When Dr. Blair Barone-Rice added a handful of severely abused horses to her herd a year and a half ago, she never could have foreseen the dramatic impact the fragile horses would have on a group of equally fragile people.
Around the same time she took in the horses, Barone-Rice added an equine-assisted therapy program for local alcohol and drug treatment centers in Boca Raton to her nonprofit, Horse Whisperer Kids. She named it Horse Whisperer Rehab. The clients, struggling with sobriety and feeling lost, helped care for the horses. In return, the horses found a job — providing their new caretakers with unconditional love and a newfound sense of purpose.
“The horses were in really bad shape,” Barone-Rice said. “They were seized by the Broward County Sheriff’s Department in what they considered to be one of the worst cases of animal neglect they’d ever seen. They were hundreds of pounds underweight. They’d never had foot care. There was no food on the property. It was a nightmare scene. They were at another rescue for a year, and they put on an appropriate amount of weight, but they had laminitis and founder in their hooves. The goal was to give them a couple months of quality care and a lot of love. Within two weeks, there was a spark in their eyes, their energy was up and they were showing all kinds of improvement.”
Barone-Rice, who has a degree in psychology from Harvard, started the Coconut Creek nonprofit for kids about 10 years ago with the rescue of her first horse, Lucky. The day before Lucky died, Barone-Rice was approached about the abused horses. She lost Lucky the next morning, and she took it as a sign.
“Horses are highly intuitive,” Barone-Rice said. “They can feel what humans are feeling. At first, when the clients walked into their stalls, they felt broken and depressed. The horses could relate to that. They felt the shift in the clients after they’d groomed and worked with the horses. The clients felt better, and it was rewarding for the horses.”
Barone-Rice believes the symbiotic relationship between the rehab clients and the horses is reason both have flourished.
“Horses need to have a purpose and a job,” she said. “These crippled horses didn’t have a job. They had no meaning until the clients started visiting. A year and a half later, I still see it every day. They are the magic vitamin.”
The clients form strong bonds with the horses as they tend to their many ailments, groom them and even play guitar and sing to them in their stalls.
“The horses love music,” Barone-Rice said. “They pick up on the energetic change within the person. Horses can tell when you’re angry, sad, mad and happy. When the clients are singing to the horses, they can feel that love. The horses will lay down and the clients sit next to them and play the guitar. It’s makes a difference.”