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Free Rein Foundation Graduation: Part I Equine Therapy Programs

Equine Therapy Program Graduation Gifts

These horseshoe graduation gifts were lovingly made by Inga Lena Puttner, one of our Equestrian Community supporters.

There was a flurry of activity on Sunday.

Tables and chairs were wet from the early morning rain and an hour before the official start of the graduation ceremony people started arriving.  There was a flurry of activity as we scrambled to get tables and chairs wiped off everyone began to grab towels and assist with the hurried setup.

Usually, there would be plenty of time to get everything in order since the three groups of kids, their families and the LAPD officers accompanying them were all driving in from Los Angeles.  But it had rained, and it was LA.  When it rains in LA, people shift into a disaster mode–similar to the panic of the nor’easters on the Atlantic coast.  Although there would be no ice or snow; no salt trucks or snow plows, the rain was something that made people more cautious.  So early they arrived, one family after another.  Just because it rained didn’t mean they would not show up for this amazing day!

The graduation ceremony was held outside of The Red Horse Barn, an incredibly lovely event location in the heart of Huntington Beach, California.  Located just inside the Huntington Central Park Equestrian Center, The Red Barn is the perfect place to host a wedding.  There are corrals and horses and all the beautiful sounds that come from being surrounded by these magnificent animals. It is also the perfect place to host graduation.

free-rein-foundation-graduation-2019As luck would have it, the mother of the bride had called the night before to let us know that she was leaving all of the flowers, some cookies, and several dozen cupcakes in the refrigerator in the bride’s room inside The Red Horse Barn.  We were just thrilled to know that the event planning company would not be back to get their round tables and wooden chairs until late in the afternoon.

Every little detail matters, especially when you are a young and growing non-profit that operates 100% on donations.  And every beautiful bit of luxury – like wedding flowers and cupcakes – matters when you are hosting groups from South LA. Their urban concrete neighborhoods have little greenery, especially in the style of floral wedding arrangements.  Everyone was thrilled to see the added glamour of roses and carnations.  It was certainly starting off to be a beautiful day!

Eight Weeks With Horses

A Program Like No Other

Our graduates are from three separate groups of kids who come from Los Angeles to experience two-hour sessions in the pasture with four rescued horses for an eight-week Equine Assisted Therapy Program.  The first thing that most people imagine are kids riding horses, but I am sorry to say there was no promise of riding horses at all over those eight weeks.

After walking up the long dusty pathway to the pasture at the top of the Equestrian Center hill, the groups of kids are given assigned activities. Each on involves directing the horses to go one way or another, or perhaps they will be asked to create a path of obstacles that the horses must be led through  (a task filled with fear for the horses and one of frustration for the kids!)

Very few of the kids in these groups had ever ridden a horse let alone been up close to one.  They are big, huge animals that are not like any other kind of pet or critter one would find in a city.  Horses can be kind of scary, even to the bravest of adults! They can stand two foot taller than most of the kids – and that height and presence can be just a little intimidating.


Free Rein Foundation | Davini Photography

A Challenge

Have you ever tried to get a horse to let you put on a harness when you are not sure what that is or even how it is supposed to go around a horses head?  

Almost every group of kids who come through one of our programs will have to deal with something very similar because the Equine Assisted Therapy program we use (EAGALA) is “experiential” – which in lay terms means: you are on your own!


Free Rein Foundation | Davini Photography

So once you get that halter on the horse’s head (usually backward), the next task is to figure out how to lead that horse in or to some other part of the corral where the assigned task will be completed.

The good news is that the kids, many of whom are strangers at the beginning, are now fast friends, and they can usually work together to figure out what they need to do.

The process involves all the kid’s senses too.  Surrounded by open land, standing on a dusty surface with not a building in sight can be quite an experience for these city kids.  For the entire two hours, they are seeing, doing, and feeling things that are all a bit out of their comfort zone.


“What was the bravest thing you’ve ever said?” asked the boy

Help,” said the Horse.

Asking for help is one of those lessons learned from working with horses.  The relationships that develop between the kids and the horses are quite unique.   As you probably already know, the horses don’t actually talk. But they do listen and observe, and that is the first step in forming the bond.

You see, horses just get you. Standing tall and observant of every single thing going on around them, horses listen….and I mean they really listen to every single word, and every breath, and every movement that is taking place from the children that are now surrounding them. It is the horse and the kids (and the Equine therapists too, who are overseeing the process; managing without directly telling the kids what to do.)

What is experienced and felt during the activities will be discussed after each activity is completed and then revisited over a shared meal at the very end of their session.  The time goes by very quickly and for most of the kids in the program, graduation is exciting, but it also means that their time with the horses is now over.

So Why Do We Use Horses?

Horses are a very different kind of therapy partner.

They are intelligent prey animals. What that means is that in order to evade predators, horses have evolved to be extremely sensitive to their environment.  They instinctively analyze and react to our body language and every other nonverbal cue, and then provide valuable feedback by their actions.

Large and Powerful. It is very hard to ignore such large beasts let alone try to control their movements.  Just approaching a horse can help us to reflect on how we approach all of our relationships.  If you can approach a horse and face its powerful stance, then perhaps you can face just about anything that feels overwhelming.

Herd Animals That Are As Unique As We Are.  Horses are social animals with defined roles with their herd.  They have distinct personalities, attitudes, and moods.  Working with horses, you can find one more stubborn than your abuela (grandmother) and then another as playful as your baby sister.  In other words, horses are a lot like humans!  Just interacting with them through our “experiential” activities makes everyone in the group keenly aware that not all horses look or act the same.  And that can be a powerful insight when dealing with all of the experiences participants encounter in their normal daily life.


Free Rein Foundation | Davini Photography

“What was the most beautiful experience of your life?” said the boy.

“Finding out I wasn’t alone,” said the horse.

So at graduation, with family and police officers in attendance, watching as a horse is brought to the celebration, the kids get up out of their chairs and proudly show everyone that they can be at ease and interact with this large and powerful beast. They are not intimidated, in fact, they want to get up and go say hello to one of their new friends. “Everyone is a bit scared,” said one of the boys. “but we are less scared together.”


Parents, Family, and Friends

Family Support is So Important


For the families, this graduation is unlike any other.

Eight short weeks is not like attending a school program with teachers and administrators.  In fact, most of the parents never even come out to the pasture or Huntington Beach for that matter.  The kids are driven to the program by police officers from their neighborhoods who support the program.  These officers are referred to kids through other LAPD programs, or perhaps they know of a family where the kids might be open to participating.  The cost to participate is paid 100% through donations.  Most people have never heard of Equine Assisted Therapy, but these families are familiar with the officers who are recommending the program.  That trust is all that is needed for families to let the kids travel over an hour to spend two hours in a dusty pasture once a week for eight weeks.

And today these parents and caregivers are thrilled with the children who are graduating. 

Over those eight short weeks, they have seen these children change.  Their words change; their mood changes.  They are putting into practice techniques to deal with stress and anxiety and sometimes, as one mother explained, what they learned can help everyone in the household.  “My daughter showed me how to calm down by pressing my tongue to my teeth.”  No, the horses didn’t teach them that, but everything is guiding these kids to make better choices in their lives and hopefully, they will be empowered to share that wisdom with their families and friends.  A process that can really impact an entire community, one child at a time.


Three Incredible Groups of Kids

For all of our graduates, we want you to know that you will be missed and that you are always welcome to come back to the Equestrian Center for a visit. We are so very proud of all that you each have accomplished over these last eight weeks!

Meeting your families and then sharing a meal together was the perfect way to say goodbye. And it was a wonderful surprise to have the rain clouds turn into sunshine–as if on cue–when our graduation ceremony was ending.

We want to thank the officers from LAPD 77th Street Community Police Station, LAPD Newton Division, LAPD Hollenbeck Community Police Station for their commitment to community change and support of our programs. We could not possibly change the future without your support and care.

We hope that you keep the lessons of the horse close to your hearts and continue to share it with others.  Congratulations!


About Free Rein Foundation

If you would like to know more about our Equine Assisted Therapy programs or our work with community police and other local organizations, please contact us at

If you would like to be one of the critically important community sponsors and are interested in how aligning your business with our non-profit programs and volunteering can help your employees and business grow with a greater social impact, please call (714) 585-1020.

The work of Free Rein Foundation could not possibly make the impact it does in our communities without the help and support of our volunteers who care for the rescued horses; the care and rescue of our horses; and the support of donors – large and small who allow us to do our work.  We are 100% donation based program and we would love to have to join our team and contribute to the programs that are changing the future of our communities one child, one horse at a time.

Photography was done by Davini Photography