The idea for incorporating horses into Freedom Firm's aftercare program originated with Mala Malstead in 2006. While spending her teen years in the U.S. after growing up on the OM ship Logos, working with horses after school was a stabilizing and healing activity. Horses provided a healthy alternative to the activities that attracted most of her peers. Working with horses taught her responsibility, care, and the value of hard work. This experience was the seed for Freedom Firm’s therapeutic horse program.
When Mala and her husband Greg and their family of four moved to the mountain town of Ooty, Tamil Nadu, India, Mala realized it was the perfect place for horses and the perfect place for girls who had been deeply traumatized through sex-trafficking. Unlike most places in India, Ooty was full of horses. A two-hundred-year-old racetrack formed a green nucleus in the center of the city and every year 700 racehorses were brought from around India for a two-month season of racing. Local men ran tourist horse rides year-round through the town.
With the inception of the Aftercare home and Freedom Firm's first rescued girls, Freedom Firm’s horse program began with two horses rescued as racetrack cast-offs. Jade and Caspian were neglected thoroughbreds; Mala, her children, and the rescued girls had many experiences caring for them. Rescued girl Kasturi was in the aftercare home in Ooty during Caspian’s time and related to his fear-driven habits of biting and kicking. Confiding in Mala, Kasturi shared that she felt like Caspian in her desire to attack people when she was afraid and angry.
In 2008, Onima, Jamilla, Sasi, and Reha resided in the Freedom Firm aftercare home. The girls varied in their enjoyment of the horses. Onima was the most receptive. She often worked with Mala and the horses and enjoyed showing other girls how to do the same. Jamilla was extremely resistant. She didn’t naturally take a liking to the horses, and it was often a battle to get her to even come. Sasi seemed disengaged or neutral during most of the horse therapy sessions. Reha was willing and interested when she was present.
Anne Walters, former employee of Crystal Peaks Youth Ranch, joined Leg Up in 2009-2012 as horse therapy director of Leg Up and took over many of the responsibilities of growing the program from Mala. She focused on teaching the girls the foundation of trust, respect, and understanding (or communication) required in working with horses and the cross-overs into human relationships.
When rescued girl Esther first arrived in Ooty, (then Rizwana), she had recently given a baby up for adoption. Anne introduced her to Hercules, an orphaned pony, hoping that she might begin healing through the time spent with him. She had many questions about him and how his mother died. Later that week we discovered that Esther's own mother had died when she was young. She had been relating to Hercules not as a mother, but as a child who had lost a mother. She consistently shows compassion for the horses in ways we haven’t seen her express for people. This is an example of the bridge horse therapy has the potential to create. Encouraging compassion and empathy for horses helps troubled individuals express the same towards people.
The first three years of Leg Up focused on the rescued girls as the recipients of therapy. As we analyzed the results of the program we felt that something more that needed to be done. Too often the girls took advantage of therapy time, either rebelling against staff or fighting with other girls during the peer session.
In 2010, we began working with local groups of disabled children to provide therapy with the help of the rescued girls. Initially, we started this simply because we wanted the ponies to be used more often during the week. Very quickly we realized that we had stumbled on something powerful.
Suddenly, instead of therapy being solely focused on the girls and their needs, therapy was focused on disabled children. The girls became peers with the Leg Up staff; they became volunteers; they were on the same level. They had to mature and reach out and show compassion. We saw a huge leap in their levels of growth, responsibility, and empathy. They stopped focusing on their own pain and instead became incredibly thankful that God had given them fully functional bodies and minds. They stopped feeling sorry for themselves and instead began to see all the blessings God had provided.
Today, Leg Up reaches two distinct groups: girls rescued from prostitution and poverty-stricken disabled children. We believe that horse therapy effectively teaches compassion when rescued girls focus not on themselves, but on others. A documentary called Horse And Rider follows the lives of two of our rescued girls, Asha and Mangala. During the last 5 minutes of the film, Asha says, “These children cannot walk and cannot talk, but God has given me two hands and two legs. God has given me a good life..." When a girl who has been raped multiple times can say that, we know the horse program, Leg Up, has played a powerful part in her understanding of God.
Anne Walters left Leg Up in 2012, and Mala Malstead resumed directorship. In 2013 Laura Webster joined Leg Up for a year and facilitated a partnership between Hebron School and Leg Up. Many school children participated twice a week to help provide therapy at a local home for disabled children.
Today, horse therapy is a regular Saturday morning event, with four or five rescued girls, Mala, her children, and other volunteers who join together for a couple hours of serving anywhere from 5-8 disabled children. An additional 50-70 rescued girls from all over India participate in a Leg Up riding day as part of the Avalanche camps each year.