DJ, a smiling, dark-haired boy in his mid-teens, has been on campus for about 15 months.

“The second day I was here, right off the bat, they took us out to the farm and we started working with horses. ‘This is how you handle a horse. This is how to be safe doing it. Do your best and get comfortable with the horses.’

“Later on, some of the caseworkers said, ‘hey, you should try to show a pig. It’ll be a good learning experience.’  So, I showed pigs and then, this past year, I showed a horse.”

Asked what the shows have meant to him, DJ laughs. “I’ve definitely lost a lot of nervousness! Eventually, I realized this was an opportunity and it would all be fine as long as I worked hard and did my best. That’s what God wants from me.

“A typical day would involve going to the barn after school, watering them, feeding them the right diet. It also means getting dirty – we wash the animals, muck stalls and clean things really well. Some folks might not like that but it really is a stress-reliever. We all need that, right?”

When prepping for a show, the residents begin working with the pigs weeks in advance. “You have to train the animals and that really requires patience,” says DJ, laughing again. “Pigs will teach you a whole lot about patience. But I enjoy it. And I’m going to keep working with animals. I want to be a rancher, to be in the cattle business.”

Several weeks earlier, Serena picked up a second place ribbon showing a pig. It was the first time she’d worked with pigs.

Despite that success, “equine is my favorite,” says the friendly, raven-haired girl. The teen has been on campus for seven months. “I’ve worked with horses almost all my life and they help me feel good. They remind me of home.

“I’ve gone through a lot of struggles. Many of these horses have, as well. It’s easy to relate to them. I’ll always have a horse when I get older.”

Right now, Serena is putting her horse through some exercises in the arena. The air is heavy with dust and the horse is not being terribly cooperative.

That’s just fine with Kisha Clayton, a new teacher at Children’s Home. “After they’re around the animals, you can see the changes in the children. It’s critical that they respect the animal and when that happens, their interactions with peers are also positively affected. Those things go hand-in-hand.”

How do you match a kid with a horse?

Sometimes the kid makes the match – the personalities mesh. Other times, “we help them choose,” says Clayton. “Sometimes, we match them to a horse to actually push them towards something they need to work on. We have a therapist that helps the kids process things – ‘this horse is making this decision. How might that relate to what you would do or have done?’ It just works.”

Today, the group of girls is putting their horses through a set of obstacles.

“The girls have to get through the course, practice control, practice backing skills, introducing the horses to new things,” says Brian Rankin, whose duties also include being a houseparent. “We have a plastic mat they have to get the horse to walk across. Some of the horses aren’t used to that, so the girls have to work out how to get them across.”

Residents have equine classes on Tuesdays and Wednesdays – two hours per class. During those classes, “we’ll groom the horses, practice some leaning and tying activities, and do a group activity,” says Rankin.

Has he ever run across especially gifted children with this?

“Yes – sometimes a child is just a natural. We’ve also found that horses work very well with autistic children – especially those with Asperger’s.

“We have children in the program from age 10 to 17. I’ve used miniature horses with the younger kids. Right now, we have one miniature in a separate pen down the hill.”