Erica Jones had punched a kid - sent him flying across the lunchroom - when she was referred to CORRAL, a program that uses rescued horses to help rescue adolescent girls.
At age 12, Erica was living in a Raleigh hotel room with her mother and three younger siblings; her father had abandoned the family. She was hurting, and she was angry.
All of which is hard to believe as you listen to the rising sixth-grader with corn rows chattering away, while brushing down the haunches of a massive mare and dispensing pearls of equine insight.
"When their ears are back, that can mean they don't like what you're doing - or there's a fly."
"Don't get scared, because if you get scared, the horse gets scared, too, and might trample you."
"Bailey has one eye, and he's stubborn - like me sometimes."
Erica is one of a handful of girls referred to CORRAL by the courts, the police, mental-health providers or, in her case, school officials. A bulletin board in a private office of the nonprofit's farmhouse shows the issues the organization is up against: abuse, neglect, suicidal thoughts, self-cutting, overly sexualized behavior, stealing, drug use. There's trouble at home; there's trouble at school. Some of the girls are from solid families; others have state-assigned guardians.
With lives in free fall, the girls come to CORRAL to learn to control a horse - and to control themselves - amid chaos.
"This is more than just a horseback-riding program; this is a life-changing program," said Joy Currey, the 34-year-old founder of CORRAL, which began accepting girls last fall. "That's a big hairy audacious goal."
For Erica, though, it is a reality.
"Erica was raging when she started going out to the farm earlier this year," said Joyce Jones, her mother. "She was acting out. She was so upset about her father. Now she's made her peace with it. She's calm. She is happy."
A mirror with a mane
Currey grew up on theCORRAL farmland, near Kildaire Farm Road and TenTen. The acres are pastoral yet barely a stone's throw from suburban Cary. The nearby intersection boasts a strip mall with a Dunkin' Donuts and a Subway.
The land was donated by Currey's father, an alfalfa breeder, after she and her husband returned to North Carolina several years ago. Currey had been an instructor for Teach for America in inner-city Philadelphia and then helped found a highly successful charter school in New York City.
During those exciting but challenging years, she bought a horse named Chester.
"He was my oasis," Currey said. "I thought, what if my kids could come out here every day and experience that calm as well."
Currey knew from experience that horses can be a comfort - but they are also highly attuned to human behavior.
"They act as mirrors to whatever the humans around them do and feel," she said. "One day, one of the girls was here, and she was upset and angry, so Giselle [one of the horses] was upset and uncooperative, too."
As they try to get through to the horses, the girls experience how their own emotional state affects another's.
Danley Shepherd, 14, arrived at CORRAL with no real desire to interact with horses. She had never ridden one - "unless you count riding a pony in a circle at the fair." And she was understandably nervous when she first approached Rebel, Currey's first horse from childhood, the massive dean of the CORRAL stable.
But the animal, with all his quirks and obstinate ways, was clear in his communication. He was honest.
"The horses tell you how they feel," Danley said. "They're always real with you."
When she started the program, Danley was living in a group home; she has since been reunited with family.
Catharine Govan's parents were at wit's end when she was accepted to CORRAL.
"There was nothing we could threaten to take away that would get her attention," said Mindy Govan of Cary. "We could take away everything, even her bed, and she wouldn't care."
Then Catharine met the horses and forged an immediate bond. She would do anything to preserve her time with the horses.
"It was the carrot we'd been looking for," Govan said.
Each girl receives an hour of academic tutoring daily, even during the summer. Currey and her staff have access to the girls' SPAN accounts at school, so they know when homework is or isn't being done. They know when grades are slipping. They also stay in regular contact with the schools, as well as with parents, guardians and referring agencies.
There are consequences for falling short. A child in in-school suspension gets to come to the farm but doesn't get to work with the horses.
"It used to be that Catharine would get after-school detention, and she didn't care," Govan said. "Now it means she can't go to the farm. ... CORRAL has been a lifesaver for her and for us."
Tim Montgomery, chief court counselor with the state Department of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, said CORRAL meets a need that, sadly, is growing in North Carolina. The state, he said, is following a national trend of more teenage girls joining their male counterparts in trouble with the law.
"I wish it were an easy thing to figure out the one thing that will get an individual child's attention," he said. "Parents sometimes think, 'Well, the judge should get their attention.' But we can't lock our way out of some of these problems."
Of course, it's not the strong, silent horses that make CORRAL work.
Currey and a small army of 150 volunteers train the girls in horsemanship but also act as mentors in unstable lives. "We are the people they call at 9 p.m. when their boyfriend breaks up with them or they have a fight at home," Currey said.
Along the way, the girls build friendships with one another, often while doing their required chores. They assist one another shoveling poop, sponging down a horse, running the vacuum, loading the dishwasher.
Six girls now participate in the fledgling program, but that number will double this fall, thanks to a grant from the state Juvenile Crime Prevention Council.
Stacie Williamson, a foster care social worker for Wake Human Services who has referred two girls to CORRAL, gives the credit to Currey's focus. "I'm just super amazed at what Joy's been able to provide in such a short time."
Currey tends to deflect the glory onto Rebel, Giselle, Ozzie and Bailey, the horses. Most of them came to her after having been abused or neglected, and on some level the girls connect with that.
"That you can ask a 500- or 1,000-pound animal to do something - and they do it -is a remarkably powerful feeling," she said.
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