Ex-Racehorses Make The Difference For At-Risk Youth In Texas

All of us are familiar with the use of horses in police work. Mounted patrols are a familiar sight on the streets and in the green spaces of our major cities. But horses are also used to prevent crime before it can reach the meaner of our cities' streets. One such use is the Texas Rural Communities, Inc. (TRC) Heritage Intervention Programs, called Buffalo Soldier Heritage and Vaquero Heritage. The Buffalo Soldier curriculum was developed by Dr. David Williams, an educator who is also a black historian and author. The Vaquero curriculum was developed by Dr. Andres Tijerina, a noted historian and published author in Mexican-American history. Planning and conceptualization for the programs began five years ago for Buffalo Soldier Heritage and four years ago for Vaquero. The first actual camps for those programs were, respectively, in 1995 and 1996. Second-career racehorses are an indispensable part of the program's success.

“Horses are the key essential tool for Vaqueros and Buffalo Soldiers,” according to David Galvan, the programs' executive director. “In order for us to accomplish a successful prevention program for at-risk youth we need the horse.

“The bonding between youth and horses is phenomenal,” he continued. “There is some kind of connection between the boy and his horse, a sort of partnership. The racehorses we receive come from their fast-paced life and they calm down here, just as, say, a boy formerly involved in a gang calms down when he's part of one of our programs. They seem to adjust well to being outdoors and they are therapeutic for each other. Calves and dogs, for example, could possibly work in our programs. But they are not essential.”

However, he emphasized, “There is no such thing as a Vaquero without a horse.”

The Origin of the Heritage Intervention Programs

“Believing that intervention should take place before at-risk children enter the juvenile justice system, Texas Rural Communities, Inc. originated the Heritage Intervention Programs, a program designed for youths, for boys ages 7-13,” Galvan explained. “The Heritage Intervention Programs (HIP) use powerful minority historical figures to demonstrate personal responsibility and self-respect with a strong anti-drug, anti-gang, stay-in-school message (ADAGSIS). In 1996 HIP initiated a program using the Hispanic culture of the Vaquero, the hard-working cowboy of South Texas, as the basis of the Vaquero Heritage Program (VHP). Under HIP, TRC also originated the Buffalo Soldier Heritage Program (BSHP) in 1995, based on the history of the Buffalo Soldier, the 19th century African-American soldier of the post-Civil War period. In 1997, TRC made HIP an independent organization as Heritage Intervention Programs, Inc.

“Each program involves a week-long summer camp to be held at Boy Scout Camp Sol Mayer, in western Menard County. The camps, known as El Campo de los Vaqueros for the Vaquero Heritage Program and Encampment for the Buffalo Soldier Heritage Program, offer outdoor activities and classroom lessons focusing on history and heritage. Outdoor activities include regular summer camp recreation such as horseback riding, horsemanship, roping, calf-scramble, survival skills, drill instruction, rappelling, archery and canoeing as well as team-building sports and games.

“What sets our El Campo and Encampment apart from other summer youth camps is what HIP calls `heritage intervention.' In the classroom setting and outdoor education, counselors and staff blend lessons of heritage with building self-esteem and the ADAGSIS message. The Buffalo Soldier Encampment teaches lessons such as `The Role of the African-American soldier on the Texas Frontier' and `How Buffalo Soldiers Became Black Cowboys.' The Vaquero Heritage El Campo has lessons pertaining to the Hispanic Vaquero such as `Pioneering the Ranch Frontier' and `The Vaquero's Extended Family,' with an emphasis on role of the Texas Mexican-American and Native American in the development of Texas.”

Former Racehorses an Integral Part of Programs

But horses, including racehorses transitioning to a second career, remain the essential part of all that the HIP programs hope to accomplish. To that end, in the spring Galvan and the Texas Thoroughbred Association sat down to talk about ways of obtaining more horses for the Vaquero and Buffalo Soldier programs. The solution was to link Galvan's need with the horses available through the Houston-based Adopt-A-Racehorse Program pioneered by Sam Houston Race Park. “The Adopt-a-Horse Program activity started in June of this year,” Galvan said, “and we have received six retired racehorses thus far. All six had track experience. However, three are broodmares and have been off the track for some time.”

Just as the HIP Vaquero and Buffalo Soldier programs allow their youth participants to more fully realize their unique selves, the horses received into the program are allowed a similar adjustment.

“Because the Thoroughbred is so high-spirited and because it has often been on a high-energy diet, we first allow the horses to run with the remuda for several months,” Galvan said. “Afterwards, our wranglers test the horses for riding ability and handling. At that point we determine if they are suitable for youth to ride. But in any case, the horses are used by the wranglers or more experienced riders if they are not immediately suitable for less experienced youth.”

When Galvan talks about the horses that have come into his programs he is clearly enthusiastic. “We picked up this horse from Retama Park; a beautiful three-year-old gelding. The only problem he had was that he was just too slow and too little to make it on the track. When we got to the ranch he followed the wrangler around for three days, just like a puppy dog. He is so gentle and docile that he is now being trained as a roping horse. We plan to use him in our horsemanship classes this year. Our first horse came from the Rio Grande Valley, from a place near Harlingen, Texas. From then on we received them from Kerrville, from Retama Park racetrack, near San Antonio, from Palestine and from Greenville, Texas. Right now we have pending offers from Bandera, Texas too.”

But Galvan is even more enthusiastic when he speaks of the children who have benefited from the horses and from the Vaquero and Buffalo Soldier programs. “I remember we had an eleven-year-old that for two nights threatened to run away from camp and go home. Twice we convinced him to stay. He refused all activities and finally was convinced he could get on a horse. After the initial shock he realized that the horse was his friend and would not hurt him. All he wanted to do from that day on was to be around the horse. In fact, early on we were still worried that he would run away, so as a last resort we called his parents to pick him up, something that we do not do unless it is an emergency. But after he got on a horse-it was the evening his mother came to get him-he refused to go home. He had found himself. He can't wait for camp next year.”

Mentoring Critical to Post-Program Success

“The follow-up phase ensures lessons of positive personal values are developed and maintained throughout the school year,” Galvan said. “This part of the program involves one meeting per month during the school year in the home counties. A Heritage lecture is given with a group discussion and a field trip or activity follows. Examples of these include trips to museums, zoos, sporting events, civic duties, rodeos and roping arenas.

“In addition to monthly meetings, HIP requires that mentors check in weekly or so with children to whom they have been assigned to. While no more than three children per mentor is practical for the program, we suggest that each mentor work with one to two children. We also expect the mentors to touch base with the child's parents and teachers to monitor how the children are doing in school and community.”

Organizers Hope Programs Can Become Nationwide

“Our goal is to branch out throughout the country,” Galvan said. “We also envision expanding the HIP to include programs focusing on the Native American Heritage and programs for young women.” If those goals are met, more horses will find second careers with Galvan's programs and others like them, a win-win situation for the racing industry and our nation's youth. Already, 500 children have been helped through the Heritage Intervention Programs.

“HIP firmly believes that in today's society, all children are at-risk. It allows the local community to recommend participants. In determining the youths to participate in our programs, HIP takes advantage of community organizations such as school districts, education professionals and church leaders for recommendations to attend our camps. Recommendations of volunteer mentors for camp and mentorship programs also come from these individuals and organizations; most are teachers, police officers, business professionals or college students.”

Programs Foster Spirit of Understanding

“At graduation, one young man in the Buffalo Soldier program thanked the group for allowing him to join the Buffalo Soldiers,” Galvin recalled. “You see, this young man is from a rural area and he is white. But he thanked the group for sharing history that he would have never learned if not for the Buffalo Soldiers and for accepting him as a Buffalo Soldier. This young man is now back in the program as one of our peer mentors.”

—Equine CareWatch

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