New Hope Academy junior Emely Gutierrez had never seen a horse up close.

And she definitely had never groomed one.

But when she met horses at Story Brook Meadows farm, she fell in love - even when her assigned horse, Horton, tried to run away from her.

"He's stubborn," she said with a laugh.

A half-dozen New Hope girls have been volunteering at Story Brook Meadows in York Township for several weeks as part of a pilot horse therapy program that involves doing everything from grooming and learning equine safety to riding and even shoveling manure.

The goal is to teach the girls a sense of responsibility, give them a self-esteem boost and help them overcome social and emotional obstacles they've had, said New Hope director of student services Barb Leonard.

Emely said she learned a lot about horses, especially about their emotions.

"They are more scared than humans are," Emely said.

Freshman Cheyenne Washington said doing the chores in bad winter weather has been the toughest (but most rewarding) part, and that taking care of horses is a lot more involved than one might gather from watching on TV.

"It's a good experience with animals," she said. "It's hard to take responsibility for such big animals."

Junior Shantis Epps added she liked the bond the horses are developing with the students and vice versa.

"They have to learn to trust us all," she said.

If it sounds like there are a lot of life lessons, that's the point.

"They are coming out of their shells," Leonard said of the students. "They're realizing that if you face your fear, you can accomplish something."

The three-month program, which almost has wrapped up, has been so popular that many other New Hope students, including boys, want to participate next time. Leonard is all for it.

"I'm just so proud of them," she said.

- Reach Andrew Shaw at ashaw@yorkdispatch.com