Reaching Out


Thanks to Charlottetown Deputy Police Chief Gary McGuigan, a handful of standardbred ­broodmares have opened the door to new ­possibilities for troubled youth in the local ­community.

By Keith McCalmont
Photos by Alanna's Photo

A childhood set in the lush landscape of Prince Edward Island should be one filled with good friends and the spirit of adventure. But behind the familiar façade of a playground paradise is a life of despair and alienation for the children and teens of the Youth Intervention Outreach Program in Charlottetown. Intent on giving back to his community, Charlottetown Deputy Police Chief Gary McGuigan has opened up his home -- and his broodmare barn -- to help these youths that might otherwise be incarcerated.

The problems facing them are myriad. “Addiction is a huge one,” says youth and family worker Jane Wood. “There are mental health issues. ADHD. Low self esteem. Lack of empathy. A lack of structure. Anger. There are a lot of angry kids out there. Many have unstable homes, or no homes to go to at all. We’re having a lot of housing issues lately.”

Fortunately for the growing number of wayward youths in the program, 50-year-old McGuigan has a few equine mothers willing to step up and offer silent, non-judgmental support at his farm in Mount Herbert. “It’s about four acres just on the outskirts of town and we have two broodmares. It’s not a big spot, but it does fit the bill for us,” says the deputy police chief of his family home, where each season two young offenders are offered a positive alternative. “We assign the kids a horse to work with. We’ll take them in six or seven weeks prior to the mare’s foaling date and let them work around the mare and build up a relationship. We give them horsemanship tips and grooming tips and tell them what to look for when the mare shows signs that they’re getting close to foaling.”

And the program fits the bill for a number of troubled teens that so desperately need to belong to something -- perhaps the first time, to something positive.

Chuck MacPherson, a youth intervention outreach worker who liaises between the Office of the Attorney General and the Charlottetown Police, steps in, where possible, to place troubled youths into diversionary programs and keep them out of the court system. “Chuck works with kids that are just on the cusp of being in trouble with the law,” explains Wood. “Gary came to Chuck with this idea of bringing kids out to do horse work.”

Out of the turmoil facing troubled youth widens a void that can fill quickly with destructive past-times. Such was the case for a Jill (a child who, for legal purposes, can only be identified here by her first name). “She was getting involved with people who were stealing vehicles and ­property,” says Wood. “She had addiction issues. She would take anything or do anything. And she was a very angry kid. Not too many people could work with her. I forged a good connection with her so I could at least talk to her about her life.”

Jill was just 12 years old when first introduced to Wood and well down a path destined to life on the wrong side of the law. Jill’s one-way street to certain incarceration would cross paths, however, just a few short years later, with McGuigan’s intervention program, built around caring for his broodmares Entry System and Southview Minnie.

“Horses are a foundation for kids,” explains McGuigan. “A lot of the kids we deal with don’t have access to this type of stuff. They won’t see the benefit of horses. They’re not going to riding school. They’re not going to summer camp. They don’t play in any structured sports. So they have a lot of distractions and a lot of time on their hands and often that leads to conflicts with the law. What we try to do with the horses is give them an outlet and let them see a different side of us as policemen. We try to help them make a connection not only with the horses, but with the police.”

Jill was living in a group home at the time of the intervention and was not on speaking terms with her family. So at McGuigan’s barn, she was not only partnered with Southview Minnie, but also integrated into a structured family life. “I open up the barn to the kids, of course, but we open up the house to the kids too,” says McGuigan. “My wife is involved. My daughter is around. We do our barn work and we try and capture those teachable moments and reinforce all the positive things that the kids do. So anything they do well with the horses, we try and reinforce that with positive feedback. When the barn work is done, we go in and have something to eat and keep things normal for the kids.”

As a troubled­ teen, Jill had not often displayed the respect, patience or commitment to complete even a semester of school, but under the watchful eye of McGuigan’s mares, the good in Jill began to come out. “Gary talked when we first got out there about how your behaviour affects the horses and how the horses can sense if you’re having a bad day or if you’re angry,” says Wood. “Whatever you’re feeling, the horses can sense that, and we could really see that. If Jill was having a rough day, Minnie or Entry would be pacing back and forth -- and my job is a tad stressful, so I’d be thinking it was me. Jill and I would talk about what our day was like and you could just see the horse start to calm down. I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t seen it for myself.”

As the mares settled, so would Jill as she unburdened her worries on a counsellor who could offer only a nose to nuzzle or a whinny of encouragement.

“I’d say, Jill, ‘just tell the horse what’s going on in your life,’” recalls Wood. “So she’d start talking to the horse and it was incredible to see how her head would come down. The mare would relax and Jill really liked that part of it. Once after sharing the story of a particularly rough day with the horses, she said, ‘I don’t know why, Jane, but I fe­el so much better after that.”

Over the six weeks, Jill flourished and found comfort in the routine and responsibility of caring for her mare.

“I think Gary would agree she was excellent out there,” says Wood. “She never showed any anger towards Gary and was very respectful of him and his family. She’d take down the feedbags without being asked. She knew how to groom the horses. I think she just felt comfortable. It was a very welcoming environment. When Gary was there he wasn’t in his uniform. He was just Gary the farmer.”

­Gary the farmer still remembers what it was like to be a kid, and wants to share his experience with those who need it most. “When I was a kid I hung around the racetrack in Charlottetown,” says McGuigan softly. “When I was 13, my father passed away, and so I started to spend more time around the horses and I really got to appreciate the therapeutic value these animals have. I thought that maybe I could use my horses to pass on some of those gifts to other kids that might benefit from it.”

Though McGuigan is clearly on the straightest and narrowest of paths now, the deputy police chief is fully versed in the slippery slope of adolescence. “For the grace of God, we could all have taken different paths,” says McGuigan. “I would credit horses with keeping me out of trouble. And not only horses, but also some of the people around the horses. There are ­people in the harness industry that are good mentors and have a lot to share.”

McGuigan is in the preliminary stages of expanding the program to include on-track experience at Charlottetown Driving Park. “Not all kids are academics,” he points out, “and the school system does have programs in place where they could get some credits for non-­traditional work. If they could go and spend some time with one of the trainers in the mornings and maybe have to write an essay about it, for instance… I don’t see why this couldn’t work for some kids.”

Ultimately, the goal is not only to keep kids off the streets and out of trouble, but also to open other avenues of opportunity.

“If we can get kids involved in an early age in diversionary programs, I think it bodes well for everybody. I won’t say these programs are going to work for everybody, because sometimes they don’t. There are kids that need to be incarcerated,” warns McGuigan. “But there are diversionary programs that will work for [a lot of] these kids. You just have to find out what they like. They all have potential, they all have strengths and they all have weaknesses, but if you can do something to help bring out these strengths and help them discover who they are it bodes well for their future -- especially in small communities like ours.”

For young Jill, caring for the mare would end in yet another moment of tragedy when Minnie lost her foal, but this time it was a tragedy that would embolden the youth. “Jill was living in a group home and she wanted to go visit her mother and her mother didn’t want to see her,” recalls McGuigan. “Shortly after that, the mare had a stillborn foal. It was interesting to see this girl take on a mothering roll for the mare after her own mother had rejected her. Seeing how caring she was to that horse, you realize it’s all relative. It's amazing that she could form that bond and talk to the horse and just have empathy for her when she herself was dealing with a lot of baggage.”

­The care shown by Jill struck a different chord with Wood. “I was really nervous about how Jill would react,” Wood recalls. “But when I told her about the foal, she really felt bad for the mare and for Gary and his family. The fact that she showed that kind of empathy for a family she had met just six weeks before is a big success.”

Jill may have been a child with rough edges, but the commitment demonstrated to her job at McGuigan’s farm and the compassion displayed through Minnie’s tragedy served as a timely reminder of the potential within the lost youth of the Intervention Outreach Program. “They weren’t born this way,” Wood points out. “They’ve gone through a lot of stuff and they just need some people to give them a chance to show the good they have in them. Her self-esteem went up after being a part of this. She still is interested in what Gary is doing and we talk about the horses and I show her pictures and she’s interested in that.”

Jill’s time in the program has now passed, and the event was marked by a graduation ceremony presided over by McGuigan and his family. It was likely the first graduation the teen had ever experienced, and the benefit of that brief mentorship is now blossoming. “She’s in another program and working through some more issues,” says Wood. “She went back to school and finished some school courses. She’s never finished a semester of school ever.

“Her addiction went from a ten to a three and she’s hardly using any drugs or alcohol. She’s doing much better. She won’t ever have the most perfect life because she’s had an awful life up until now -- but she’s going to be as successful as she can be. The little successes are what we look for.”