Sarah Lampkin approaches Lady, a white, dappled horse, with caution. The 10-year-old girl has just made the van trip with a handful of other homeless kids and their moms from The Shade Tree shelter to Diamond K Ranch in North Las Vegas.
Before arriving, Lampkin had been in a bunk at the shelter several times, and before that, there’d been a few hardscrabble journeys back and forth to California, interspersed with school. A rough year, overall, her mom says. But today is different.
A young female ranch hand gives Lady’s reins to Lampkin and tells her to walk the horse in a big circle. Lampkin, who wears a pink butterfly shirt, black shorts and black tennis shoes, is smiling, but her steps are tentative.
The ranch hand gently instructs: “C’mon, walk like you’re going somewhere.”
Slowly, she does just that, and the horse responds, and then the two of them—Lady, a rescued horse, and Lampkin, a homeless girl—are striding, more confidently with every step. Lampkin’s smile grows, and her mom, Cathy Pascoe, says, “Good job, baby!”
The program is called Horses 4 Heroes, and was initially developed in 2006 by ranch owner Sydney Knott to help members of the military who suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. Animal-assisted therapy is endorsed by the American Psychological Association to treat a variety of conditions. Knott says that because horses are “prey animals”—that is, they are not meat eaters and sometimes feel threatened by potential predators—they are naturally timid. That makes them good therapy animals for people who also feel intimidated by their life’s circumstances. Building a mutually respectful relationship with a creature of imposing size and sensitive demeanor can heal emotional and psychological wounds.
So Knott began working with the women and children at Shade Tree, in addition to veterans, about a year and a half ago, and found that it was a great match.
“These are horses that were headed for slaughter, the bottom of the food chain,” Knott says about the small collection of mostly older, auctioned horses in her two corrals. “And these are women who may be intimidated. But in this relationship, someone has to be the alpha, and the women learn to do that. They build a trust-based bond.”
Marlene Richter, executive director of Shade Tree, says many residents are eager to make the weekly trip to the ranch. Sixty percent of Shade Tree residents report physical abuse in their lives upon arrival. “It’s one thing to give them shelter, but it’s that moment of giving them an opportunity to take back control—whether it’s in a support group, or fighting for custody of a child, or on the back of a horse—that’s the moment healing starts.”
As the morning heats up, Knott helps Lampkin—who’s wearing a pink helmet over her long blond hair—onto Lady. The little girl’s smile is ear-to-ear. As Lady begins a steady walk around the corral, Lampkin settles into the saddle, straightens her shoulders and calls out to Pascoe: “Mama, look at me!”