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For the love of horses

Big trips to the Badlands in South Dakota happen yearly for the Bagosendaan riders -- a big incentive for teens to attend school regularly and stay off of drugs and alcohol.

When 20-year-old Georgia Goodwin was just becoming a teenager, she didn't think a whole lot of herself.

"I was very self-conscious and had a low self esteem," said Goodwin, "I was not sure of myself; I just kept my head down and went along my way."

In stark contrast was her sister, Quinne, two years younger than her and what she describes as very outgoing.

"She was the princess for the White Earth Powwow that year," said Goodwin, "so they requested her to ride in it."

By "ride," Goodwin means ride horse.

"And I remember hanging up the phone and telling my mom, 'mom, I really want to ride, too.'"

Both sisters began learning the skill of horseback riding for the event, and it was at that moment that life began to change for Goodwin.

"I fell in love with it," she said, enunciating every word carefully as if truly meaning it.

Around that time, an ex-horse trainer from Mahnomen named Dave McNamee and a group of volunteers were just starting up a horse-riding club for at-risk teens on the White Earth Indian Reservation called Bagosendaan.

"That means 'hope' in Ojibwe," said Goodwin, who ended up finding exactly that in the group.

She and the other members would meet roughly three times a week in the summer and less often in the winter.

The Bagosendaan progam has 16 horses that are kept outside of Mahnomen, some of which have been donated by community members or are on loan to the program.

"The goal of the group is to get good kids out of that life of drugs and alcohol ... that vicious cycle that kind of takes hold on the reservation," said Goodwin.

Strict rules in the Bagosendaan riding group are aimed at keeping kids on the straight and narrow path.

They have to show up to the rides on a very regular basis; they have to have a good attendance record at school and they cannot do drugs or alcohol.

"We get approval by the parents to do drug testing," said Becky Halonen, one of the main coordinators of the program, "so when they start, they know they are going to have to make a real commitment."

Halonen says since the program started seven years ago, they haven't had to kick anybody out, but teens have tested positive for drugs.

"We tell them they can't ride until they're clean, and I don't mean clean for one testing -- it's a process to earn their way back in," said Halonen.

In addition to going on rides, the group also works on "Rhythm Rides" where they'll practice a routine set to music.

But the group isn't just about horses -- it's about helping the teens find themselves and their potential.

Starting out with a native prayer, the teens participate in "talking circles," where they go around one by one and talk about different issues.

"This is where life problems and life values get discussed, and everybody is so good at keeping this confidential, so they start feeling safe and like it's a place they can trust," said Halonen, "once that happens, they really start growing."

Halonen says the program doesn't end up clicking for everybody, but for the select few, it can be life changing -- like it was for young Georgia Goodwin.

"It built my self-confidence up so much," said Goodwin, "It taught me to trust in myself because when you're out in the Badlands and trying to scale a slippery hill, you can't second-guess yourself because if you do, the horse won't trust you. That's when you get hurt, so it proved to me that I could put my mind to something and I could achieve it."

Halonen says she not only found good friends in the Bagosendaan group, but a deep friendship with one of her horses that is almost unexplainable.

"I loved how I could work with this 1,000-pound animal and feel like we're actually a team," said Goodwin, "Nothing beats flying across a pasture at a fast speed ... you feel so free."

Program coordinators are hoping other teens feel that same freedom in their lives, as adult volunteers work on helping them see life in a positive light.

"We've heard from school counselors that we actually change the kids' vocabulary," said Halonen, "when these kids grow up in an economically depressed household where there isn't always good things happening, they hear a whole different kind of language. But when they're with people who work on a ranch all day, they pick up life skills and hear positivity."

Mahnomen High School Principal Ramona Miller says they always do what they can to support the program because it has done wonders for the kids' attendance.

"The girls that are in it know that Becky checks with us to see what their attendance is, what their behavior is, what their grades are," said Miller, "and especially when they know they have a big trip coming up or a performance, it really snaps up; it's a good incentive for them."

Out of the roughly 18-24 teens that belong to the group, not all of them are "troubled," but Halonen says when they select the members, they want them to be kids who wouldn't normally have a chance to be involved with horseback riding.

They start working with the riders when they're between the ages of 10 and 12, and once they graduate from high school, they can only be involved as an adult volunteer like Georgia Goodwin -- now a vet tech student who remembers when she once walked with her head down.

"Not anymore, though," said Goodwin, "You can't see much when you do that."

For more information on the Bagosendaan program or to donate to it, log on to or call 218-935-2964.