Horses at Richmond ranch help strengthen inmates who are facing release

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RICHMOND — Spirit is waiting for them at the end of the trail. But, this time, with the other horses in tow, they are not anxious.

The medicine hat paint horse with blue "glass" eyes is the most spiritual to the Blackfeet Nation. Yet, to the four inmates trying to work with him — and themselves — Spirit has been a frustration over the past two months.

The animal was rescued from a wild horse roundup in Montana, then abused and overworked on a cattle ranch. Spirit almost didn't make it, and isn't so quick to trust, especially any man who moves to his left. Women don't concern him.

The four men have seen Spirit as a problem as they tried to get near him while struggling with their own fears, anxiety and reactions.

But, on this day, this time was different.

"It wasn't four of us trying to corner him against the fence," said Terry Martizna.

Martizna, 28, is nearing the end of a jail sentence for a slew of weapons charges, including armed assault.

The men agreed that they had grappled with their own demons that wouldn't allow Spirit to trust them.

But, on this last day of therapy, as they approached emancipation, these inmates from the Berkshire County Jail and House of Correction emerge from woods with the other horses to face Spirit, thinking he has changed but knowing there is more to it.

"Because we were different, probably," said Matt, 41. "Because ... you say horses can pick up on your vibes."

Matt didn't want his last name used, for fear that it could jeopardize his release the day after Christmas, after a six-month sentence for drug possession.

When the men took deep breaths, the horses also blew. And today, Spirit let Martizna hold his rope — from the left.

"It's all about their intuition," said Hayley Sumner, founder and executive director of Berkshire HorseWorks in Richmond and an equine-assisted therapy specialist. "They are mirrors of what is happening inside of you because they are prey animals — that's how they stay alive."

HorseWorks' Own It and Up Inmate Program is one of the ways the nonprofit brings together horses and people for the therapeutic complexity that is getting close to a 1,200-pound animal that can feel your insecurities, your dissonance, your fears and your weaknesses and wear you down until you have to face them.

And it is only then that a horse will cooperate.

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"You could move him with a pool noodle if he trusts you," Sumner told Martizna on the last day of the eight-week session at Sumner's ranch off Patton Road.

In the past, Sumner has seen a convicted four-time murderer and gang member on his way to release get dragged around all day by Pumpkin, the mini Shetland pony. It all ended in success, with the two walking side by side — no rope.

"Pumpkin's probably the most stubborn of all of them," Sumner said. "When he breaks out, he takes [the horses] with him."

Most of her horses also have a range of physical problems managed by expensive medicine.

Sumner keeps Noche, a rescued Dutch shepherd, to deal with these capers. She also has help in expert horse handler and administrator Christina Armstrong.

HorseWorks is one of 2,500 certified Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association (Eagala) facilities worldwide. It received a $10,000 grant in March from the McGraw Foundation for its inmate program, which has had 12 groups come through. In October, $7,500 came from the Berkshire Life Charitable Foundation for its Family Integration Program to provide therapy for people with a range of psychological or developmental issues to help them within their family structure. The nonprofit is looking for support to launch an anti-bullying program for students in kindergarten through eighth grade.

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But, for these men in the woods on this frigid day, they are after inner strength in the face of all the threats to their sobriety and discipline.

Thomas Bowler, the Berkshire County sheriff, said the jail's mission is to get inmates ready to face the world again.

Horses are a powerful transformative tool for men who break the law, then grapple with a loss of imposed structure and safety upon release, he said. Prisoners also might still be tempted by their gang affiliations.

"This is another way for us to help them," Bowler said. "Believe it or not, they have fears, and they don't know how to deal with those fears."

'Outsider'

That's where Spirit comes in. The men have learned from an episode in which the horse kicked out, pinned his ears and bared his teeth.

Matt was drawn to Spirit and worked to gain his trust. Petting Sumner's cat, Viggo, in her office, Matt says he wants his old job back — he was a cook in Pittsfield. He had been using and selling Xanax after years of trying to kick drug habits that included opioid use. It all began with a prescription.

He also wants to work with animals, and said the program has attuned him to horses.

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While the men talk about the horses, Brad Walsh, a clinical therapist with the Sheriff's Department, said Matt's bond with Spirit was revealing.

"He took the one horse that was kind of the outsider, and he took it under his wing and he nurtured it and worked with it," Walsh said. "The horse will seek him out. No one else here can do what he does with this horse. He's the only one who reached out to this horse."

Walsh said the work helps those previously in the fog of addiction see how they have hurt themselves and others, including their children.

And Jane Salata, a semiretired psychotherapist who works for the nonprofit, says this nonverbal horse work is "rich."

"It's a very different way of working," she said, noting that Matt had quietly, subtly, gained Spirit's trust over time.

At this last session, they walked the other horses and Pumpkin through a trail where they could see their thoughts written on orange cones and their "triggers" stuck to trees.

"Isolation." "Failure." "Tired and need a cig."

A mirror with notes stuck to it also tells their story: "Feeling lonely." "Not feeling loved."

The triggers, Sumner says, are what they will be dealing with after release. And horses require reckoning with truth because they can feel it.

"If you're anxious, the horse will be anxious," she said.

Before they go back to the jail, they talk it all out over submarine sandwiches in Sumner's office.

Another inmate, Frank, 34, said he liked that he had stepped out of his comfort zone here. And Martizna saw that the horses revealed what was inside them.

"I like what we learned about Spirit," he said.

Heather Bellow can be reached @berkshireeagle.com or on Twitter @BE_hbellow and 413-329-6871.


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