“Ugh, what is this? An AA meeting?”

She rolled in with a bravado that belied the tiny little body she inhabited. She came out swinging with an I’ll-hit-you-before-you-hit-me mouth and body language that was sharp and biting and clearly not interested in what we had to say.


It was sort of an inauspicious start to a discussion around horses and feelings and learning. We were here to offer her a chance to have a relationship with a horse, to learn from him; and she said unequivocally that it was stupid.


This is 1 of 16 at-risk middle-schoolers I’m meeting with this week to introduce to our program. The story repeats over and over, with different sized bodies, different genders or gender expressions, different attitudes. There is the tough girl and the hyperactive boy, the boy who puts his head down and hope no one notices or talks to him and the girl whose eyes dart around like a trapped animal – scanning for exits. Kids with so much trauma and neglect and poverty that it’s hard to imagine how they’re still functioning… in schools that feel like I’m walking onto the set of Dangerous Minds. Schools that feel an awful lot like prison: pain and anger simmering so close to the surface that it’s fairly shimmering red.


As an empath, these meetings launch me onto another plane of existence. I’m looking around seeing all of the things the kids aren’t saying as clearly as if those thoughts were written in bubbles floating above their heads. Their anger and neglect rolls off of them in waves that make me physically hold onto my seat so I’m not knocked out of it.


I say something kind, genuine, to tiny tough chick, and she withers me with a look that says, “Try it, bitch. Try to be kind to me and I’ll eat your heart.” Because under the tough is fear that I’ll be one more person who fails her, and she knows I see it, and she hates me the more for it. My mind reels forward 20 years to a tattooed, still tiny tough chick, sitting in prison for murder.


I leave those schools thinking, “Is this it? Is this the group we can’t help? Will the horses not have what it takes to get through to them?” I’ve wondered that very thing at the start of every session, but this might be the one. This might be the kid who will eat my heart out, leaving me bitter and unable to give any other kid a chance. The one who steals my belief in the magic of the horse.


I go home and have a talk with my baby, a gelding named Compass. He, too, is the empathetic type and immediately becomes nervous at the thoughts in my mind.


I ask him, “Buddy…are you strong enough? Are horses strong enough to carry the weight of an 85 pound girl whose anger is double that body weight? Can the gentleness and inbred fear and survival instinct of your species teach her that it’s okay to be herself? To need people? To be vulnerable?”


My favorite horse writer, Anna Blake , says, “If the beauty of the horse is the sum of his bravery and vulnerability, then sharing those qualities puts us at least fifteen hands closer to the Infinite.”


And so I put my hands on his face, and he licks his lips and sighs. His heart tells me that his back is plenty strong enough to hold the burdens of any frail human. And I pray for tiny tough chick. I pray she comes to know this in the depths of her own injured heart.