DreamPower Horsemanship offers teen a second chance

Client Marsha Larson, left, Martha McNeal, the therapist who

When she landed in a group home last year, Justine jumped at the
chance to go to DreamPower Horsemanship.
San Martin – When she landed in a group home last year, Justine jumped at the chance to go to DreamPower Horsemanship.

Justine grew up on a ranch and had been riding since she was two. A drug-addicted teen from a broken home, she was excited about getting to spend a few hours a week tramping around on horseback.

She didn’t know what she was in for.

“Of course I wanted to join,” Justine, who didn’t want to use her last name, said. “I thought I was just going to ride. I didn’t know it was going to be ‘therapy’ therapy.”

But therapy is what she got. When she arrived at DreamPower in May 2004, Justine had to learn all over again how to groom, lead and halter horses. While she learned about how horses communicate with people and each other, she began to understand her own behavior.

“Justine got no special treatment even though she had the skills,” said Martha McNiel, the therapist who started DreamPower in San Martin, in 2002. “We told her she was going to have to do therapy work to ride. It was a reward for doing the therapeutic work.”

When she arrived at DreamPower, Justine had just gotten clean after two years of drug abuse. She was antic, constantly searching for a rush.

McNiel worked with Justine to teach her the value of moving slow, to relax, and think before she acted. Like most kids who go from a life of delinquent independence to a group home, Justine had trouble adjusting to all the rules thrust upon her. Justine often thought about running away, but didn’t because she wanted to get back to the horses.

“There were a lot of times I thought ‘to hell with this place,’ but I never ran,” she said of the group home she lived in for 16 months. “It gave me something to look forward to each week.”

More than a year later, Justine is perhaps DreamPower’s greatest success story. She’s been clean for 19 months, lives with her brother in Hollister, and now works with other kids in the program. Aside from McNiel, DreamPower’s entire staff is volunteer, but McNiel is trying to secure grant funding to make Justine the program’s first paid employee.

“Justine is very gifted working with horses,” McNiel said. “We’re trying to help her pursue that in a formal way so she can support herself doing that.”

Justine will graduate from high school next year and she wants to be a veterinarian. She says she found her future at DreamPower.

“Before I got put in a group home, I lost a lot of myself. Coming here opened my eyes to a better future,” she said. “Once I was lost, but now I’m found.”

As a small child, Justine participated in barrel racing and other rodeo events, but as her family fractured, she got away from horses. Justine grew up in a house full of drug users, and by the time she was a teenager she was using. She ran away from home repeatedly and got in trouble with the police.

“Before I got put in a group home, I did what I wanted to do,” she said. “I got in trouble a lot. Before I got sent to a group home, I lost a lot of myself.”

Today, Justine is such a confident rider that she prefers a blanket to stirrups and reins. When she turns 18 she’ll be allowed to work with other kids from group homes, but in the meantime she helps other clients learn to ride. She said working at DreamPower has taught her how lucky she is in life compared to some of the people she works with.

“He doesn’t have that great of balance,” Justine said of an 80-year-old man whom she helps through a weekly lesson. “It’s different. I’ve never worked with a disabled person before. I feel like I’m doing something positive for someone who wants to have interaction with animals. I’m not just doing something for me; I’m doing something for someone else.”

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