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“They don’t read your mind, their read your heart,” said Kelly Vitorino, owner-operator of Kohala Youth Ranch in Kapaau, with husband Joe. “We call it the ‘Paso Fino grin,’” she said. “They really enjoy human contact; they love to please, to communicate and interact … They have such a calm disposition and a delightful personality.”
Intelligent and intuitive, the Paso Fino is a 500-year-old Spanish and Arabian breed of horses, esteemed for an even, rolling gait that makes people smile. Originally raised in Colombia and Puerto Rico, the Paso Fino, or “fine step,” was prized as a war horse by the conquistadors, and is closely related to the first paniolo horses that Mexican vaqueros brought to Hawaii in the early 19th century. The Vitorino’s have found Paso Finos are a perfect fit for their innovative equine-assisted learning programs for kids.
On a given day up at the peaceful blue-green pastureland, groups of keiki come to the ranch, where they will be introduced to the horses, allowed to pet, groom, talk to and interact with them, but no actual horseback riding (and none of the pressure) is involved. In ground-based activities, the horses help teach respect and responsibility, to build confidence, trust and self-esteem.
“The horse herd and their own social interactions become metaphors to teach the children healthy behaviors and coping skills within their family and community,” said Kelly. Under the watchful eyes of the Vitorinos and a trained counselor, the children and horses will gradually gravitate to, and get to know each other. In relationship exercises, kids lead their horse on a line, introduce him or her to another child and hand the lead off. If the child is unsure, the horse may stop walking; if confident, the horse follows willingly, mirroring the emotions and energy of its leader.
Joe and Kelly purchased their North Kohala acreage in 2000 with the intention of building a home, raising horses and enjoying retirement. “The more we came (from California), the less we wanted to go back,” said Kelly Vitorino. “We got attached to the community.
“We have really good friends here, and we were drawn to the history of King Kamehameha and his roots in North Kohala,” she said. “We wanted to keep something that was positive for the community that kept the country, rural feel.”
They raised quarter horses for a while, then decided to introduce Paso Finos to the island. In 2007, they brought over two pregnant mares. After getting to know their growing herd, and realizing how easy they were to communicate with, the Vitorino’s had an epiphany. “We thought, ‘we should share this,’” said Kelly Vitorino.
With 10 registered Paso Finos in the family, they started offering riding and horsemanship lessons, trail rides and more, but soon realized that something else was happening on a different level.
“People were loving just being around the horses,” said Kelly. “They were getting something else from it—as if they came here to get the healing energy from the animal. They could shut everything else out and just be in the moment with the horses. That’s sort of how they, the horses, live.”
Joe Vitorino is certified in equine-assisted learning and therapy by the Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association. He had read about other therapeutic horseback riding programs in the field of human growth and development, but was eager to learn more.
“I didn’t want to do that,” said Joe Vitorino. “People had already done that. They’re doing great work with disabled riders and others –but I wanted to do something different.”
He said that EAGALA is experiential, not programmatic, and that a lot of the best results occur naturally, when horses and children seek each other out, without adult intervention.
Facilitators observe the kid-horse interactions passively, watching for what they call “SPUDS” — Shifts, Patterns, Unique occurrences, Discrepancy, and “Stuff,” as in personal issues of the observer. After a session, using identified SPUDS, therapists may invite clients to share their stories about what took place with the horses and other issues in their lives. Often the horses start representing relationships with family and other people, personal obstacles or feelings.
“The metaphor is in the horse’s behavior,” said Kelly Vitorino, “how it is reflected in the human behavior and how it relates in the community.”
Although the ranch environment is flexible and relaxed, the Vitorinos said there are a few simple rules, beginning with respect—for people and horses as well.
“The ranch is a place where they are at rest; there is no judgment,” said Kelly. “We are bully-free, ‘fake free’ and technology free too.”
Joe said that using basic “constructs” such as setting boundaries, choices and consequences, leadership, teamwork, etc., helps the kids get more out of their 2-3 hours with the horses. “They will remember these activities and how to apply them in the future,” he said, noting that after their first experience, many groups request a second follow-up session and more. “There is a great need in the community for these kinds of programs,” said Joe Vitorino.
Recently, 22 youth visited from Sunday’s Child Foundation, a nonprofit provider of services and support to abused and at-risk children. As one of their “Summer Splash” camp programs organized by Executive Director Lauren Rainer, the kids spent time working with the Paso Finos and letting them work their special magic.
“The girls were particularly engaged. They wanted to do everything,” said Rainier. “Some were a little nervous when they first got into the arena, but the horses made the kids feel at ease. They were super playful, too. Even Joe laughed because he hadn’t seen them play like that.”
Rainier said that some of their special needs children, normally not the best communicators, were especially engaged by the horses.
“This kind of calm came upon them. The horses’ presence affected the children’s presence,” said Rainier. “You could see that one boy in particular communicated with the horse with his eyes. And, the way horse was standing, you could tell he was just waiting for him to give a command … The horse stood and looked in his eyes and then became subservient; he put his head down and looked up at the boy.”
“There was a lot of interaction between the horses and the kids,” she said. “Like a spiritual interaction. It was a very moving experience; not like a traditional experience where you go to a ranch and ride horses. It was a very moving, spiritual day. Joe and his wife Kelly are great. We would definitely do it again.”
Working with the North Kohala Community Resource Center, Kohala Youth Ranch has provided free equine-assisted programs to hundreds of at-risk children and youth, and earlier this summer made a “horse call” to St. Augustine Church’s Vacation Bible Camp. In addition, Hawaii Paso Finos continue to provide excursions for experienced equestrians, private and group riding lessons for all levels, immersion courses and ranch tours, plus monthly “Yoga on Horseback” sessions every third Saturday.
The Vitorino’s have also established a nonprofit, the Gaiting in Paradise Fund, which provides support to numerous organizations, including Operation Vacation for military families, Kohala Equine Educational Center, the King Kamehameha Day Celebration, North Kohala Student Cultural Enrichment programs and visits to Kahilu Theatre, Animal Sciences Scholarships, Hawaii Island Horse Rescue Fund and the Paniolo Preservation Society. Their main passion, however, is working with kids at Kohala Youth Ranch.
“There were some magical moments, and I think it affected everyone there,” said Rainier. “It’s all about enlivening the souls of these children that have been through so much … Good people work with good people and beautiful things happen.” More so, apparently, when you add good horses.