Strolling Forward

We know horses can teach valuable and life-changing lessons—For the young men at MacLaren Youth Correctional Facility, our horses represent a future full of trust and understanding. Read on to see how horse and human interactions provided a change in perspective for eight skeptical youth.

The “MacLaren Stroll” refers to a leisurely paced walk to and from activities at the MacLaren Youth Correctional Facility. But, on Wednesdays throughout the summer, youth picked up their pace leaving their living units to spend their afternoons with Forward Stride horses and humans. Through funding granted by Janus Youth Programs, a partnering organization, eight youth at MacLaren were able to experience a sense of calm and belonging through equine facilitated activities.

Youth were selected by counselors from each unit and then assessed for safety and group readiness. MacLaren Counselor, Stacey Varner, noted that choosing youth for this program “is always an incredibly difficult decision, as there is such great need and it is such a positive growth opportunity for all that participate.” The decision came down to goodness of fit and brought a group of guys who had never before met into a cohesive community.

Katie on Panache

The first four sessions of this program focused on building relationships with each other and the horses on the ground. One youth shared, “I didn’t realize that I could pick up the horse’s hoof because it’s so heavy, and I was surprised that such a big animal would let me pick up its foot.” What began as a daunting task for each guy was what each of them noted as their biggest learning moment of the group. Another youth shared that after learning to lead the horses, he learned how to be more assertive and trusting with his peers and the people he is close to. He shared, “The horses and I learned to trust  each other.”

Katie & Sheila high-fiving

Instructors Emily (left) and Pati (right) posing with artwork created by the McLaren youth and two ponies used for the unmounted sessions, Thistle (left) and Pippin (right).

Stacey also noted that the youth were able to practice “new skills in a safe environment”, which resulted in “a decrease in problematic behaviors and an increase in utilizing prosocial skills” from self, staff, and family reports. Demonstrating this observation, one youth shared that participating in the group, “ has helped me learn how to handle my triggers for the benefit of the horses.”

Working with horses gave each of the young men a chance to process and heal. One of these guys bravely shared, My mom recently passed away and at first it didn’t hit me but more recently it has. So being able to have a non-verbal therapeutic group to go to really helped keep my mind on the positives.” 


By the fifth session, the youth were quick to make their way to the back corner of the MacLaren grounds, turning the “MacLaren Stroll” into something more closely resembling a MacLaren Sprint, especially during the last two sessions when they were able to ride. While this group gave each of the youth something to look forward to on a weekly basis, it also gave them hopes and goals for their futures. One youth, who appeals for clemency this winter, hopes to continue this healing in Forward Stride programming if his appeal is accepted. The whole group noted that they can all see themselves working with horses and even rescuing them in the future.

Access to equine assisted services provide life-changing opportunities for youth. A donation of $40 covers fuel for a trip hauling horses to and from MacLaren. Donate today to make programs like this possible!