Atop the American Quarter Horse named Ringo, 14-year-old Leila charged from one side of the ring to another. With a look of determination, the nearly non-verbal teen guided the massive animal around scattered barrels, its hooves kicking up dirt with every rhythmic gallop.
For most of her life, Leila dealt with such extreme anxiety, she could barely speak.
But, after she started taking horse riding lessons at a local rescue, she blossomed and learned to make connections with animals and people.
“She’s just always had a really hard time being in front of people,” said Leila’s mom, Mollie Arthur. “She does not like attention on her. She does not like new things. And it was really surprising for me to see her come out here and just get on a horse. It blew my mind.”
Arthur said Leila never had much interest in extracurricular activities until she went to Horses Unlimited Rescue and Education Center about five years ago. Since then, the girl has been in barrel racing competitions, ridden in parades and found friendships with other young riders, like her fellow racer Karla.
Horses Unlimited works with the county’s animal welfare department and takes in horses from all over El Paso, some of which have been neglected or abused, and gives them a new life. Since 2011, hundreds of children have visited the ranch either as students, volunteers or participants in its annual summer camp.
The local rescue has about 34 horses under its care but is able to house up to 45.
Some of those horses, like Ringo, go on to help children learn how to deal with their social and emotional needs. In turn, the kids care for the animals that require a little extra love.
“I found being able to work with the horses helps kids open up their social skills. It also gives them a calm environment to be able to work on themselves,” said the center’s founder, Victoria Davis. “These are skills that are going to be helping them for the rest of their life. If they have self-esteem and they have self-confidence, they’re gonna be able to conquer anything.”
Life lessons lie around every corner at Horses Unlimited, from the importance of responsibility to figuring out how to control emotions in a tough situation.
Something Karla learned as she held back tears trying to rein in a towering horse named Nevada, moments after the animal stepped on her brown leather boot.
“I know it hurts,” Davis told her in a soothing tone as she helped the 11-year-old girl.
After a few deep breaths, Karla returned to Nevada with a brush in hand ready to give the 1,000-pound animal some love and care.
“She pushes on you a lot with her face, but she’s good to ride and she’s really fast,” Karla said about Nevada.
“I feel like being out here with the horses has helped her in her everyday life,” said Karla’s dad, Carlos Alvarez. “Believe it or not, they teach a lot of skills that you can apply to life like patience, perseverance (and) discipline. That’s basically what she’s gotten out of this place.”
Davis said when working with children, she usually meets with parents beforehand to get to know more about them and their needs. She normally starts by introducing them to the least temperamental horses that don’t make much of a fuss. Eventually, they can work their way up to riding rescues that may be a little tougher to handle.
Horses Unlimited, with its headquarters in far East El Paso, offers horse riding lessons to people of all ages, but offers discounts to children with anxiety, autism or ADHD. For those who are afraid to ride, she offers therapy sessions, where participants can spend time brushing and petting a rescued equine.
“Children with ADHD or Aspergers have very big impulses. By working with horses, it really teaches them how to control their impulses because you have to know how to handle yourself around them or you can scare the horse or make the horse do something that you don’t want,” Davis said.
“I feel like when they go to a psychiatrist it does help and they do need to do that, but when they’re with the horses it’s a different kind of learning and a different kind of feel,” she added. “Horses are very nonjudgmental, so it kind of gives them the opportunity to open up in a way that they might not open up in an office setting.”
Even if they aren’t taking classes, people of all ages can still spend time with these rescued horses as volunteers. Once the pens are cleaned, the water troughs are filled and the horses are fed, these helpers can wind down by taking one of the horses for a scenic ride along the Chihuahuan desert.