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Washoe Tribe holds the reins with new enterprise

CARSON CITY, Nev. - Under Nevada's blue skies, autumn cottonwoods blaze against a backdrop of sagebrush, the expansive Carson Valley and the Sierra Nevada range. Here, on their traditional homeland, the Washoe Development Group continues to ride high in the saddle with another new enterprise: a horse boarding facility.

This is the historic Stewart ranch, just a couple of miles off U.S. Highway 395, not far from the BIA boarding school that thousands of Indian students attended from 1890 to 1980. Nestled next to the rolling foothills that also cradle traditional tribal hot springs, this 2,000-acre ranch just might be where horses go to dream.

There are quarter horses, mustang mixes, even paint horses, all nurtured by good grains, senior horse supplements and sweet hay grown on Washoe land. The $200 per month fee - competitive rates in these parts - involves a clean stall, fresh water and happy trails.

The Washoe horse boarding facility also shelters horses belonging to tribal members, and some members work here as ranch hands, providing jobs for Washoe people.

Bill Addington of the Washoe Development Group - a for-profit arm of the Washoe Tribe of Nevada & California's government - says active networking was key in filling up a dozen stalls, with a few more horses in nearby corrals.

''We went out to the feed stores, large-animal vets and [placed] a couple of inserts in the newspaper,'' Addington said. ''Once it started, word of mouth picked up [business] quicker. It went from nothing to a full house quickly, which we're very grateful for. We're also very fortunate to have all these ranch hands, who are very knowledgeable about animals and are very compassionate. The people who board the horses and our ranch hands [have] a great synergy.''

Synergy is also the essence of the Washoe horse boarding facility's relationship with HealTherapy, a private, for-profit agency providing mental health services for children and families in Siskiyou County, Calif. Accredited through the North American Riding for the Handicapped Association, HealTherapy's ''The Horse Program'' provides equine-based therapy for both the youth learning to ride, reach for the skies and take the reins - a metaphor for personal growth - as well as the instructors logging hours toward NARHA certification.

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Now, as HealTherapy breaks new ground next to the Carson River in Nevada - home to dwindling populations of America's iconic mustangs - at-risk youth develop confidence and control through caretaking, behavioral balance through boundaries, and increased empathy through equines.

''About 30 percent of our clients, on average, are Native American children,'' said Mickey Hayes, co-owner of HealTherapy. ''A lot of times, our horse therapy works where talk therapy doesn't, because of cultural differences. The horse seems to break down those differences. When I first got involved, I was kind of skeptical, but it's just amazing.''

Hayes says HealTherapy's handlers are either certified registered therapeutic equestrian instructors or are well on their way to becoming certified within one year. Clients stay with the program for an average of a year, with two hours of horseback-based therapy per week. Every child is assigned a comprehensive team - the horse handler, a licensed marriage and family therapist or clinical social worker, and cowboy boot-clad case managers, who interact with and treat the whole family.

''If we have a father who's yelling at little Billy for not listening, we bring 'em out and let him yell at the horse,'' Hayes explained. ''Then he sees that he's not getting much of a response, and he gets it.''

Cantering along on a powerful pony, once-distraught young people discover a different kind of drama. Ancient horse medicine helps them transcend trouble, angst and anger, ushering them toward a future that they have a hand in shaping.

''We're interested in helping the child,'' Hayes added. ''Children, universally, do better in school once they come into our program. Even though we take them out of school at least two hours a week, the educators see the improvement in behavior, concentration and school work. So they're more than willing to [continue].''

Ultimately, a saddle, a smile and a sugar cube can be timeless remedies in a contemporary world fraught with technology-induced stress. Taking a new trail, with the wind in their hair and comforted by the scent of sage, these youth come to the understanding that hugging a horse can help and heal. Through communication and communion with horses, their personal growth comes to be - like the sky itself - without boundary.

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