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For some people struggling with addictions, spending time with horses is healing

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

We're in horse country outside of Philadelphia, a city that struggles with addiction, crime and a lack of adequate services for those in recovery. But here in Malvern, it's cool, leafy and golden. A 30-year-old man who wants to be known only as Isaiah, as he's still in rehab, tells us of a moment last year when he was on meth or crack cocaine or heroin or oxycodone or just about anything he could get. Then one night in the middle of the night...

ISAIAH: I was laying down on a train track, and I was like, I got to do something different with my life. You know, what am I doing just laying here, you know, high and drunk?

SIMON: You were laying down on the train track.

ISAIAH: Yeah.

SIMON: Did you want a train to come?

ISAIAH: I mean, in my head, I kind of wanted, you know, just to sleep and never wake up again, really. I just laid there for a while, and, yeah, that's when I had that light bulb. It just switched on in my head and told me to get some help.

SIMON: But finding help to overcome drug addiction can be hard, stigmatizing and demanding. It's rarely a one-stop success. People try. They fall back. They come back, fail and try all over again if they can make it even that far. The two men with whom we spent a recent morning in Philadelphia's countryside have found something sturdy and solid that seems to help, horses in a program called Gateway HorseWorks that lets them put their hands on horses to groom and care for them. It helps those humans who are trying to recover feel strength and understanding, and kindles a kind of kinship between people and horses. A 33-year-old man who wants only to be identified by his first initial, T, who's also in recovery, is an alcoholic. He meets other people with similar struggles who come to this barn.

T: You start hearing their stories and everything like that, and then you finally start relating and stuff like that, and it helps. And it's very similar to the horses, actually, because these are rescue horses. I believe Willow is a racehorse, yeah, that was going to be slaughtered. So we all kind of, like, share, like, this trauma really.

SIMON: You and the horses.

T: Yeah, and another addicts and alcoholics, so it kind of helps when we all come together and we talk about our issues and everything like that. It just feels like the horses are, you know, kind of like - they're the same, basically.

SIMON: People who come to the Gateway program get to know the horses by name - Disney, Nova, Willow, Remi and Dallas - and even by their personalities.

T: I mean, you look into their eyes. Oh, my God. Like, they're - they have a lot of emotion. They're all different too. Like, some of them are, you know, more shy. Some of them are more rambunctious or whatnot. Yeah, some of them kind of, like, nuzzle you and stuff, but some of them also give you the cold eye or the cold shoulder, so...

SIMON: Was it something you said?

T: Yeah. Yeah, like, also, like, Nova the pony is very, very tough. But, yeah, she's dealing with a sickness, though, I believe, so I think it's really sad actually too.

SIMON: So being here is helping you hold on.

T: Yes, definitely. Oh, my god. I think being here is where I've actually talked the most out of the last couple months, really. I don't really like to talk, but, I don't know, once I'm here it just feels a lot better.

SIMON: Isaiah, how do you feel when you're with the horses?

ISAIAH: I don't really worry about anything but the present with them, you know? I love petting them. You know, I was hugging him the other week. Friend of mine - he died. He passed away. He overdosed. And it sucked for me 'cause he was one of the friends that I pushed away 'cause I told myself if I don't push people away - you know, as corny as that sounds, but that stuff is real, you know? - I'm going to start, like, going back into my old ways, so I had to push everybody away. Like, man, I didn't get to make any amends, you know, say I'm sorry or try to make up. I thought we were going to be, like, you know, in our 50s, 60s or something, laughing, looking back on life. And that's sadly not how it is. It's not a movie. You never know what's going to happen. But I was tearing up. I was hurting inside. And as soon as I got to the horses, it made my day better.

KRISTEN DE MARCO: The unique thing about horses is that they haven't read your file.

SIMON: Kristen de Marco is the founder of Gateway HorseWorks.

DE MARCO: They don't care how many times you've relapsed or what your count is in recovery...

SIMON: Yeah.

DE MARCO: ...Or, you know, what...

SIMON: That's true.

DE MARCO: ...If you've been incarcerated. None of that matters. You get a clean slate with them that you don't get with other people.

SIMON: We accompany Isaiah and T into the barn, where they feed and brush the horses and clean their stalls. They also hear the stories of the horses they help care for. Kristen de Marco tells us about Nova, who's a pony.

DE MARCO: She was at an auction for slaughter before she...

SIMON: Oh, my God.

DE MARCO: ...Was pulled to come here...

SIMON: Oh, my God.

DE MARCO: ...As was Willow. Rimtania was facing euthanasia. Dallas was found, you know, malnourished and lame and probably faced a similar fate. And they can have a different ending, just like the people that we work with.

SIMON: Isaiah seems to have a special affinity with the horse named Disney. He puts his forehead lightly along the horse's snout and a hand against its neck.

ISAIAH: I feel peace, and it's cool too, 'cause you're like, we're both vulnerable. Like, they don't know my intentions with them. I don't know, like, their intention. Like, if he does this, I'm going to, you know, act this way. But it's like that mutual connection that, you know, like, we just give each other respect and love.

SIMON: Disney really seems to take to you.

ISAIAH: That and Willow sometimes. Remy, she's kind of in her little moods I think a couple of these days. But yeah, I love them all. They just feel you out and just respect and accept you, you know? And I do with them too, you know, 'cause they've been through a lot of stuff. Willow, when she was racing, they branded her and stuff, you know? So you already know she kind of got some trauma, but it looks like she's healed from it 'cause she's calming, you know? This place is a better place than where she was going to go.

SIMON: And T, who struggles with alcoholism, adds...

T: They're helping us out just by listening, by being here.

SIMON: Think they know that they're helping?

T: I think so. I believe so, yeah, 'cause they try their best to, you know, help us stay calm for letting us brush them, letting us pet them and talk to them and everything like that. And that's the reason why me and Isaiah wanted to do a service for them. We mucked that day, and we try our best to, you know, brush them and give them treats whenever we can.

SIMON: It is hard to say why some approaches to rehab help some people or don't, or for how long and why. Recovery programs can surround someone with love and understanding, but at some point they have to set sail back under the rough, cold seas of real life. And we're told this week that one of the people with whom we spoke this fall at Gateway HorseWorks is still in the program. The other has left. But this week, in this season, we think of Isaiah and T and the barn at Gateway HorseWorks and of the horses they touched and who reached into their hearts to help them ride through tough times.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.