Originally created 08/08/99

Gentling a Wild Spirit

DARLINGTON, S.C. -- They recognize the wild streak in each other, the boy and the horse in the round pen where both are being gentled.

Not broken, but gentled with patience and respect.

The mustang saw her first human less than a month ago in a roundup in Utah, where she and other wild horses were starving. She arrived at Hurricane Creek ranch on July 10, still untouched by human hands. She is deciding whether to trust the boy, who gently strokes her muzzle, looking into her fearful eyes. When she bucks at the feel of a blanket on her back, he waits and then tries again.

About an hour later, Lucy has accepted a saddle, but she bucks when the stirrups are lowered and she feels them against her sides. He waits and tries again. Cinching the girth is hardest. In the wild, her tender belly was the part most vulnerable to attacks from wolves or dogs. He waits, strokes her muzzle, speaks quietly if at all, and tries again. And again. And again.

Before they leave the ring, Lucy will allow the boy to put his full weight in a stirrup and finally to lie across the saddle. She has decided to trust him. He finds it difficult to describe how he feels. It is "good -- real good," he says. "I didn't think she would let me do it."

Eight other boys watch in silence as Marty Britt, 13, works with Lucy. At home, they would have been the ones teasing or daring him to do something dangerous. At Hurricane Creek, they respect Marty's success, knowing how hard it is to earn the white cowboy hat each receives when he has successfully gentled a wild thing. They also know that Marty had never touched a horse until he came here in early June, although they are everywhere in his hometown, Aiken.

Marty is one of two Aiken teen-agers at Hurricane Creek this summer, sent there by parents who feared they were headed down a dangerous path.

The mustang ranch in Darlington, about 80 miles east of Columbia, is the only place in the nation that rescues wild mustangs and uses them to help boys learn to control their own wildness. Clinical psychologists, who are also trained in "horse whispering," identify issues each boy needs to work on -- among them, aggression, patience and trust. Then they initiate activities between the boys and the horses that force them to focus on those issues.

Marty's parents became alarmed when they found a fantasy letter he'd written after seeing Dead Presidents, a 1995 action movie rated R for strong graphic violence. Nor did they understand his admiration for rappers and the lifestyle their lyrics describe.

The other Aiken teen at Hurricane Creek is Joseph Nix, 15. His parents had found a stash of Wite-Out correction fluid, marking pencils, butane lighters and other inhalants under his bed. They were convinced that Joseph had deliberately failed every subject in school. Both boys had become distant, disrespectful, untruthful and hard to live with.

Both families stumbled onto Hurricane Creek. Marty's mother heard about it from her sister, who read about it in the South Carolina magazine Sandlapper. Joseph's mother saw a segment about it on NBC Nightly News with Tom Brokaw. It was a straw, and they grasped at it despite the cost, $5,000, and the realization that their kids would not come home "fixed" unless they did some fixing themselves.

Hurricane Creek is run by Jim Hardee and his wife, Billie, who have worked with more than 2,000 "at-risk" boys over the past 22 years in their group home and in-school counseling.

Mr. Hardee, an ordained Methodist minister, got the idea for the Hurricane Creek Trail Experience after adopting some wild mustangs through a federal rescue program. "I realized that they were a lot like the boys we'd worked with -- uncertain what was expected of them and afraid, with a little bit of attitude," he said.

The program involves 10 intense weeks of hard work under the summer sun and ends with a 210-mile trail ride on horses the boys have gentled themselves. They ride for 10 days, camping on public land, bathing in rivers and streams, and sometimes traveling through heavy traffic. The ride ends in Myrtle Beach, where they "graduate" at the Dixie Stampede.

Boys who successfully complete the program and ride are allowed to keep a horse.

Monday, the day before the trail ride began, was a long one. The boys were up at dawn to wash their clothes in buckets -- "their own private Maytags," Mr. Hardee calls the pails, which also are used to feed and water the horses. While their clothes dry on a fence, they carry hay, do other chores and pack gear for the ride.

Not even the boy with the broken arm gets any slack. Kris Ristow, 14, of Charleston is wearing a cast and doing chores like everybody else. He broke his arm when his horse, L.C., threw him. Kris says it was his own fault: He didn't wait for L.C.'s permission to take the next step.

L.C., for Last Chance, got the name because Hurricane Creek is his last chance. He had been abused and came there from a Humane Society. If he couldn't develop enough trust to be gentled, he'd be dog food.

Kris is not about to let that happen. He tells everybody, "L.C. is going home with me."

Marty is not sure he wants to bring his horse home. He wants a break from Beth, although he's the only one who can keep her from kicking. He says he's tired, and he wants to spend time with his family. He has never worked so hard in his life.

He's proud of his success with Lucy, one of the other horses he has worked with, but he does not expect to see her again. No one has ridden her yet, and the trail trip starts in less than 24 hours.

Marty does not know that Lucy will be a backup horse. Mr. Hardee expects him to ride her before the trip is done. Later, it's decided that the Hardees will keep Beth for a month, before taking her to Marty.

Joseph will ride Hercules and Pepper after working with both horses. He loves Hercules and hopes to keep him. It is the horse's second year at Hurricane Creek. The boy who took him home last year left him untended in a kudzu patch for six months, but wants a second chance.

Joseph desperately hopes he won't get it. Pepper, he says, is "evil," but he likes her anyway. It shows.

"If I have to take Pepper instead, I won't ever let her know she wasn't my favorite," he says.

The boys have spent many broiling nights during the recent heat wave sleeping in tents in woods near the paddocks. The primitive conditions have lasted longer than anyone expected. Normally, this summer's group would have spent the first half of their stay at The Pines, a ranch house with air conditioning and electric appliances, but on their first day there one boy dismantled the air conditioner and invited the others to help him "huff" the Freon. Two did.

It was their first and last day at The Pines. The tents were pitched. There was no television, no video games, no CD player, no air conditioning. Except for rides, first on gentled horses, then on "fresh" ones they had to gentle themselves, the boys would get only three times away from Hurricane Creek.

"That's the fastest we've ever been able to teach a bunch of boys to demand good behavior of each other," Mr. Hardee said. "Saved us a lot of time. It's harder with parents. Too many of them just don't understand that their job is to set the boundaries. They want to parent by popular vote."

His own approach is gruff but kind. When the boys want to cool off with a quick swim in the tiny pond nearby, he says, "No, you can't go swimming." Then he adds, "But I've been hoping somebody would clean the sticks out of the pond."

They grin and are gone.

The heat has been awful. On July 31, when the heat index was well over 100, one horse died of heat colic and the boys had to bury it.

On one of their three allowed visits, Marty asked his mother and stepfather for five minutes in the air-conditioned car. "Have I died and gone to heaven or what?" he asked.

Families are required to be involved in the counseling end of the program -- even when boys come from broken homes and have "blended families." Marty's mother and stepfather, Marcella and Joseph Holley, participate. So do his father and stepmother, Marty and Shannon Britt.

Marty lives three days in one home, three days in the other. He has a full brother, two stepbrothers and a half brother. But until now, the parents had never really agreed that what happens in one household needs to carry over to the other. If one sets consequences for behavior, the other must carry them out, too.

"The most important thing we have learned about ourselves is that we need to work together to achieve what's best for Marty," Mrs. Holley said. "We have separate households and separate lives, but we share Marty."

"I think Marty has learned a lot about us having to deal with stubborn, hard-headed younguns," Mr. Britt said. "And we've learned a lot about how to deal with our child in ways that make us all happier. He's learned to appreciate simple things about home. And we've learned to appreciate him. I never thought we'd miss him so much."

Debbie and Harry Nix have enjoyed the respite after some trying times with the son they call Joseph and most others call Joe. "There might be a couple of good days, but something would always happen," he recalled. "Three days of peace, and we knew we'd better watch out."

Both now realize that what their younger son wanted was their attention, and he knew how to get it. Unlike his brother, who always insisted on time from his parents, Joseph would just say, "That's OK," and walk off.

"I realize now that he would look behind to see if dad was coming after him, and a lot of the time I wasn't," Mr. Nix said. "It's going to take some practice, but from now on I'm going to be saying, `That can wait,' or `Those people can wait,' and spend more time with Joseph."

"It's not about fixing Joseph," Mrs. Nix said. "It's about fixing our family."

Both boys agree that change is a family process. They say they've grown at Hurricane Creek and can see a difference in their families, too. They'll be reunited when the trail ride ends Thursday.

More information

To learn more about Hurricane Creek, call Carolina Family Ministries at (843) 393-8600.

Margaret N. O'Shea can be reached at (803) 279-6895 or scbureau@augustachronicle.com.


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