 9. A court ordered him into equine therapy more than a year ago. Brandon isn't required to attend now, but he still does because, he said, it's the only thing that has helped him.

"I've sat through thousands of hours with counselors. It's not like you're sitting with a counselor. You are working with a horse that has problems just like you do," he said. "It benefits your spiritual side and thinking. I take pride in it."

The horse-human partnership was important, Brandon said, but so was his close relationship with Urrutia.

"He's the best person I've met. He's not out for the money or like counselors waiting for the next client. He's very down-to-earth."

Brandon said he also returns each month to serve as a role model for younger participants. "When I help another person, it helps me too," he said.

Before equine therapy, he said, he used and sold drugs. Now he has a new purpose in life.

"I have a lot of bridges to rebuild in Filer and Twin Falls. I want people to know Brandon has made a stand and he's doing something. I'm doing the right things for the right reasons."

———

Oneida sat on a couch in her Shoshone home last month, hemming a pair of jeans into shorts. Jordan sat nearby, watching television. Framed photographs covered the walls. One poster listed House Rules: Hug often, respect others, do your best and never give up.

In four days, Jordan would learn whether he would be approved for more horse therapy after his 16 sessions. Even if he isn't, Urrutia wants him to keep coming. He has decided to make Jordan a mentor at the group sessions.

"He knows the basics. He's really calm and has such a knack for it," Urrutia said.

Jordan's math skills have progressed along with his horse skills. Each week, Urrutia incorporated a little math lesson, having Jordan learn and recite the multiples of twos, threes and fours.

"There was a time he couldn't count by twos," Urrutia said.

But Jordan learned them all, and his reward was getting to ride the horse. That isn't part of the EAGALA model, but it was something Jordan wanted to do. And when he finally was able to ride the horse, his smile was wide.

"He was just tickled he had some success," Urrutia said. "I don't think he's gotten to think about being successful much."

Jordan recently was named student of the week at his alternative school and can transition into regular public school if he completes summer classes.

"I've gotten a lot of compliments from people in the community," Oneida said, "that they saw Jordan on the street and he was polite and talked to them. Before, he gave them the cold shoulder. He's a good kid and has a good personality. He's just misunderstood."

"I'm more mature I guess," Jordan said, looking up and smiling. "I just like the horses and stuff."

When he learned that his sessions were finished, he said, he was "bummed out and not very happy."

Besides the horses, he has built a relationship with Urrutia. "He's just really nice and knows how to work with me."

His goals always have included joining the Air Force, and today that goal seemed a little closer.

"They pay good, they pay for college and I want to fly," he said.

As for his relationship with his mother? They are working on it. They still have disagreements. He recently said something really hurtful, and Oneida couldn't talk to him for three days. She acknowledged that in the past, Jordan sometimes became so difficult that Oneida said she hated him. But no matter what, she never gave up on him. And at every one-on-one session Jordan attended, Oneida was right there beside him.

"If we had more parents like Lacey, that could really take the program to a whole other level," Urrutia said.

And though she sat on the sidelines — quiet and non-participatory most of the time — Oneida said she learned a great deal as well.

"Ninety percent of these kids have issues at school, but it starts at home," she said. "The parents see it in the first five sessions. I realized I was a big guard. I'm always to the rescue. The parents can't jump in and tell them how to do it. I had to keep my mouth shut."

She also learned that a child, like a horse, can't be forced to do something. "You can ask, but you can't force."

As the two rode somewhere recently, Oneida said, Jordan turned to her and said: "If you died, I'd probably go crazy or be in jail."

It was the first time he'd ever said something like that to her.

Oneida said Urrutia and Davis should open a boys ranch to keep children busy during summers.

"This area needs a lot more people helping. It needs a lot of more Johnnys and Karlas,"Oneida said.

And a few days later, Jordan found out he was approved for more sessions.