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Where trust mounts up

A group of kids from troubled homes graduates today from a program that heals unseen wounds and builds self-esteem.

By BABITA PERSAUD, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 8, 2002

A group of kids from troubled homes graduates today from a program that heals unseen wounds and builds self-esteem.

THONOTOSASSA -- Kasey Ackerman, 12, was abandoned by his parents when he was 4. He has bounced in and out of foster homes, arriving at his current location with several broken toys and his clothes in a plastic garbage bag.

Then he met Pete, a chocolate-colored horse with a dark brown mane and deep brown eyes. Pete was hard to walk, hard to mount and aggressive at mealtimes.

He also was the best teacher Kasey ever had.

There are horses you can ride. And there are horses you can use to jump a few of life's hurdles. Children do both at the Traverse ranch in eastern Hillsborough, where horses are helping kids such as Kasey gain more control over their troubled lives.

The ranch's yearlong program, which holds its graduation ceremonies today, was founded by Glenda Henderson, whose father was murdered in 1980.

Her father was a champion horse trainer. After his murder, Henderson didn't ride horses for years. The memories were just too painful.

Instead, Henderson started one of the county's first homicide support groups, which still meets today.

She finally started riding again, and began taking support group members and their families out to her Thonotosassa ranch off Fowler Avenue. Her guests, especially the children, kept telling her how much better they slept after a day on her horses.

Something clicked in her mind.

Nearly nine years later, the nonprofit Traverse program has helped students who were sexually abused and physically battered. Some are the children of mothers who have experienced domestic violence. One former student had a brother who was beaten to death with a baseball bat.

"People think we give a poor little abused kid a pony ride and that makes him feel better. This program is far, far from that," Henderson said. "These are wounds that cannot be seen. But they are deep."

No one gets on a horse at Traverse until two months into the program, which like the school year, begins in September.

The class is small. This year, only five attended. Most are referrals from county programs. Most are asked to pay only a fraction of the $2,880 tuition.

They meet every Monday and Wednesday, from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m.

Parents and guardians also are involved, meeting on Mondays in the trailer near the wooden stables in their own support group.

Fourteen volunteers work with the kids. After each session with their horses, clinical director Joe Callan leads a discussion under a spreading elm tree. How was school? How are you doing?

Callan, a longtime therapist, is used to conducting interviews in an office setting. But since co-founding Traverse with Henderson, he has decided that being out in the open, under the sky and trees, is the only way to go.

The children, he says, eventually open up.

"I see it the first day they feed the horse on their own and the first day they mount the horse on their own," Callan said. "All the firsts are just awesome."

Henderson's job is to pair each child with the right horse. It is a kind of art.

"If you take a sexually abused child and you give him the meanest horse, he has to learn to say 'No' to that horse, firmly. He has to learn to take charge," Henderson said.

She decided to pair Kasey with Pete because few things with the horse are easy.

It is hard to get his lead on and off. He is hard to walk out of the stable and hard to mount, as he cleverly tries to side-step.

But Kasey couldn't blow up, his initial reaction to almost everything.

He couldn't fume and say, "Never mind."

"You've got to be gentle with him," Kasey said while stroking the horse. "If not, he's not going to trust you."

Little by little, trust was built for both horse and boy. During a drill last week, Kasey was able to maneuver Pete around the barrel in the arena, and Pete hates to go anywhere near that barrel.

Today, Kasey will ride Pete during the graduation ceremony with the other students, calling out some of the commands when the horses line up nose to nose.

His present guardians, who will be there sitting under the shade of a tent, already have noticed a change.

"He doesn't come home griping that Pete didn't do this, Pete didn't do that," said Sheryl Vannetta. "He comes home talking about accomplishments."

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