Interview With Chuck Mintzlaff
of the Official Texas Pony Express
Chuck is the Founder and Director of Texas Pony Express, a program in Dallas, TX designed to help abused children using specially trained horses - A place where kids can be kids with all the wonderment of these magnificent creatures.
Gwen: How did you get started in this and why?
Chuck: The Official Texas Pony Express (OTPE) is an Immediate Intervention Equitherapy program designed specifically to help children that have been neglected, abandoned and physically, emotionally and/or sexually abused. To the best of our knowledge, it is the only IIE program whose target time-frame of intervention is immediately after Child Protective Services places a child in a crisis center or shelter. Their backgrounds range the spectrum from inner city ghetto to financially affluent.
About ten years ago, I was initiated into the world of severely abused children quite by accident. My own children had grown and 'left the nest' and (thanks to a friend's suggestion at church) I was, initially, simply trying to give the horses that my children had 'left behind' something to do, and share a little knowledge and equine happiness with some 'kids from the shelter'. In the process, a very tragic example of the fragile emotional instability and chaos of an abused child would forever change my perception of these children and their desperate need of immediate support.
The Adolescent/ Equine Immediate Intervention Equitherapy program that I consequently developed gave me an additional exposure and insight that escalated my feelings each year from mild skepticism to alarm, to incredulity, and finally, outrage and frustration.
There are a multitude of just and needy causes in our world of today. Each holds its own special value for social welfare. But none of them holds the overwhelming positive impact on our society as does fulfilling the desperate need to help an abused child heal and regain a semblance of normalcy and stability.
Nor does any other social need hold the tragic consequences as when we neglect our abused children by letting them 'fall through the cracks'. Our present treatment of these children is the greatest waste of life and human potential known to man.
Gwen: What is the purpose of the program?
Chuck: Generally speaking, its intent is to help break the generational cycle of abuse by supporting abused children immediately after the abuse occurs and Child Protective Services assumes responsibility for them. It is also intended to offer avenues of approach, metaphors and correlations for psychotherapists that would not otherwise be available. The program itself is quite multifaceted and has numerous primary and secondary goals. A few of them are:
1. Enhance second level bonding between a particular
horse and child through the independent group interaction of our
specially trained, nonjudgmental "gentle giants". Using
Foundation Training, each horse goes through an intense three-year
training format. This enables them to pass our Adolescent/Equine
Training Evaluation to insure the safest, independent interaction
with the children that is humanly possible. It also teaches them
to not only accept the erratic, impulsive actions of the children,
but actually look forward to their visits.
2. Nullify existing trauma as much as possible, create an awareness of self, enhance self-esteem and a sense of accomplishment through a completely "hands on" interactive format.
3. Provide a physical/ emotional niche of security from the outside world. The mockingbird's serenade coupled with the open solitude of the country atmosphere and the horse's demeanor provides a very restful setting.
4. Instill life/ survival skills that the children can understand and directly correlate to their interactions with the horses (including riding).
5. Create a substantial base for future Equine Assisted Psychotherapy (EAP)/ Equine Facilitated Psychotherapy (EFP) interaction.
6. Instill appreciation and respect for the horse and safety skills when interacting with them.
7. Provide the opportunity for a little simple joy and happiness in their world of chaos.
Self-discipline comes from an exposure to discipline. Self-respect is acquired by giving and earning respect. Character requires investing time and effort through hardships to attain a goal. Friendship evolves when someone extends a hand in sincere caring. Those are a few of the things our horses teach children that have suffered at the hands of adults (in most cases, adults who were supposed to nurture instead of destroy). There are several thousand children in just the Dallas/ Fort Worth area that did nothing to deserve being thrown into an environment that predestines them to failure. Without accessible role models, without parental nurturing and guidance, with any religious training, without any positive reinforcement, they are confronted daily with more temptations then the average person experiences in a lifetime. Yet somehow, society neglects them as though somehow magically, they will avoid the pitfalls ahead of them.
Gwen: How many kids do you see at your place each week?
Chuck: It varies from 30 to 50, depending on client base.
Gwen: In what activities do the children participate?
Chuck: They participate in quite a few activities! Our program is a little different from most adolescent/ equine programs in the nation in a variety of ways. We have an Orientation Program and four Lesson Programs that follow. We only have coed programs as an exception to the rule if several children have lived together previously before being interned into the system. The end of the Orientation Program is when they get their 'first ride' and that is bareback/ lead-line with exercises done while mounted that are designed to emphasize and enhance grip and balance. It also sets in place and enhances trust factors between child and both the horses and the Riding Instructor. The following is a very brief description. Time and space do not permit a detailed explanation of the "lesson" of each lesson program, but the titles are: #1. Pick up the reins. #2. LOOK where you are going. #3. Proper Instruction. #4. Judgment - "Whipping Boy" and "Easy" ("Whipping Boy" - These children all carry a tremendous amount of guilt in that THEY have done something wrong and somehow, DESERVED the mistreatment they have received; the lesson is that they cannot be "whipping boys" for the mistakes of others. "Easy" - Very little if anything worthwhile that is accomplished in life is easy. There are unanticipated pitfalls, roadblocks, potholes and brick walls. Graduating from the OTPE program in such a short period of time - we know MANY adults that have taken MUCH longer - proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that children have the ability and fortitude to overcome these obstacles in life.) Each program lesson correlates the riding experiences directly to the life situation and life/ survival skills they will need to survive.
I. Introduction of Riding Instructors, Program Director and brief explanation of the program and the prerequisites needed to "graduate". Children are shown their 'diploma', which is a gold leaf bordered on parchment with a gold seal. A black "R" is on the seal of those who rose to be "Rebel Riders". Rebel is our Arab/ Mustang mare that, although just as safe as the other horses in the program to ride, displays exceptional spirit and is extremely responsive to cues. "Certificate of Achievement" is arched across the top of their graduation diplomas with a paragraph finalizing their acceptance as a "Texas Pony Express Rider". It is amazing to see their interest perk up, as the certificate seems to both offer a challenge and legitimacy to the program in their eyes.
II. After intros and explanations of the requirements to attain their OTPE Graduation Certificate, we go to "The Horse Book", a three-foot by three-foot pictorial history of the horse and his contribution to mankind. It begins 60 million years ago and continues through various time eras: Roman/ Egyptian chariots, (including races at the coliseum), medieval times (knights of the round table), Conquistadors reintroducing the horse to his birthplace, cavalry (including Buffalo Soldiers), work teams clearing land, ranching (rodeo events), horse racing (both types), steeplechase, eventing, dressage, Dallas Mounted Police - and then shows the different types of saddles and the basic parts of each (including proper fitting). The pages are filled with huge pictures and posters and are multipurpose and relate to the old adage, "One picture is worth a thousand words." (1.) The children learn to appreciate how much the horse has contributed to the advancement of civilization. (2.) It gives them the opportunity to identify with the various time eras, e.g. Buffalo Soldiers, Law Enforcement, Cowboys, Indians, Vaqueros, Knights, etc. *It took me six months just to find the right 'page material'. The first prototype weighed over 80 pounds!
III. We then play the "You're the Horse" game. The middle of a six-foot piece of gauze is placed in a child's mouth (simulating the bit) with the ends brought around behind them (where I stand). I place my forefinger and thumb on their shoulder to simulate the horse's back and their legs when mounted. This gives them an opportunity to correlate the meaning and responsibility of "good hands" and neck reining before they are ever mounted. This not only helps them learn "release" after stopping a horse when riding, but just as importantly (if not more so) how to stop a horse that is backing up. (One does NOT pull on the reins and say, "Whoa!" which is instinctive for the beginning rider.) It also lessens the apprehension of the 'first ride' because they have practical knowledge to rely upon.
IV. A demonstration and discussion is then held about some of the horse's unique physiological defenses (how God made him). We are Christian oriented but avoid "pushing God" in that time-frame of their lives but we DO slip Him in sideways as the opportunities afford themselves. Prey animal, fear/ flight/ binocular/ monocular vision, ability to detect tiny movements, keen sense of smell, hearing, night vision, herd rank/ input for survival, decibel range of hearing, etc. This is also where we introduce the "Friendly Killers" (our horses). (1.) The fear/ flight mechanism of the horse is explained in a way that creates awareness but not undue apprehension. (2.) They must not allow our horses to lull them into thinking ALL horses are as safe to interact with as the Texas Pony Express horses. Periodically for a few minutes at a time, we play "strange horse" meaning they must obey all safety precautions 'practicing' for the NEXT horse they encounter.
V. We then go to "Hugs and Kisses". Our Orientation Area is like a patio. Two sides are the house and two sides are railed off with 2x6" boards. This gives the children an opportunity to approach the horses but also a 'safety zone' to back away from them and feel secure. If you stand in front of our horses, say their name and the word "Hug", they will come up to you and place their chin on your right shoulder (ALWAYS the right shoulder to prevent bumped noses). They stand in that position until the "hug" is returned by the child requesting it. If you stand in front of our horses but perpendicular to them, say their name and "Kiss", they will come up to touch and momentarily hold their nose gently to your cheek. This is the first step to build trust, bonding and the ability to give and receive simple friendship as well as love/ caring. Sadly, for some of these children, it is the first hug or kiss they have ever received in their life.
VI. The children then go outside the Orientation Area to 'catch' (tongue in cheek) the horses, halter them and practice leading. The halters all have the horse's name on the noseband to facilitate the association of the horse's name with his appearance, personality and name. After which, they go to grooming and picking hooves. They are shown how to drop the hoof pick after cleaning the hoof, grasp the fetlock or just below with both hands, and put the foot down slowly.) This prevents squashed toes. Our horses are taught to not step on anyone's feet but if the hoof is dropped after being held and cleaned, the horse assumes the person that cleaned it has enough experience to not have their own foot exactly where the horse's hoof will naturally fall. On two different instances, children put the horses' hooves down with their fingers on the SOLE of the hoof! In both cases, Able and Rebel sensed the fingers beneath their hooves and pulled them up immediately before any appreciable weight was put on them (saving the fingers from possible injury). This is just one of the many things our horses learn to insure safety through our OTPE Training Evaluation that they must pass before ever being allowed to independently interact with children.
Gwen: Do you have a special agenda for each child according to his or her own needs?
Chuck: Yes, we have both our own goals tailored to each child's needs and abilities as well as the occasional therapist's psychotherapeutic goals. Sadly, most of the shelters and crisis centers do not even have a resident therapist.
Gwen: What about supervision? Do you have volunteers to help you?
Chuck: Occasionally I have help. It is extremely difficult to find volunteer personnel that are qualified for Riding Instructor positions that are available during morning hours of the week (when the programs are held). The entire format is presented to our children as "riding lessons", but the emphasis for the Riding Instructors is not on riding skills as much as it is on our program goals. While they in no way propose to assume or take the place of a licensed therapist, they are in effect 'unlicensed therapists' helping children that obviously no one else can (or cares to) help in the same manner or time frame of intervention.
Gwen: Do you have any kids there who have been coming for a long period of time?
Chuck: Regrettably, only a small handful. Having a very limited budget, I was given a choice of helping a handful over a long period of time or trying to reach as many as possible. The "system" in its present form, unfortunately swallows them up, leaving many as cannon fodder for the gangs, pimps and dope pushers. The statistics compiled over decades of research are pitifully staggering. It is our hope that our program's early intervention will give them the life perspective and fortitude to resist those statistics and live as happy and productive a life as is possible.
Gwen: What are the results that you see with the longer attending kids? Do you note any personality changes? Attitude changes?
Chuck: Oh! We see 'results' right before our eyes during the programs themselves. That is the incentive that has given me the internal fortitude to try to keep the program available all these years despite the lack of adequate funding. Taking care of the horses, preparing for a program, holding one, 'wrapping up' after a program and trying to earn a living at the same time can be a bit much for one person.
Gwen: Do you attribute the changes to the fact that the kids get to breathe fresh air and play or do the horses have some sort of special qualities that help the changes for positive?
Chuck: Certainly the peaceful country atmosphere and mockingbirds singing in the background constitutes a serene atmosphere that more than lends itself to associative adjustment. But there is no individual, group of individuals or force on the face of the earth that can match the healing power of the horse. The best possible effort is naturally the therapist working in conjunction with and using this power. Literally countless times I have seen the "light come on" of awareness, self-confidence and human dignity that could be attained no other way (not counting the smiles where there were tears or bitter remorse).
Gwen: How so?
Chuck: In as many ways as there are children. The 'tip of the iceberg,' so to speak, is perhaps both the archetype of the horse and his nonjudgmental demeanor. And the hugs and kisses our horses give also promote the second level of the five levels of human/ equine bonding. In addition, it elicits simple friendship and sense of accomplishment from an entity that is proportionate to an adult interacting with an elephant. The horse's size alone pierces the chaos and stigma of a child's traumas with a high impact, real-time interaction. While two of the mares are relatively smaller horses, the others are full blown, 1,200+ pound geldings.
Gwen: How is the program funded?
Chuck: Primarily by myself the last ten years (which means my physical assets have been converted to pay for hay, feed, vet, bills, program supplies, etc.) We finally formed a nonprofit corporation (501c3) awhile back but at present, lack any substantial expertise for fund raising and grant writing.
Gwen: What are your goals for the future?
Chuck: My very first goal in life is to raise the awareness of the needs of abused children, as well as the repercussions of neglecting them. Our present system does nothing more than pay lip service to a group of children who have done nothing wrong, desperately need our help, are placed in environments that more often than not are worse than the ones they were removed from and are basically 'swept under the carpet' like trash. "As the twig is bent, so the tree grows" is not just a cliché. It is the very life and quite often death epitome of neglected, abandoned and emotionally, physically and sexually abused children. The endless substantiated statistics concerning the repercussions of the traumas they have received are all too abundant. It astounds me that if society doesn't regard these children as human beings that deserve the same chance in life as any other child, that they would at least be frugal and prudent enough to save billions of their tax dollars through early intervention and continued support.
My second goal would be to expand our concept by starting up other small programs like ours across Texas that share our goals, use horses that have passed our Training Evaluation and are certified for Animal Assisted Therapy by Delta Society. This would insure that no child in our state would ever "fall through the cracks" with a high probability of continuing the "generational cycle of abuse."
About the author:
Her husband says she's obsessed with horses and how right he is! Gwen has been in love with horses for over 50 years. From training wild mustangs to teaching all ages to kindly care for and ride horses, Gwen keeps busy with the sharing of her horsemanship ideals and knowledge with enthusiasts from all walks of life. Her published writings on the etiology and training of horses can be found in numerous publications including the "United States Mounted Border Patrol Training Manual 2002", "Horseman's Yankee Pedlar", "BLM Roundup" and more. Presently Gwen is working on the completion of "A Horseman's Journal - A Collection of Essays on the Natural Horse", due for publication in the winter of 2002/2003 as well as a 3- Level Progressive Equine Partnership Training Manual for a Certificate course due to begin January 2003.
Gwen presently resides in Douglas, Massachusetts with her husband, a menagerie of critters and plenty of "adopted" kids and families. Questions & Comments to Ms. Santagate can be directed to: firstname.lastname@example.org.
For further information contact:
1475 Alice Street
Hutchins, Texas 75141