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Nonprofit specializes in therapeutic riding

Staff photo: Erin Evans
Priscilla Faulkner helps 8-year-old Darius Crew clean Scottie's hooves after a riding session.

Staff photo: Erin Evans Priscilla Faulkner helps 8-year-old Darius Crew clean Scottie's hooves after a riding session.

Editor's Note: In recognition of National Women's History Month, throughout March the Citizen will profile local women who have had an impact on the community in a positive way. Though many of these women's accomplishments may be mostly unsung, they have each, in their own way, made their mark on history.

COVINGTON -- Priscilla Faulkner grew up loving horses. A member of 4-H, she would frequently participate in horse shows. She joined the equestrian team and coached vaulting in college.

But Faulkner never thought her passion could be anything more than a hobby until she got a call from a certified nurse who had seen pictures of Faulkner volunteering with horses at Camp Sunshine, a camp for children with cancer.

The nurse, Maureen Vidrine, was involved in therapy using horses and wanted to know more about Faulkner's work. A psychologist, Faulkner had never thought of combining therapy and her love of horses, but that conversation sparked something in her. The women became business partners, forming Horse Time, a nonprofit that specializes in therapeutic riding and equine recreation activities.

Horse Time, located at Falconwood Farm, the Faulkner family property off U.S. Highway 278, primarily serves children. Clients are referred through residential and day treatment programs, mental health centers, pediatricians' offices and schools. Often, children who participate have been traumatized and have behavioral and developmental problems. Many have suffered abuse and neglect and have been in the foster care system.

The kids learn how to care for and ride horses and eventually work up to vaulting, which is gymnastics on horseback. In the process, they learn valuable life lessons and get at the heart of what's troubling them.

As they work in groups, they learn social skills, how to follow directions, and, possibly most important, how to be kind. Often children with traumatic histories have a hard time feeling empathy for others, Faulkner said, but, "A lot of times it's easier to be empathetic with animals."

Faulkner uses the horses' behavior to teach the kids about cause and effect.

For example, Scottie, a Belgian pony cross that is particularly rebellious, once escaped from the farm and made it to a nearby neighborhood. He was brought back by police escort and wound up in a smaller paddock confined by more fencing to prevent another escape. It's a great way for the kids to understand that actions have consequences.

"I hear them tell Scottie, 'Man, you can't be running away from home,'" Faulkner said.

Scottie, ever the trouble-maker, also has a habit of kicking other horses in the face. Faulkner uses this behavior as a teaching tool as well.

"We talk about, did Scottie try to make friends?" and what results can be expected when you're rude to others, she said.

Faulkner finds it's easier for children to let down their guard and talk about their problems on the farm versus a one-on-one session in the office. That's in part because plenty of real-life scenarios come up on the farm that trigger those traumas, she said. For example, elderly horses sometimes die, and the children will often segue from talking about that to discussing deaths in their own families.

Children who have been abused and lost trust have to learn to trust each other when they're riding or caring for the horses. They learn respect of others and of themselves, as they are encouraged to speak up when something is too uncomfortable. And those who don't exhibit self-control and follow directions will miss their turn, which turns out to be strong motivation to do the right thing.

Faulkner said characteristics exhibited by some of the children, such as lack of impulse control and empathy, can be a precursor to adult criminal behavior. That's why early intervention is so important.

"They need to learn early life lessons like being kind to people and being kind to each other, especially if they've had bad things happen to them. It's hard to see the hurt because they're acting out. I think people don't realize how frightening instability is in the life of children," she said.

Faulkner especially enjoys watching teenage boys who are finally able to drop the machismo and express caring toward the horses.

"I think in our society we don't give boys an opportunity to be nurturing," she said.

The work is hard, but the results are worth it. Take the case of the little boy who refused to talk when he arrived at Horse Time.

"We expected him to do what everybody else was doing," Faulkner said. That included answering questions posed by Faulkner and the staff and communicating with the other children. At first, he'd remain silent, but eventually, the need to communicate while working with the horses won out, and he became a chatterbox, Faulkner said.

The hope is all these newfound skills will transfer into situations outside of Horse Time, Faulkner said.

Special needs children also come to Horse Time, where activities can be modified based on their abilities. Clients with cerebral palsy, brain injuries, Down's Syndrome and a variety of other developmental, anxiety, behavioral, mood, psychotic and substance abuse disorders have all participated. The activities are designed to allow special needs children the opportunity to participate right alongside their healthy siblings.

Horse Time is accredited by the North American Riding for the Handicapped Association and is staffed by certified instructors and licensed psychotherapists. The program is funded through grants, private payment, insurance payments and pro bono work.

Faulkner also maintains an office where she does psychotherapy work and often testifies in court on behalf of the Department of Family and Children Services. She continues to coach a vaulting team that last fall did a demonstration at the World Equestrian Games.

Her work on behalf of children was motivated by her family, who taught Faulkner and her siblings, "that we were very lucky and we needed to help others."

"I'd like people to be more aware that we need early intervention services for children, and we need children to have a safe place to express their feelings," she said.