As a former ranch hand and member of the Musical Ride, Cst. Tyrone Potts knows a thing or two about horses.
That's one of the reasons why the RCMP veteran, who has spent the bulk of his more than 30-year career serving southern Alberta's Piikani Nation, started a youth rodeo program seven years ago.
"Horses are true therapy animals," says Potts, who has also experienced and witnessed pain in his life. "When people are around the animal, they start to feel better."
Riding is also fun and builds confidence, he says.
"You can do lots of things with the horse," says 13-year-old Keyawna Plain Eagle, who started riding with the youth rodeo three years ago. "But you can't let them think they're in charge. They have to know you're the boss."
Potts was abandoned as a young boy and is on leave because of a post-traumatic stress disorder diagnosis.
"I've seen so much trauma in my time — when I was young and in my years as a cop," says Potts. "So, I wanted to create something that helped kids today."
Now once a week, Potts and a group of volunteers bring horses and steers to Crow Lodge Park on the reserve in the summer and to the arena at Pincher Creek, Alta., in the winter.
There, approximately 40 Indigenous and non-Indigenous students learn each week about riding and rodeo skills such as barrel racing or pole bending — an event that features a horse and rider weaving around a series of poles.
"We match horses with riders' ability," says Potts.
He adds that elders and other community leaders are recruited to talk to the kids about the presence of drugs and alcohol in the community, bullying and even suicide.
Plain Eagle, who says she dreams of being in a rodeo herself one day, enjoys another element the elders often bring — stories about the past.
"I like it when the elders talk about the horses and life back in their time," says Plain Eagle. "I want to learn about our history and what our culture is all about."