Lead-Up: Horses teach vulnerable youth

By Pamela Dozois

Monty Roberts has a singular focus in life.

“My goal is to leave the world a better place than I found it, for horses and for people too,” he said. “Join-Up International seeks to foster the adoption of skills among a greater audience, insuring their preservation for generations to come.”

To that end, Roberts’ Flag Is Up Farms held the first “Lead-Up” workshop on Thursday, Friday and Saturday, June 21-23, in Solvang for seven at-risk youths. The workshop was sponsored by Join-Up International and the Santa Barbara Police Activities League.

“Lead-Up is an original and compelling leadership program, which aims to reach vulnerable youth and create peaceful leaders through workshops with horses,” said Katie Cunningham, co-founder of the program and a Monty Roberts advanced student.

Debbie Roberts Loucks, a board member of Join-Up International, explained that Lead-Up is an outreach of Roberts’ Join-Up International. It is a program based on workshops with horses in which participants ages 15-22 are introduced to humane ways of handling and interacting with horses.

Participants are taught to control their body language, breathing and emotions and to develop peaceful leadership skills when interacting with horses. The result is a willing partnership based on mutual respect and trust and an improved sense of self-esteem.

Lead-Up strives to create peaceful leaders, thus reducing violence in the community.

“Our Lead-Up team has been developing the program since 2012 when founder Katie Cunningham was chosen by Monty Roberts to receive an award from Queen Elizabeth II for her work to take violence out of the training of horses. Katie and Monty went to work sharing ideas and recently published in the journal ‘Human Animal Interaction Bulletin’ directed by Dr. Judith Gibbons and team with scientific evidence of reduced violence and abuse toward horses and people through the Lead-Up Program,” Loucks said. “It’s been my pleasure as a board member of Join-Up International to help organize the smooth development of this program.”

Leaders in the workshop were Judith Lugo, program director for the Police Activities League (PAL); Courtney Dunn, a Monty Roberts certified Instructor; Jerry Sparby, a social worker who flew in from Minnesota; and Loucks.

The group conducted the three-day workshop consisting of an orientation followed by hands-on interaction with the horses, navigating the horses through an obstacle course with techniques used in the Join-Up program, and finally a discussion day, talking about what the participants had learned and how they could apply these techniques in their own lives.

“This is a great experience – being able to connect with an intimidating animal. It’s fun showing the horse that I am a competent leader. It changed my attitude about being able to connect up with a horse,” said Miguel, one of the participants.

“I have worked with many of the participants for years. Each one was chosen to attend Lead-Up because life has really brought some of them down to the lowest they have ever been,” Lugo said. “During this workshop I saw genuine smiles, excitement, and love in their eyes when they interact with the horses. The years of work we have done together was outdone in two minutes with Join-Up. When they are with the horse, the world stops. It’s just them two and it’s beautiful to watch. I’m not sure how I will ever be able to top this experience. This has been life-changing.”

“Trust is a very important component in the relationship between participant and horse. Young people, who regularly do not trust anyone, learn to trust the horse. He/she can achieve this because the horse has shown them confidence in the first place,” Dunn said.

During the workshop, the participants seemed very excited to be interacting with the horses.

“It’s interesting, so far. I came here not knowing anything about horses. This is my first time being around them. I’ve learned that feeling calm and cool myself, the horse then reflects that,” said Naomi, another participant.

“It is fun to interact with horses. They are big animals that I don’t know a lot about. They teach you here,” said Antonio.

“It is fun here – you get to know new things about the horses and meet new people. I’d like to come back. Lucky is my favorite horse,” said Chris, another participant.

Roberts has spent a lifetime with horses. Convinced there must be a more humane and effective way to train horses, Roberts created Join-Up International, based on a consistent set of principles involving the horse’s inherent body language and “herd behavior.” The result of Join-Up is a willing partnership between horse and rider, based on mutual respect and trust.

He then formed the Monty Roberts International Learning Center. The school is dedicated to promoting gentle, more effective alternatives to violence and force through educational courses ranging from beginner to advanced levels of horsemanship. There, participants can complete an extensive certification process.

Roberts then expanded Join-Up to include Horse Sense and Healing, a program to help first responders and veterans with post-traumatic stress syndrome.

Lead-Up was created in 2012, first in Guatemala, to help children in peril due to violence, either as victims or perpetrators. Monty Roberts certified instructors receive a specialty certificate to hold Lead-Up clinics in their areas. Lead-Up workshops are now in nine countries around the world.

Join-Up concepts have helped abused women and children, and their abusers, too, as well as war veterans and first responders.

For more information on these projects, visit www.join-up.org or call 805-688-6288.