Starry Skies Equine Rescue helps juveniles in a drug court program



by Sheila Pursglove
Legal News

As troubled teens lead horses down country paths at a farm outside Ann Arbor, the horses are leading those youngsters along the path to recovery.

The four-legged “therapists” – that land at Starry Skies Equine Rescue and Sanctuary from law enforcement seizures for neglect or from slaughterhouse auctions—are helping youth in the Washtenaw County Juvenile Drug Court Residential Program.

“We take our kids out to the horse rescue and give them the opportunity to work with the horses and the other animals on the farm,” says Washtenaw County Probate Judge Julia B. Owdziej, a long time 4-H leader who handles a probate docket and juvenile delinquency matters. “Horses have shown great promise in helping to heal traumatized kids.”   

Juvenile Probation Officer Michele Rutsey—who runs the program with Drug Court Probation Officer Gina Steffey, and with the help of Children Services staff member Kevin Hawkins—got involved with Starry Skies six years ago, after reading an article about the rescue of 18 horses seized due to neglect. Seeing an opportunity to help troubled teens, Rutsey and co-worker Kassie Weiland inquired about bringing probation youth for a community service work project. The first group visited the horses in February 2012.

“We continued the program through that summer with a consistent group of youth and started to see changes in their behavior,” says Rutsey, who became even more involved at Starry Skies by participating in fund-raising, learning the background stories of the horses and about horse behavior.

As visits gradually evolved from a community service work project into a therapeutic effort, Starry Skies started working with the Juvenile Drug Court Residential Program. All youngsters receiving treatment in Washtenaw County’s detention facility, which houses 10å teens, can visit the sanctuary, and, on a recent Family Day, shared their experiences with their families.   

Paired with the same horse at each Wednesday visit, teens clean stalls, groom “their” horse, and walk them on a lead rope. They also learn how to read the horse’s behavior, and process how their own behavior impacts the relationship and behavior of the horse, while learning to self-regulate their emotions and have the horse respond to their requests.

“Being able to do this takes mindfulness, observation, problem solving, adaptability, patience and anger management,” Rutsey says. “It’s very empowering for the youth to be able to move a 1,200-plus-pound animal all the while keeping themselves and the horse safe.

“Horses are prey animals and rely on their survival through their ability to sense underlying energy and emotional currents in their environment. As a result, a horse is fully present in the moment and will mirror the emotion that’s presented to them.”

Probation Officer Gina Steffey said the program is paying dividends.

“It’s been truly amazing to watch the youth work through their various traumas through working with the horses,” Steffey says. “You can see the youth make progress each week, working through their fears and frustrations, and moving forward in their healing process.”

Starry Skies is owned by attorney Tricia Stewart Terry, a partner in the Ann Arbor law firm of Marrs & Terry. It is a nonprofit 501(c)(3) horse rescue and sanctuary caring for multiple equines of varying breeds and ages with a mission to divert them from the slaughter pipeline, provide rehabbing, training and placement, and provide end of life care and services for those not suitable for private homes.

“The horses benefit from the attention and care—many of the horses have their own trust issues and it’s interesting to watch them and the kids trying to figure each other out,” Terry says. “Surprising bonds develop and you can see the confidence grow in both the humans and equines.

“The kids are also a great help in keeping the barn and paddocks clean and safe by learning to identify potential hazards to the horses and addressing them—and yes, that means cleaning and mucking stalls and hauling manure.”

Starry Skies also is home to goats, miniature horses and mules, donkeys, llamas, alpacas, chickens, ducks, geese, and turkeys. 

“All of which require learning how to appropriately interact with each,” Terry says. “For example, do not antagonize the turkeys—they will remember you and exact revenge!”

Youthful feedback

Teen-agers in the Juvenile Drug Court Residential Program shared their feelings about visiting the horses:

“We get away from the fact of being locked up and we get relaxed and calm.”

“Coming to the horse farm allows all of us to see the beautiful things that remain on the outside while we’re on the inside.”

“Coming out here helps me work on all the things I struggle with and building a bond with animals who have also been neglected, abused and saved from slaughter is really cool because in a way you can relate to them.”

“We bond with an animal that has been through so much.”

“There is a connection talking to the horse telling them how we feel, they mirror how we are feeling – if we’re anxious, they become anxious.” 

“I’m not one to trust somebody I just met or willing to open up. The horse is willing to do that, to trust someone they just met.”

Goal of the program: ‘helping youngsters’

“Juvenile Court involves more than working with children,” Judge Julia Owdziej says. “We need to address the needs of the whole family to ensure our kids are living in healthy households.” 

The court launched a “Parent Project” this past summer, teaching how to parent high risk teens. Three probation officers attended a weeklong training.

“Our staff has taken on this project with great enthusiasm,” Owdziej says. “They found a church willing to let us use their facilities. We feed them dinner and run simultaneous programs for parents, older kids and younger kids. This program runs in the evening and it takes many probation officers who have agreed to work the late nights.”

A ribbon cutting ceremony was held September 27 for a mosaic created by children of the Washtenaw County Youth Home in collaboration with the Youth Arts Alliance.

“It’s one of the many exciting things we’re doing with our court-involved youth to expose them to positive role models and healthy outlets,” Owdziej says.

The court partnered with Eastern Michigan University to provide diversion services for first-time, misdemeanor level offenders in Washtenaw County areas with the highest poverty, crime-rate, health issues, and poorest graduation rates. EMU recruits undergrads, primarily in the social work and sociology/criminology departments, as advocates and mentors, and to work with parents.

The court also teamed with the Student Advocacy Center (SAC) to provide mentoring for court-involved youth in Ypsilanti while school is in session (including summer school and year-round alternative education programs).

A partnership with the Neutral Zone brought creative daytime programming to students with no school programs or in an alternative school meeting only a few hours a week.

“It was a safe place to express their feelings and explore how they could become happy productive adults,” Owdziej says. “It culminated with a performance night where the kids showed off their art, poetry, and music skills.”