Published May 16 2010
And so, they ride: Horses and youths find common ground, calm their restless spirits together
She was a soft-spoken, slight girl, fearful of getting bucked off. He took one look and wouldn’t even let her put on his saddle.
But these days, she gets away with a lot more than saddling him up: At her command, he trots sideways and traces the figure eight at county fairs. He even let her deck him out in whiskers and a cat tail.
“I never thought I’d get to this horse,” says Fawn, 13, “but it turned out we have a lot in common. We both like to go fast.”
That horses and preteens can have a lot in common had occurred to horse trainer Dave McNamee when he returned to the White Earth Reservation years ago.
He had an idea: He would start a horse-riding program for kids who could use a kindred spirit, those grappling with anything from bashfulness to the lure of drugs and alcohol.
McNamee likes horses that are “a little bit on the muscle, a little pushy.” He knows the rules of getting along with spirited horses and teens alike: Be firm. Give praise. Never lose your temper.
“You don’t want the horse to think you don’t like it,” he says. “You want the horse to know it was the thing he was doing you didn’t like.”
McNamee left Mahnomen at 17. He spent time with the Peace Corps in Ecuador, trained race horses in Australia and worked on a ranch in Idaho. A horse-riding accident there sent him back to White Earth to run farm equipment for his family until a broken leg healed. He never left.
Six years ago, McNamee, a one-time religious formation teacher, decided to harness his passion for horses and youths who share his restless spirit. Friends from the native community helped him get started; the tribe let the program lease a 40-acre pasture for $1 a year.
The local 4-H club lined up grants for the program, named “Bagosendaan,” Ojibwe for “hope.”
“We wanted to touch the lives of kids who were sitting on the fence – who weren’t in a lot of trouble, but you knew that’s where they were going to go,” says Marlin Farley, a native community leader.
First-time offenders in tribal court and on truancy rolls became early recruits. Later, area schools also made referrals.
At first, McNamee had trouble finding fellow volunteers who could handle both horses and sassy teens. Then, he met Becky Halonen: As a mom of three, former teacher and horse enthusiast, she was just the sidekick he needed.
Gradually, the program grew, powered by a blend of camaraderie, riding and native culture.
There were elaborate synchronized rides at county fairs and turns at powwows, where the kids opened the festivities the traditional way, by circling the arena on horseback. There were talking circles, when teens tackle anything from softball games to a brother’s suicide.
At first, boys and girls came out for lessons and trail rides after school, but the boys often seemed more interested in the girls than the horses, and flirting and drama ensued. In recent years, the program has focused on working with girls with an average age of 13.
“Girls are successful in the program because they look at a horse as something more than a four-wheeler,” Halonen says about Bagosendaan, which recently won a grant from the Women’s Foundation of Minnesota. “Girls will bond with their horses.”
Riding with pride
These days, Fawn looks at ease on her horse, her long brown hair and his long brown mane fanning out in the wind as they speed up. When they tear along a trail together, her mind is still. When they pause, she rests her forehead in the curve of Tallot’s neck.
“I have a lot more confidence now,” says Fawn, who lives with her grandparents, “and I am more serious about things. I used to goof off a lot.”
Each of the couple dozen girls in the program gets her own horse, most of them donated. If the horses are new, the girls get to name them. They become close fast. This spring, Mariah Olsen’s horse, Meg, a gentle brown Arabian that nuzzled her hand, died unexpectedly. Mariah, 13, was inconsolable for days.
McNamee counts on these powerful friendships to outweigh the attraction of youthful rebellion.
In sixth grade, Fawn and her friend Leah Bellanger, 13, started running with a party crowd. That was also the time they discovered the horse program. They had to choose between riding and experimenting with drinking and pills.
“If I did those things, I knew I couldn’t go riding,” says Leah. “Even if I didn’t get caught, I’d feel bad.”
A quarter of participants drop out of the program after getting off track with school work or sobriety.
“It’s a little like AA,” Halonen says. “You can allow some slips, but you can’t allow kids to constantly abuse the program.”
Jeff Bisek, the Mahnomen High School principal, believes the program has stopped some students from dropping out. He’s seen grades rise and acting-out subside.
Mary Tibbetts’ 12-year-old grandson, Bucky, the only boy in the program, got a set of spurs from McNamee and Halonen for his birthday. He received a “bravery” certificate when he persevered with strong-willed Jazz even after she bucked him off, twice.
“He sees in Dave and Becky stability that’s sometimes questionable in his life,” Tibbetts says. “They are always there when they say they’ll be.”
A few years ago, the program attracted a girl with confidence whittled down by domestic abuse and the long shadow of a younger sister, a popular athlete.
The girl tackled ever more formidable feats. She won a blue ribbon for horsemanship at a county fair. She confronted her fear of heights by riding along the edge of a cliff in the North Dakota Badlands near Medora. Last year, she became the first in her family to go to college.
“We believe all of our kids are capable of doing anything they want with their lives,” McNamee says. “Some of the girls don’t understand that yet, but we do.”
Readers can reach Forum reporter Mila Koumpilova at (701) 241-5529