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Taking the reins to help troubled young people

Olmos Park attorney champions equine-therapy program for kids

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Olmos Park resident Rebecca Jo Reser enjoys a career as a successful attorney, but the lifelong horsewoman finds her association with an equine organization changing young lives just as rewarding.

A shareholder with Davidson, Troilo, Ream & Garza PC specializing in civil litigation, Reser remains deeply involved in an innovative program known as Children and Horses Always Produce Success, or CHAPS, which works with kids under the supervision of the Bexar County Juvenile Probation Department.

“What we are doing is cutting-edge and unique,” she said. “When we started, there was only one probation department in the country doing equine-assisted therapy for kids. Now we hope to develop metrics and publish so others can replicate the program.”

CHAPS and the Salado Wilderness Trail, located on 29 acres next to the Cyndi Taylor Krier Juvenile Correctional Treatment Center, were created to help change the attitudes and life paths of young offenders.

Both programs were formed with help from the Equine Advisory Council. The council, in turn, is part of Partners for Youth, a nationally recognized public-private partnership created in 1972 to assist with positive youth development and help prevent juvenile delinquency.

Reser is one of the founding members and the president of the council, working to raise funds and friends for CHAPS and the wilderness trail.

“Jo’s leadership is important. She and the council have raised money, supported the staff and brought community volunteers to create this valuable therapeutic program,” said state 225th District Court Judge Peter Sakai, whose work to help children and families has won national renown.

“Studies have shown that children who are juvenile offenders most likely come out of abusive or neglectful homes. Equine therapy is a valuable tool to help break the cycle,” he added.

Reser’s love of horses developed early, when her family moved to Wheeler Air Force Base in Hawaii. Her father, a fighter pilot and Air Force colonel, was stationed there.

“For $10 a month, you could get a piece of land in the mountains, fence it off and build paddocks,” Reser said. “We got horses and took care of them, and we rode all over the island. My father organized horse shows on the base, and built hundreds of jumps for me.”

The experience shaped Reser’s life. She won championships in English and western riding, as well as eventing. Her dean at Stanford University told her riding had been a factor in her acceptance.

She realized early that most of her serious competition came from people with expensively bred and trained horses.

“A lot of the people who could afford $10,000 horses were doctors and lawyers. I wanted horses like those. I sometimes say I became a lawyer to support my horse habit,” she quipped.

Her “horse habit” has continued unabated through marriage, raising two daughters and a legal career that includes big cases in product liability, medical malpractice and construction claims.

Today she has three horses — Kim, Xena and Greguar — stabled north of town. Greguar is an Akhal-Teke, an unusual breed with roots in Turkmenistan. Reser has become fast friends with the Russian couple who brought the breed to Texas, and has helped set up the first Akhal-Teke registry in the United States.

Reser was one of the first to be involved with the idea of CHAPS, long before the program existed.

Aware of the benefits of equine therapy, she believed children in detention could learn lessons in skill, patience and loyalty working with horses.

She met with state District Judges Joe Brown and Andy Mireles in the 1990s to start laying the groundwork.

In recent years, grants from several organizations paid for a covered arena, stalls, equipment and much more. A 2016 grant from Impact San Antonio funded the new Salado Wilderness Trail.

Theresa Scheets, a veteran in the Juvenile Probation Department, has been program manager for CHAPS and the Salado trail for almost two years.

“When CHAPS first opened in 2012, it was just for kids held in the Cyndi Taylor Krier Center. We have expanded it to kids on probation in the community,” she said. “Our classes are skill-building and relationship-building. It builds patience and trust. It slows kids down. You can’t force a thousand-pound animal to do something. The child has to listen, not just respond.”

Scheets said many youngsters want to keep working with horses when their nine- or 11-week programs finish.

“Our 2019 goal is developing relationships with small stables around town where they might continue to work with animals,” she said.

Involvement with area 4-H programs is another way to continue the transition into community life.

Leslie Komet Ausburn, a longtime community volunteer, is the newest Equine Advisory Council member.

“When I first visited the CHAPS facility, I was watching the kids with their horses,” she said. “One was having a hard time with his horse. He told the instructor, ‘It doesn’t like me. It won’t do what I say!’ The trainer said, ‘Let’s try some new things…’  I could see the deep connection to real life. Equine therapy is amazing. It is wonderful to see how we can help kids turn their lives around.”

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