Lori Harmon feels a certain sense of calm and trust when working with horses.
“Horses are not judgmental. They don’t care about what you look like. They don’t care where you came from or where you're going,” Harmon said. “Horses are always honest and fair; they do not suffer from human fallibilities.”
That’s the foundation for the Equine Alliance Youth Foundation, a nonprofit organization in Paso Robles where Harmon serves as executive director.
Since 2003, the foundation has offered therapeutic programs that pair local youth with horses on a 6-acre ranch.
The foundation works to provide for children and teens in need — specifically those who have experienced neglect, physical and emotional abuse and abandonment — and pairs them with a horse to care for and train.
Today, the ranch has 12 horses, the majority of which are rescues that have also suffered from abuse, neglect or behavioral problems.
The kids are taught animal psychology, how to care for the horses and, through therapy and instruction, how to train the animals.
The horse therapy program averages around $4,000 a month in costs to provide kids with riding equipment, program horses, horse trainers, mentors and mental health professionals, Harmon said.
“We have seen some of the most toughened, shut-down, abused and sickliest horses turned around by kids into safe, quiet, healthy, happy and willing partners,” Harmon said. “Kids bring out the best in horses, and horses bring out the best in kids.”
Participants are often referred to the program through local youth service organizations and San Luis Obispo County’s foster care, mental health and juvenile service agencies.
“These kids suffer from lack of trust and hope,” Harmon said. “When kids are introduced and bond to a horse, it allows a reprieve from day-to-day stressors in their life, providing a much-needed break.”
The interaction between kids and horses builds bonds that Harmon has seen change youngsters’ behavior and outlook on life.
“When kids and horses work together, the youth begin to show affection, empathy, gain understanding and self-control,” Harmon said.
One such instance was with a participant Harmon had three years ago. A 16-year-old boy with gang affiliations and a rap sheet was sent by the courts to the ranch on a community service assignment, Harmon said.
“He was extremely angry and guarded while making it quite evident that he did not want to be here,” she said.
During his first week, the teen was tasked with re-training a 9-year-old horse that was previously abused.
“The horse distrusted people, and several horse trainers tried to rehabilitate the horse but to no avail,” Harmon said. “Everyone had given up on him, and he was going to be euthanized. So we brought him to the ranch.”
Through the teen’s interactions with the horse, Harmon said, a transformation occurred over time.
“The once-angry and reserved young man was drawn out of his shell, and what emerged was a proud, determined, trustworthy and loving young man,” she said.
That boy is now 19, working a full-time job while attending college part time, she said.
Overall, the foundation offers five programs for children, teens and young adults: community service learning, job readiness, career development, equine-assisted psychotherapy and equine-assisted learning.
The group hopes to one day acquire a larger ranch with housing that will provide a residential facility “where kids can receive loving guidance, educational services and life skills development, but most of all a family,” Harmon said.