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Wild Horses & Wild Kids - Youth Off The Streets
CEO and founder of Youth Off The Streets, Father Chris Riley, shows how horses are helping to heal some of Australia's most damaged kids.

Father Chris Riley is no stranger to the countryside. Raised on a dairy farm in Echuca, country Victoria, he has a love of animals demonstrated by the loyal presence of his two Great Danes, Woods and Collingwood, and macaw Dominique.

Father Riley, who set up the charity Youth Off The Streets in 1991, has long recognised the healing qualities of animals and the countryside in working with kids who have been subjected to neglect, abuse, homelessness and drug addiction.

Many of the programs run for troubled teens by the charity are based in rural areas, away from city vices, where residents are helped in their rehabilitation by the healthy aspects of life that country living can offer.

For the last four years, wild brumby horses have played an important role in helping some of the most violent and angry kids that the charity works with.

Father Riley was concerned when he heard wild brumbies were being culled in national parks and came up with the idea of rescuing them, at the same time addressing the acute anger management problems exhibited by some of the kids in his programs.

Working with small numbers at a time, each youth in the brumbies program is matched with a brumby horse and becomes responsible for its care and training. Since the brumbies are wild, the youths quickly learn that they cannot gain the horse's trust if they use their usual aggressive style of communication. As most of the horses are experiencing human interaction for the first time, the young people are truly challenged and must develop incredible patience. The dividends are huge - once the bond is established between horse and youth, the horse is tremendously loyal.

The training is a slow, tolerant process in which it can take up to three months to achieve "join up" - the point at which the trust and confidence is established between horse and human, a touching moment evident when the wild horse actively seeks out physical contact from his trainer.

Most of the youths taking part in the program are males aged between 13 and 18 who behave violently or aggressively. The majority have themselves been victims of violence and abuse in the family, and so their style of communicating is learned behaviour that has enabled them to survive in a harsh world where adults do not care about them.

The wild brumbies on the other hand, are herd animals that are loyal, protect each other and care for each other. The program therefore provides an innovative way of enabling the kids to learn some rules about how a family operates so they will be able to bond and nurture their own children in the future, forming the first step in undoing the generational family breakdown they have been entrenched in.

Riley says that pairing the horses with the kids was a perfect match. "There are so many parallels between the two groups. Both would have been running wild and both would probably have wound up dead if they weren't given a second chance. If you treat these horses roughly, they'll turn aggressive, which is often exactly what has happened to the kids. If both now work together, they'll help each other to trust again and get a sense of achievement from each other's progress. And for these kids, that's exactly what they need."

Indeed, staff at Youth Off The Streets have seen a marked difference in the young people who have taken part in the program, watching them grow self-esteem and develop a sense of responsibility. Says Suzie Kenney, a teacher at Matthew Hogan College, one of Youth Off The Streets' specialist schools where the participants are students, "Their anger was reduced and they began to actively seek support for their problems. We noticed that they were working together more harmoniously. By the end of the year, this group of young people were strong role models in the school".

The brumbies program is just one of the many innovative programs developed by Father Riley and his team to work with disadvantaged teenagers. Youth Off The Streets provides more than 20 programs aimed at enabling disadvantaged young people aged 12-21 to live independently or reunite with family if appropriate. Outreach programs, specialist high schools, crisis accommodation, medium to long-term residential facilities and mentoring all work towards equipping these adolescents with the life skills, psychological stability and education they need to integrate into society.

With the organisation's annual budget now exceeding $14 million, donations are needed now more than ever.

To donate please call Toll Free 1800 062 288 or visit www.youthoffthestreets.com.au

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