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Spirited partners

In an unusual ministry, a horse and a girl teach each other a thing or two about faith and discipline.

By AMY ELLIS

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 7, 1999


Matthew 5:16 -- Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father, which is in heaven.

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James 3:3 -- Behold, we put bits in the horse's mouths, that they may obey us; and we turn about their whole body.

LAND O'LAKES -- Each morning, when she's mucking out the stables, Nicole Larkin watches for the hand of God.

As she brushes the horse's mane, picks clean the shoes and prepares the oats and barley, she waits to see what he has to teach her.

If the animal bucks, it could be a lesson in patience. If he is colicky, perhaps it's discipline or responsibility. If he throws her to the ground, maybe it's humility.

Nicole pays close attention to the spiritual messages that come to her in the form of a 620-pound wild mustang she named Blazer.

At 15, she sees herself as something of a prophet, put on the Earth to spread the word of God, not from the pulpit but from the back of a horse.

"Just like the bit is a tool for teaching the horse, the horse is a tool for teaching us," she said. "When we put pressure on the bit, the horse gives his will over to us. God does the same to us. He asks us to give parts of our life over to him, and he rewards us when we surrender."

Nicole and her 14-year-old sister, Stephanie, have spent every day for the past year and a half working to win the heart of a mustang who once roamed free in the Nevada plains. The girls adopted Blazer when he was a scrawny colt of just 11 months.

They have bathed, fed, cleaned up after and struggled to tame the roan-colored horse as part of their daily home-schooling instruction.

More than just a school project, the girls' work has become a mission.

"They have a vision now of what they want to do," said their mother, Mary Larkin. "It's amazing to see how God is working through these girls' lives, deepening their message and widening their ministry."

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It's a steamy summer morning. Nicole pulls on jeans and boots and heads out to the small corral behind her parents' home in Land O'Lakes. In her hands is the burgundy leather saddle she and Stephanie bought with $575 in babysitting money.

Blazer has accepted a saddle before, but today the animal is jittery and bolts out of reach each time Nicole approaches.

She knows she could saddle the horse easily if he were tied to a post. But she wants him to trust her without the restraints, follow her guidance without a rope.

Gently, she rubs the animal's face, neck and shoulders with the soft lead rope to calm him. She places the 40-pound saddle on his back, removing it quickly and repeating the maneuver several times.

The work is tedious and tiring. Three times, the beast bucks the saddle off and trots to the other side of the pen. Finally, exhausted from his own resistance, Blazer succumbs, his flanks heaving, the shiny new saddle perched neatly on his back.

"You can't force a wild horse to do anything," Nicole says. "If he's pitted against you, he's going to win. You have to appeal to his emotions, make him want to follow you. When he has no natural reason to follow, but he does anyway, then you've gained his heart."

For the past two summers, Nicole and Stephanie have shared the lessons they've learned from Blazer with girls from their church, Covenant Bible in Plant City. During a monthlong horse camp, the girls demonstrate how to groom, saddle and lead a horse, then allow each of the girls to try their hand with either Blazer or Jay, the Larkins' 7-year-old Paso Fino.

The girls are instructed to bring their Bibles to camp, and each week ends with a Biblical lesson on obedience -- of horse to trainer and of children to God.

"We want them to learn about horses but also challenge themselves spiritually," Stephanie said.

Eventually, the girls hope to expand their horse camp to a year-round venture. They've thought about publishing a book based on their work or producing a video series on how training a horse builds character in young people.

"I believe God brought Blazer to us for a reason," Nicole said. "Training a horse requires a lot of discipline -- and a lot of faith. That is what God wants from us too, discipline and faith."

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* * *

Nicole and Stephanie knew they had a daunting task ahead when they picked Blazer out of 150 mustangs at a roundup in Wauchula.

Though he was skinny, with matted-down hair that stuck out in tufts like an old rug, he was clearly the dominant colt in the herd. He was the tallest animal in the pen and had a diamond-shaped swath of white on his forehead that made him look regal.

For $125, the wild-eyed animal was theirs.

Before his adoption, Blazer was one of the thousands of wild mustangs that roam free in 10 western states, protected by federal law. Every year, the Bureau of Land Management rounds up about 10,000 of the animals and offers them for adoption to the public. The goal is to keep down the population of wild horses and prevent large numbers from starving to death.

The Larkin family already owned one horse, Jay. The girls had taken horsemanship classes and were experienced riders. But breaking a wild mustang would be a a test of their endurance and skill.

Though Blazer is unusually gentle for a stallion, Nicole is careful not to underestimate his power. At 5 feet 6, she stands just shy of eye-level with him. When he rears up, he towers over her.

"I walk away if he's about to blow his head," she said. "If he's pitted against you, he's gonna win because he's several times bigger and 10 times stronger. At the same time, he's like a little kid, still growing and maturing. I try not to put too much pressure on him."

The girls' parents, Michael and Mary Larkin, who home-school their children, saw working with Blazer as a valuable teaching tool.

"It started just as a real love of horses," said Mary Larkin. "I think it's every girl's fantasy to have a horse. I know I always wanted one. But then it grew into something bigger."

Said Michael Larkin: "What they're doing involves a lot of learned skills, a lot of knowledge and a lot of character building. These girls have worked day and night with this horse."

Rising before 6 a.m. each day, the girls clean out the stalls, shovel alfalfa hay and fill buckets with fresh water, about 12 gallons a day for each horse.

They trim the tails, manes and whiskers and snip hair from the ears. They clean hooves, assist the farrier with the shoes and even pitch in when Blazer is gelded, horse-speak for castration.

Last year, when Blazer was colicky, Nicole spent the night with him in the barn, in case the pain got too intense and she needed to sedate him.

On the horses' birthdays, the animals get apples stuffed with molasses or a homemade "horse" cake made of oats and molasses.

Less than six months after the girls adopted him, Blazer is calm, steady and obedient. He responds like clockwork to Nicole's insistent "Shhht!" commanding him to come to her. He walks, canters and backs up on command.

After a year, he willingly accepts the girls' custom-designed leather saddle.

Soon, it will be time for Nicole to ride Blazer for the first time. By her side, offering guidance and support, she will have one of her most trusted and admired mentors.

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* * *

From the first time she saw Lew Sterrett's "Sermon on the Mount," Nicole knew preaching the word of God from the saddle was something she could do. Sterrett, a horse trainer known for his Christian-based workshops, brings his ministry several times a year to Plant City.

The Larkins have been to Sterrett's workshops and also spent a long weekend at his Miracle Mountain ranch in northwestern Pennsylvania, working in the barn and taking a trail ride with Sterrett.

After meeting the girls, Sterrett came for dinner at the Larkins' home and agreed to use Blazer in one of his shows. Nicole would get to ride Blazer, too, for the first time and before an audience.

The night before, she prayed for a successful session. She also prayed for patience.

When the moment arrived, Sterrett saddled Blazer up and trotted him around the pen as if he'd done it a hundred times.

Finally, after a year and a half of preparation, it was Nicole's turn. She recorded the experience in her journal, kept faithfully since the day Blazer arrived:

March 14, 1999 -- I could feel him just tense, just a ball of nerves, with all this new stuff going on. I wasn't relaxed either! We walked, trotted, turned, switched the rope over his head, and the like. Then some static in the sound system spooked Blazer a bit, not much, just made him crouch a little and jump. Not bad.

But then he stumbled and lost his footing, tipped over to the side. I fell off and then Blazer came tumbling down! Both of us got right back up and neither of us was hurt at all.

I was so proud of Blazer! Even though the mishap happened, it wasn't his fault. Lew Sterrett's wife Melody said the true sign of a cowboy was the sand on his pants! I can't wait to ride him tomorrow! I'm so excited and happy I'll never be able to sleep tonight!

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