Danville Express

Living - July 13, 2007

Befriending the rogue horse

SonRise foundation lets horses and children help each other

by Natalie O'Neill

The muscle-bound brown mare twists her head violently to the side, kicking and bucking herself onto her hind legs. Her owner narrowly misses a hoof in the stomach and, frustrated with training an unreceptive horse, decides to send her away.

To most equestrians, rogue horses - wild ones with behavioral problems - are potentially dangerous, useless at best. But to nationally renowned horse trainer and author Charles Wilhelm, there's no such thing as a bad horse - just an uneducated one.

"A lot of it is getting into its mind. Horses have seven different personalities, just like humans," he said.

Wilhelm, who will be performing a horse demonstration at a fundraiser for SonRise Equestrian Foundation on July 28, works with "problem" horses until they are obedient, gentle and can even compete in elite horse training competitions. He succeeds at it by "understanding their nature," he said.

SonRise, a nonprofit group that Danville and other Tri-Valley children ages 8-18 attend, pairs abused horses with kids who are going through physical, emotional and social crises for mutual rehabilitation. The equestrian group understands that both horses and children deserve a second chance at a happy life, volunteers say.

Having written "Building Your Dream Horse: Charles Wilhelm' s Ultimate Foundation Training" and appearing on RFD-TV, "rural America's most important network," Wilhelm is a celebrity in the equestrian community.

He will perform western dressage, also known as "horse ballet," along with presentation with no bridle, the piece normally used to control the animal by leading it through the mouth. In bridleless competitions, the horse obeys its trainer by responding to verbal commands - a stunt that shows strong discipline on the part of both the horse and the trainer.

At SonRise, the horses, some of which have a history of being abused or neglected, have been softened gradually over time and are particularly sensitive to kids, volunteers said.

"When they see a child they become a whole different horse. They become a caretaker," said Alana Koski, program manager.

Working with the horses teaches kids leadership, responsibility and confidence and encourages compassion, Koski said.

"A child going through crisis feels like they have no control, but they get to control this huge animal," she said.

The 30 kids and teens in the program have been in foster care, had recent deaths in the family, muscle disorders and psychological or social disorders. Some have had behavioral issues and are "social outcasts." There is currently a waiting list of more children to attend, but SonRise doesn't have the funds to expand the program.

As prey animals, horses are strongly intuitive, travel in packs in the wild and have a strong flight, versus fight, instinct. Horses have the natural desire to be lead, even in nature, Wilhelm said.

It's empowering for kids to be their leaders, volunteers say. Many of these children have to learn to trust again and so do the horses.

"This is a therapy program not just for the children, but for the horses," said Wilhelm, who has offered space at CW Training in Castro Valley to help the nonprofit SonRise.

Mentors, which are chosen very selectively, help kids learn ranch chores, how to brush, clean and ride the horses. While SonRise centers on helping kids care for the animals, Koski said the children open up emotionally over time.

"We're not counselors, but we try to love them and give them positive reinforcement," she said.

Having mentors around them, structure in their lives and a sense of community is integral to building self esteem, Koski said. Working with SonRise for over a year, she has watched the children's confidence improve immensely.

"They're around a group of volunteers who love them, want to be around them, and aren't down on them," she said.

Along with a performance from Wilhelm, the SonRise fundraiser will feature an auction, wine tasting, hors d'oeuvres and demonstration on horse massage, chiropractic and dental work.

Koski expects the chiropractic demonstrations to be a highlight of the night. Watching a horse get its back cracked, along with learning about equine dental work and the benefits of massage will be both educational and entertaining, she said.

The chiropractor - a big, boisterous Australian man - picks up the horses legs and pulls them into compromising positions, she said. The horses love it, too, she said, explaining that she's seen horses lift their legs to make it easier for the doctor. It's like nothing you've ever seen before, she said.

The auction will also include Southwest Airlines tickets to anywhere in the world, a party for 30 at El Balazo, a stay at a classy bed and breakfast, and a BMW convertible rental.

Tickets are $75 and can be ordered at sonriseequestrianfoundation.org or by calling 838-RIDE (838-7433). The event will take place at CW Training, 6496 Crow Canyon Road, Castro Valley.

At SonRise Equestrian Foundation there's no such thing as a bad horse, just like there's no such thing as a bad kid. Coupling the two together does wonders for them both, Koski said.


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