HURRICANE — At a residential treatment and therapy center near Hurricane tailored specifically for adopted youth, wild mustangs are brought in from the Bureau of Land Management and assigned to the teens to train and prep the horses for their own eventual adoption.
As the teens are adopted themselves and are working to overcome their own traumas and struggles, the mustangs are seen as a metaphor that mirrors the teens’ experiences.
Located off state Route 59 southeast of Hurricane, Three Points Center is the creation of therapist Dr. Norm Thibault.
The facility opened four years ago with the specific goal of helping adopted children who have issues unique to their situation but which aren’t adequately dealt with in other programs, Thibault said.
Adapted for the adopted
Thibault said when it comes to adopted children, part of their trauma can begin very early in life. This leads to their brains being “wired differently,” which can cause various issues that get compounded by other traumas they may face along the way.
“These are wonderful kids who were behind the 8-ball the moment they took their first breaths,” Thibault said.
Between 30 and 40 percent of teens in residential treatment centers are adopted, he said, and an adopted teen is seven times more likely than others to end up in a treatment facility.
“They suffer from complex trauma,” he said. “These are kids who have been adopted but still struggle with their identity, struggle with shame, struggle with missing their birth parents, struggling with everything that goes into adoption culture.”
The Three Points Center embraces adoption culture, Thibault said, which lends directly the name of the facility. The three points represent the three parties involved in adoption: the birth parents, the adoptive parents and the adopted child.
“We try to help them in a safe and compassionate environment to learn how to manage their own dis-regulation and their own struggles,” he said.
Many of the teens at the Three Points Center struggle with shame, guilt, self-control and self-discipline, Thibault said.
“Part of our task is to get them to calm down,” he said.
The horses allow the teens to connect to something nonthreatening – though Thibeult noted a wild horse certainly has the potential to be dangerous – and to work with an animal that is learning to accept their trust and influence.
“The reason we use wild mustangs is because they are the perfect metaphor for what these kids are going through,” Thibault said. “These kids have been abused by people who should have been caregivers. So they don’t want relationships, they don’t want to be vulnerable, they don’t want to have touch.”
The teens don’t want to deal with the situations that factor into complex trauma, and the horses are much the same, Thibault said.
“These animals, these beautiful animals have been out in the wild for years,” he said. “They’re not used to human beings. They don’t want human touch; they don’t want to be controlled by humans. There’s a lot of parallels and a lot of metaphors there we use that are very similar. It allows the kids to calm down at the same time they’re training and gentling these horses. It’s a really beautiful process to watch.”
Aiding in that process is Rod Mayes, one of the center’s therapist, as well as it’s equine superintendent.
The Three Points Center had an equine program long before it took on mustangs, Mayes said, but after seeing the impact training a wild mustang had on the teens, the center transitioned to using the animals more.
“The horses are wild from the moment they get here,” Mayes said. “The goal is to get them ready to be adopted by somebody.”
Students are each assigned to care for and train individual horses, he said, which includes cleaning the stalls and feeding them each day. Along the way, the teens are taught by Mayes on how to gradually gain the mustang’s trust.
“It’s fun to watch the whole experience,” Mayes said. “Because it’s more than just working a horse – these are wild horses that could hurt you.”
Mayes told St. George News that one of the mustangs at the center had previously broke one of his hands when acting up. As he told the story, that same horse, named Argo, was perfect calm in his stall while his teen caretaker brushed him.
Building trust one tag at a time
A milestone for the teens in the program, Mayes said, is when they are able to approach their horse and remove a BLM tag hanging around the horse’s neck. The mustangs arrive with the tag, and it takes quite a bit of trust on the side of the teens and the horses to get to the point they trust each other enough to get that close.
“It was life-changing to be able to take a tag off a wild horse,” center resident Megan B., 16, of California, said as she brushed her horse Mouse. “It makes you feel like you can go out there and accomplish the world when you’re out of there. I have the tag on my wall.”
Helping build the teens’ self-esteem and sense of value is a part of training the mustangs, Mayes said.
When she first arrived at Three Points Center, Megan said she scoffed at the idea of working with horses, but now, after working with Mouse, she considers the mustang to be her best friend.
“Working with Mouse has been life-changing,” she said.
Another center resident from California is 16-year-old Charlese S., who is training Argo, the horse that broke Mayes’ hand.
“I thought he’d never calm down,” Charlese S. said of Argo. Charlese was the one who picked the white and gray horse from a BLM auction in Delta, Utah. She described the mustang as scary at first – and still a bit feisty at times – yet she was excited to be able to grab Argo’s tag and continue to train and ready him for adoption.
“I never saw myself doing something like this,” Charlese said. “It’s definitely rewarding, not only to work with wild horses but with horses in general.”
While she had some limited experience riding horses prior to being sent to the Three Points Center, Charlene said she looking forward to finding ways to continue working with horses when she gets home.
“It’s been the best experience I’ve ever had,” she said.
Mayes said it’s an amazing and rewarding experience to witness the adopted teens prep the horses for pending adoption, adding it’s an irony not lost on the center’s residents. Ultimately, Mayes said he wants the teens he helped to look back on their time with the horses as a motivator when they’re having a bad day.
“When they’re gone from here, back home, when they have that moment where life feels like it’s not going well and they wonder if they can do it, they have something like this to draw on and move forward,” Mayes said.
The mustangs brought to the Three Points Center are done so through the Mustang Heritage Foundation, Mayes said. The center is also in the process of becoming a “storefront” for mustang adoptions and not a middle man, he said.
As of early April, two mustangs trained by center residents have been adopted out, Mayes said.
Ed. note: Dr. Norm Thibault’s last name was mispelled in an earlier version of this article and has been corrected.
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