Cody is galloping in circles in the round pen, tossing his head with its dark brown mane and letting out the occasional whinny. The 17-hand thoroughbred, muscular and spirited, is dismayed at being separated from the rest of the herd, but quiets almost immediately when Savanah McCarty steps into the pen with a light whip.
"I'm using the whip as an extension of my hand," McCarty shouts over her shoulder. "It's a training tool."
Then she turns her attention back to Cody, who waits for her direction. Standing in the middle of the pen, she holds the whip out like a wand. The horse follows her direction, once again going in circles, but now at a walk. She gestures with the whip and he breaks into a trot for a few loops then speeds to a lope. McCarty's form is almost obscured as the large, powerful animal raises a spray of mud in the pen but you can tell from her posture she is unafraid. Her entire focus is on Cody, who is following her every signal. This, McCarty says, is where the magic happens.
Wild Souls Ranch, a nonprofit with a handful of horses, that rents corrals and stables on a hill overlooking the perennially green Loleta farmlands, does not offer equine therapy. What it does offer, says McCarty, its founder, is "equine-assisted growth and learning." Most of the children who visit the ranch fit the designation of "at risk" — they are in foster care, in the county's Victim Witness program, or have been adopted. They not only ride the horses, they groom them and perform chores. And they do the kind of "ground work" McCarty is doing with Cody, focusing their energy into asking the horse for what they want.
"It requires focus," McCarty says. "They need to think a trot, then ask for a trot. They learn to control their emotions and push that energy outward, to breathe."
Many of the children who attend Wild Souls could never afford a horse of their own or the equipment they need to ride. McCarty's goal is to bridge that gap and give them access to the animals she says can heal deep wounds. The caregivers, advocates and parents of children who attend Wild Souls say they have seen this healing first hand.
McCarty is slim, with long dark hair that matches her expressive eyebrows. Her brown eyes and wide mouth go from serious to goofy within seconds. Today the seat of her embroidered jeans is covered in mud from an early-morning spill. When Cody gets the signal to slow and join her in the middle of the corral, he nuzzles her and she smiles.
The children end the exercise by breathing in and signaling for Cody to stop pacing and come in to them. Then, says McCarty, he'll follow them around the pen "like a puppy."
"It really does something when the horse accepts them," McCarty says. "It's amazing for their self-confidence to have a big 17-hand animal accept them as a leader."
Cody is responding to their direction, and their authority, she says, part of the horse's natural herd instinct. There's magic in that. And the kids empathize with Cody, a former race horse that McCarty's friend rescued off a slaughter truck. At 10, he had developed a club foot. Abuse is common in racing, McCarty says.
"Kids relate to him because he was thrown away," McCarty says, now scratching the poll of Cody's head.
Although she has one social worker on staff and another on the nonprofit's board of directors, McCarty does not have a degree or certification. That's why she's careful to make the distinction between what Wild Souls provides and traditional equine therapy, which is used to treat people with issues ranging from autism to cerebral palsy. The ranch is a safe space for kids to discuss problems but she doesn't push them to talk about what they're going through. She lets the horses do the work.
"I don't have the degree but I have life experience working with horses," she says. "I can work with kids because I was that kid."
Originally from Lassen County, McCarty says she was abandoned by her mother at the age of 6. She lived with her grandparents, then an aunt, but the most formative relationship of her youth was with a horse, a brood mare named Sheza who was just one year older than her.
"We grew up together," McCarty says. "I met her through the woman who did this for me growing up."
McCarty says she was "blank" and "withdrawn" as a child. She had stopped talking. Her mother's departure made her mistrust adults. A woman who attended church with her grandparents, Marlene Nolen, saw this and took McCarty under her wing.
"She showed me what love was, and she did that through horses," McCarty says.
Nolen, who still lives in Lassen County with her husband Bill, describes 6-year-old McCarty as a "teeny, frail little skinny thing" and "very shy."
"She bloomed over the years," Nolen says. "It was incredible how she bloomed. The horses saved her life."
Although she wouldn't talk, McCarty followed instructions, using a miniature wheelbarrow to help muck out the stalls. Anything to be near the horses, and horses require communication. Soon she was talking again and spending every weekend with the Nolens. Marlene Nolen recalls coaching the terrified little girl as they prepared to ride in a local parade. At the last minute, McCarty decided she couldn't do it.
"I took her into the bathroom and I said, 'Do you realize how much it took for us to get you this far?'" Nolen recalls asking. "She just looked at me with those big brown eyes. I told her, 'I will be with you every step of the way.' And when we actually got out on the road, she was fine."
Eventually, McCarty's grandparents could no longer care for her. At 13, she moved away with her aunt.
"We saw her more than we saw our own grandkids," says Nolen, her voice breaking on the phone as she recalls the day McCarty left. "When she had to go, it was a really, really heavy loss for us. We wanted to take her but we couldn't."
The Nolens did hold on to Sheza after McCarty moved so she would always have a home base. Sheza gave them several foals.
When McCarty graduated from high school and left foster care at 18, horses and riding were the focus of her young life. She worked at equestrian centers in Monterey for seven years, then moved to Humboldt County to connect with some of her biological siblings. She was 24 when she decided to start Wild Souls. She said the decision came after seeing a great need among at-risk youth in the area and realizing that if she didn't take the plunge, it probably wasn't going to happen.
"I didn't have anything to lose," McCarty says. "I'm single, and I have no family to take care of."
She also had nothing to get started.
"I literally didn't even have a horse brush," she says, laughing. She had no tack and no horses.
Hearing of her plans, Nolen donated her first set of kids' saddles, blankets and grooming supplies. A group of friends put together a Kickstarter dinner that raised $6,000 in seed money. After raising the rest through private donations and fundraising, Wild Souls officially opened in May of 2013. The nonprofit rents space at Hillcrest Stables, a private horse boarding facility. McCarty says it's a good, central location for her kids, who come from as close as the nearby Bear River Rancheria and as far away as Trinidad.
McCarty also brought an old friend back to help — Sheza.
"As soon as I knew we were opening, I went and got her," McCarty says, adding that she believes the horse recognized her.
Now 30, the old mare is blind in one eye and slower than she used to be. Only the smallest of riders can actually sit on her back. But she is happy to be groomed, and will patiently follow the kids around the paddock, nodding her dark brown head with its white star. She's a favorite with the children who visit in the afternoon, evidenced by the audible gasp of two young girls from the Victim Witness program when they hear she is in the corral on a recent afternoon.
The two girls, blond sisters ages 10 and 12, are already wearing mud boots when their guardian drops them off near the corral. They have been visiting Wild Souls for four months now. The older sister, a sixth grader, goes immediately to the shed to find a hot pink bucket full of grooming supplies.
The two work together to groom Dusty, a pony with a long blond mane.
"Give him a man bun," suggests McCarty. There is a lot of gentle joking, compliments, pleases and thank yous.
When the younger sister gets on a horse. McCarty points out her posture with pride. She sticks her chin in the air like Napoleon, ready to take on the world.
Steve Volow, executive director of CASA Humboldt, says his program's ongoing relationship with Wild Souls has really benefitted the children CASA helps represent in court, many of whom are in foster care and come from abusive or neglectful homes.
"It's wonderful exposure for a child who otherwise wouldn't get that," Volow says. Wild Souls relies on a mixture of fundraising and paid memberships to offer scholarships to children from CASA and other agencies. "We have foster kids, some of them have been homeless for years; they wouldn't be able to be around [the horses] otherwise. The horses are really gentle and in tune, way more than a mom could be, or their moms could be."
Collette Hawkins, whose 16-year-old son Cody has been going to Wild Souls for almost nine months, says the experience has markedly improved his ability to control his emotions. Hawkins adopted Cody when he was 3 weeks old, but prenatal drug and alcohol exposure left him with a spectrum of emotional and physical problems. Wild Souls is just one of the avenues the family has pursued to help him.
"It's hard to be in the world sometimes when you're a gentle person," says Hawkins. "Out there, he's allowed to be himself. When you're working with the horse you have to mentally be very present."
Horses mirror the emotions of the rider, says McCarty. This is why one of the young girls refers to Bella, an Arabian mare and former dressage horse with a sassy gait, as a "tattletale."
"She's very sensitive," the sixth-grader says. "If you're sad, they'll be sad."
Tuff, a retired rodeo horse, is gentle but "complicated," says the girl, adding that she has to be aware of what she's thinking when she's riding him because he can tell when she's not paying attention.
Hawkins says Cody came home from working with the horses with improved self-esteem and more focused on school. Riding has also improved his balance and motor control. He now wants to go into a career working with animals. Animals, he says, don't hide what they really mean.
Even after all these years, McCarty says working with horses remains therapeutic to her. The challenges and stresses of running a nonprofit, of making her way in the world alone, of the occasional tumble into a mud puddle when you're wearing your fanciest jeans, it all falls away when she saddles up a horse.
"I can't imagine living a life without them," she says. "They ground me, remind me of what's good in life."
And her mentor, Marlene Nolen, is very proud. She watches McCarty's progress with Wild Souls on Facebook. She says she cries a lot these days — happy tears.
"I'm so glad that she's doing what we taught her to do," says Nolen. "She turned out to be a pretty good little girl."
Linda Stansberry is a Journal staff writer. Reach her at 442-1400, extension 317, and firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @LCStansberry.
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