LOUISVILLE — Willie Murray has a black eye. It happened yesterday after a basketball game.
Cory Slaughter threw the punch.
Both spent the evening in isolation.
Today, they are trying to catch a miniature horse in a fenced-in softball field at Audubon Youth Development Center.
They approach the bay stallion on opposite sides, calling softly, “Come here, Buck.” As they get closer, Buck and fellow miniature Zeus take off at a run.
The boys, both 16, laugh and try again: “Come here, Buck,” they call, approaching the horse slowly, their backs bent low, hands extended forward.
Backed against the fence, Buck gives in, and Willie hooks a lead rope to his halter. Flanking Buck, the boys lead him to the other end of the field, where a group of their peers waits with therapist Shannon Nicholson.
After going over their strategy for catching Buck, Nicholson asks them which horse they most resemble. Willie chooses Buck, because “he's like a follower,” and “I feel like I'm more a follower in a group.”
It was following that got him to Audubon, he says. A friend wanted to steal a car, and, Willie says, he went along with him and was caught.
Others are here for everything from truancy and shoplifting to burglary, says Mike Waterman, a chaplain and counselor at the center. They range in age from 15 to 17 and stay at the locked-door facility for six months to a year.
Once a week, in groups of about a dozen, the 46 male residents spend an hour on the softball field with Buck, Zeus, Nicholson, Waterman and horse handler Tami VanHoose.
In the beginning, the teens complained, Waterman said.
“It was either too cold or too hot, but now every resident is looking forward just to come out and see Buck and Zeus,” he said. “And that's one of their highlights of the week.”
Nicholson first worked with the boys at Audubon while pursuing a master's degree in counseling psychology at the University of Louisville.
As an intern at Audubon, she found it difficult to reach the kids on a talk-therapy level.
Upon completing her degree in 2006, she was at Little King Farm in Madison, Ind., when she stumbled upon an idea. A lifelong horse lover, Nicholson knew the valuable role horses could play in therapy, but she also knew how intimidating the large animals could be, especially for inner-city boys who had never been exposed to them.
She decided the miniature horses would be perfect, and, along with VanHoose, who is her mother, founded Healing Hooves Inc., an equine-assisted psychotherapy company.
One of the first organizations they worked with was Audubon.
Nicholson says she noticed a difference in the boys immediately.
With traditional talk therapy, it took at least three months just to break the ice, she says. “But the horses take the focus off me and put it back on the kids and what they need to work on.”
Almost six months after Zeus and Buck began visiting Audubon, there is noticeably less fighting and arguing among residents at the center, says Waterman. Residents also are calmer and progress faster in their treatment programs, says Roger Noe, superintendent of the center.
Nicholson and VanHoose teach the boys to take the horses through obstacles, make them jump and care for them.
In a letter about the program, one boy wrote that it taught him to treat others with respect: “If I can give respect to a horse, then why not a human?”