A Helping Hand Project H3LP! focuses on horses, humans and honesty
September 29, 2016
Guthrie Ducheneaux doesn't usually have bad days. Not because nothing ever goes wrong in his life, but because he won't let it turn into a bad day. "I try my hardest every day to never have a bad day. So I'm doing alright."
That positivity is a thread that runs through his whole family on the DX Ranch and weaves the foundation of Project H3LP!, a non-profit organization designed to use horses and horsemanship to teach "lifemanship" to disadvantaged youth.
The DX Ranch is located on the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation and operated by Guthrie, his brothers Zach and Bud, cousin Burt Dillabaugh, and Zach's "better half," Jenn Zeller. Their sister, Colette Reule, is a doctor in Mobridge and their brother-in-law Buck Ruele pitches in during haying season. Another sister, Lorelei Anderson, takes time out from her job to help on the ranch, especially when the ranch work calls for a lot of food, Zach says. Their third sister was killed in a 4-wheeler accident in 2008. Their brother, Wayne Ducheneaux II, is on the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribal Council.
Zach's daughter, Kelsey, returned to the ranch as project director for Project H3LP! while she pursues a Master's degree in integrated resource management online.
"Ours is a true family operation, rather than several individuals each pursuing their own venture without the support of the others," Zach says. "Each of us involved has our own strengths and weaknesses that are very well complemented by the others. As a result you'll more often hear us talk about 'our place' or 'the ranch' rather than 'my cows' or 'your haying operation.'"
Nearly every day finds at least some of the family gathered around their mom's kitchen table. Regina Ducheneaux has lived on the ranch since she and her husband Wayne bought it from Wayne's father in 1965. Wayne passed away a few years ago, but every day, Regina puts the noon meal on the table for about 10 members of the family—"not too many," she says.
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"I'm really proud that they're trying to get this through. I've got a good bunch of kids," she says. "We were pretty strict with them, hoping they'd turn out pretty good."
Guthrie credits his parents for the positive, stable foundation of his life. "Their style of parenting is kind of a perpendicular path from where their parents tried to take them, and it worked out pretty good for us." As one of seven kids growing up on a reservation with one of the highest poverty levels in the nation, his life could have looked a lot different.
"If we would have grown up any other way we wouldn't have been in a place, when the opportunity arose, to appreciate and take advantage of the opportunities," he said.
Zach agrees. "Our folks…provided us all with the best foundation for pursuing our collective dreams and aspirations. A critical part of that foundation was always having a place to be free from judgment, where universal acceptance of whatever our goals might be could be expected; and a positive outlook on life was the norm. We hope to provide a taste of that environment to others."
Guthrie has worked in the school system for several years and saw interactions between students and teachers that escalated, when simply a different attitude by one of the people involved could have diffused the situation.
One day he saw a negative interaction between a student and a teacher and when he got home that evening, Zach was working with a young horse. "I noticed the look on the horse's face wasn't too different from the look on the kid's face earlier that day. Zach was able to get around the negativity. For the horse—and the kid—it was more a protective thing than an aggressive thing. Because of the way we were brought up and the way we were taught to deal with stuff, the tools were there to help Zach. We realized we had something bigger than what Zach and I had been talking about."
They have already begun building both the physical and metaphorical foundations for the organization. "Ever since I was first exposed to this way with horses, I've wanted to build a facility to grow, explore, and share with others," Zach says. "After we bought our parents out of the operation, we decided it was time, so we had a partial liquidation of the cowherd and invested in the indoor arena with living quarters and bunkhouses in the spring of 2013."
The next step is to start hosting interns year-round, who—they hope—will come back as instructors for beginning students.
Zach and Jenn study horsemanship in the style of Ray Hunt, Tom Dorrance, Buck Brannaman, Curt Pate and several others, and want to communicate the accompanying principles of cooperation, non-aggression and positivity to their students.
"The more effective a person can become at controlling their emotions, being aware of situations in which they find themselves and how/what effect they have on other people, the more effective that individual can become in life," Jenn says. "Using horses to teach life skills (not just in riding/training/care of horses) will allow youth to gain skills and self-esteem.
"I can't imagine where I'd be if it were not for supportive parents, but not every kid has that luxury. We'd like to be able to provide some of that support and structure."
While Guthrie says there's nothing he'd like more than to have every kid who wants to, come and pet and play with horses, he wants to make sure they're at an age where they "get" the concepts being taught, but are still young enough to be open to new ideas.
"The overall goal is to eventually develop a holistic life skills development program that will empower youth, first on the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation and then others, to apply these life skills in a way that they can create choices in their lives, instead of having the choices predetermined by their circumstance," he says.