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Horse program aimed at helping at-risk Indian youth

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ST. MICHAEL, N.D. (AP) - Horses are part of a new court diversion program aimed at building trust, responsibility and self-esteem in at-risk American Indian youth.

The program, started last fall by the Spirit Lake juvenile court system, is called Shunka Wakan Ah-Ku, or ''Bringing Back the Horses.''

''A lot of kids out there don't have any identity,'' said Darla Thiele, an intake officer with the juvenile court. ''But as Native people, one of our greatest identities was as a horse culture.

''We wouldn't have survived without the horse. We relied on them to hunt for food. If you wanted to marry, you brought horses.''

The program on the Sioux reservation near Devils Lake is supported by the University of North Dakota medical school and a grant from the Otto Bremer Foundation.

Working with the animals, taking responsibility for them and earning their trust, ''the kids learn about confidence, communication and respect,'' said Jessica White Plume, a community health researcher at UND, a Lakota Indian from the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota and a lifelong rider.

''I was a horsewoman before I was anything else.

''The horse culture at Pine Ridge is still a source of strength and pride, especially for youth, and you can see that in the kids here. With some of them, you really can see how it sparks identity in them. You see the pride.''

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About two dozen boys and girls have been court-ordered into the program after a variety of missteps brought them into the tribe's juvenile justice system, Thiele said. Each six-week quarter, four or five teens spend two nights a week with area ranchers who volunteered their land, experience and horses.

''Most of these kids have never been within a city block of a horse,'' said Neil Whitmer, a rancher who works in the program.

''You talk to people my age on the reservation, and they all knew horses,'' Whitmer said. ''Sadly, this has been lost in the last generation or two. So, we teach them from the ground up, from the anatomy of a horse to handling a saddle and bridle. By the fifth week, we want them on the horse's back, riding.

''A lot of them are scared at first, but it's a good step to helping them overcome other problems.''

Some teens ''clearly are here only because they have to be,'' he said. But others ''want to pursue working with horses when they're done with us. It's a soothing, calming effect the kids are getting.''

Thiele said the program appears to be having some positive results.

Parents, teachers and others in the community ''have told us they see changes'' in the kids' attitudes and behavior, Thiele said. ''They're a little more respectful, maybe not quite so impulsive. They're more likely to think things through a bit.''

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