Leaning W Outreach: Equine Therapy for Vets and At-risk Youth by Andrea Cruz

Leaning W Outreach: Equine Therapy for Vets and At-risk Youth 
By Andrea Cruz

Everyone has a story. Some are are exciting, some lackluster, some lucky, some not so lucky, and some dark. But where’s there’s dark, there’s often light. Stories change, and when the change proves to be a positive one, a happy ending surely provides the best kind of story.

Richard Wilder has one such dark-turned-light story with a happy ending. He runs Leaning W Outreach, a non-profit incorporated in 2011, dedicated to helping veterans and at-risk youth through equine therapy. The 18.5-acre property, located off of US 98 in north at 2620 Earnest Rd. in Lakeland, is home to Wilder, his wife, and seven horses.

The property, once a thicket that included a dump, has been cleared little by little over the past two years by Wilder, volunteers, veterans, and at-risk youth. The work is hard, but the payoff of having an open ranch space for the ministry that Leaning W provides is worthwhile.

A self-described “talker,” Wilder, 63, is no stranger to hard work. His life story in itself is a turbulent and dark one, complete with prison time and many lives hurt along the way. However, he credits his unstable past – and his relationship with God – to his being able to help others also find their way out of the dark.

“I wrote the book on anger management,” Wilder says. “I look back on my mistakes and count them as my blessings.”

A historical re-enactor and Vietnam veteran, Wilder says he returned from the war as a young man searching for the same adrenalin rushes he frequently experienced overseas. He found those same euphoric feelings from participating in criminal activities, such as running drugs up the east coast from Miami with other post-war vets.

“Everything that we escorted always got through, and we made a little money. But it was never about the money. For that particular crew there was a void there and we couldn’t fill it,” he says.

Falling in with the wrong people and making poor choices didn’t end there, and Wilder found himself incarcerated a few times. Although a model prisoner – while inside he started the Jaycees, ran Toys for Tots, and the Scared Straight program, among others – he realized he had a short fuse. He also had a spiritual experience in prison and now believes he was protected by divine intervention all along, even while associating with criminals.

“When I started this organization, there were those who were telling me not to share my prison experiences, not to share the fact that I’m an ex-offender because it could turn some people off,” Wilder says, “but that’s a part of my life. I did those things, I can’t get around it. So I share those things in hopes that it can help somebody.”

Having paid his debt to society and apologized to those who would hear him, Wilder’s path was still troubled by his wartime experiences. Diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, he began going to therapy. During this process, he was asked what he liked to do for relaxation. Wilder’s answers were simply: chess and horseback riding.

“He said forget the chess,” Wilder says of the therapist. “I asked him why and he said because chess is combative.”

The therapist advised riding horses instead. Wilder took the advice and realized the more he rode, the more his stress levels went down, and depression ceased.

A self-taught horse trainer, Wilder says he stays in foundation-level training, which is teaching the horses from the very beginning to stay levelheaded, and giving them basic ground rules. Wilder says he has the same approaches and principles when working with veterans and at-risk youth.

Veterans from the Tampa and Orlando domiciliaries, many of whom also have PTSD, come to Leaning W Outreach monthly. Wilder says he offers a space where they can simply “be” if that’s what they want. They don’t have to socialize, they don’t have to work; they can fish in either of the two ponds on the property, lounge in hammocks, sit around a campfire, or find a bench on a trail and take in the quiet scenery.

Wilder says he never stops working on the property and many of the vets choose to pitch in. Several of the structures, including a horseshoe pit, a round pen and bucket arena to train the horses, were built by visiting veterans. They also help with horse care and training.

At-risk youth often come to Leaning W to fulfill community service hours or via programs meant to curb unruly behavior. Wilder, who believes that all youth are “at risk,” not just a certain type of youth, says the kids – mostly teenagers – find solace in grooming, training and riding the horses.

Known to most everyone as “Mr. Richard,” Wilder is famous for his tell-it-like-it-is approach, says Leaning W board member, veteran, and volunteer, Larry McCalley.

“He’s harsh but he’s very fair,” McCalley says. “He doesn’t pull any punches. He doesn’t sugar coat things.”

McCalley has been witness to how Wilder’s approach works with both vets and teenagers. He says he was fortunate enough to interview a mother whose teenage daughter has been in the program going on two years now. He says the talk had many tear-jerking moments.

“I watched (the teenager) grow in the program,” he says. “She was a typical, out-of-control, disrespectful teen – borderline being put to the curb.”

“Something hit a nerve and she made a 180 turn and started going in the exact opposite direction,” McCalley says. In addition to finding something that interests them, he says the teens realize that someone cares for them and want to teach them something. That is life changing, he says.

That teen’s mother, Lakeland resident Beth Massey, came out with her daughter and participated as a volunteer, which ultimately brought them closer and built a respect between them that had been missing.

Massey says that her 17-year-old daughter, who is bipolar, began the program when she was 15. Two-hour screaming fits and constant disrespectful behavior were enough to enroll her daughter in a diversion program, where she first attended art classes. There the single mother learned about Leaning W Outreach from another mother. They came out to try it and have been attending an average of once a week for the two years since.

Massey’s daughter does tasks such as mucking stalls, working with and grooming the horses, and tacking them up (put riding equipment on). She also takes riding lessons while at Leaning W.

“Since she’s been going out there she doesn’t yell at me, she doesn’t hit me. It’s totally turned her around; she really enjoys it,” Massey says.

“There were days when I was giving up hope,” she says, “and after I got a hold of (Wilder) it has made a world of difference.”

“Everything he does out there has an ulterior motive,” Massey says. “They think they’re doing a certain thing just because, but it always has another meaning to it.”

The round pen where the horses train, for example, isn’t a typical round pin made with lumber. Instead it’s made with piled sticks that have been gathered and piled when clearing the property.

Before anyone – vet or teen – goes in to work the horse in the round pen, Wilder, who’s dubbed the round pin the “circle of life,” walks around it pulling branches out, pointing them toward the center.

The branches that are pulled out, they represent the problems that you encounter in your personal life,” Wilder says. “You can take care of those right then and address them in some way so that they no longer are a burden.”

The branches on the outside of the round pen are metaphors for the problems of friends and associates; he advises those in therapy not to take on the problems of others.

Letting go of one’s problems is the whole point of Leaning W, according to Wilder. They have no professional counselors on staff – it’s just Wilder and any board members or volunteers – and they practice equine therapy, although it’s not in any traditional way. He says the simple act of putting one’s hands on a horse is relaxing.

“Some people are afraid of the horses, but before they leave they’re touching a horse,” Wilder says. “I make a big deal out of it because they have accomplished something; they’ve conquered a fear and I say if you can conquer that fear, what can you do with other aspects of your life if you put your mind to it?”

There is no charge to veterans or at-risk youth to experience Leaning W Outreach. Vets can come out for free, camp two nights, bring family members, have a picnic, help out around the property or not. At-risk youth can visit whenever they want during the day, seven days a week. Wilder says he’d rather see them there than out on the streets getting in trouble.

Due to lack of funding, Wilder, who provides 95% of the monies needed for Leaning W from his own disability check, repurposes many items to accomplish what he needs to. A jack-of-all-trades, he also does most of the property’s upkeep, maintenance, and even a few duties normally reserved for a veterinarian.

Wilder says the other 5% of funding comes from discounts from Lakeland Cash Feed, which helps with feed and hay, as well as a “Sponsor a Horse” program. For $162 a month anyone can sponsor one of the Leaning W horses. In addition, Wilder and fellow board members, all of whom are vets except one, dress in period clothing and charge for speaking engagements, re-enacting the stories of the Buffalo Soldiers, Negro Cavalry, and “colored” soldiers, as African-American military servicemen were called from the late 1700s to 1944.

Board member and fellow re-enactor and veteran H.L. Williams says much of what is needed is prayed for and comes to pass, something he says is very special.

“Not anyone can do what he’s doing; it takes a special person to be able to pull things together,” Williams says.

Volunteers, including Boy Scouts earning equine badges and doing community projects, help to pull everything together as well. Monetary donations would be helpful, but Wilder says he’s more interested in getting more helping hands in the form of volunteers and getting the word out. The organization is also currently in dire need of a tow vehicle to pull the horse trailer.

For more info call 863-255-8663 or visit the Facebook page of Leaning W Youth Outreach.