Imagine having never seen anything larger than a squirrel and finding yourself in a barn surrounded by horses. What do you feel? What are you thinking? What are your initial instincts? These are a few of the many question that students from the Robert F. Kennedy School were asked to answer and experience as they traversed a six week City to Saddle Program at Rein in a Dream in Lancaster. The goal of the Cowboy Kids program is to introduce a variety of character skills that will enrich the student’s daily lives working with the horses as partners.
City to Saddle – which was founded in 2003 – is a non-profit organization which provides a diverse population of under-served children access to the life-enhancing benefits of horsemanship programs by funding and arranging riding opportunities for children ages 6-18.
A word that defines a character trait is introduced each week. It is important that the students connect the word to both themselves and their animal and human partners. The word courage was introduced one week. “Courage means facing your fears, “participant Troy said. “I like coming here because all of the horses have different personalities, and some have more courage than others,” he added. Courage was on full display as student Ruby approached her horse with great confidence and prepared to mount. As she was throwing her leg over Geronimo she started to lose her balance and grabbed the horse’s neck. “Wow, that was close,” she said. “Lucky for me Geronimo was courageous and helped me to stay on.” A great way to learn that teamwork between the horse, the leader and the rider are all inter-connected. Ruby is familiar and comfortable with animals as her family owns two dogs, two cats, a baby ferret and a bird. “Even though I’ve volunteered at a horse stable before, I am showing courage here as this is the first time I have actually been on a horse. I would definitely come back.”
The goals of the program are many, but high on the list is to increase social skills and form an understanding of the character traits that are used during weekly lessons. All lessons include four methods of teaching; visual, discussion, demonstration and hands-on. The kids, many of whom had never been near an animal never mind on a horse’s back – were forced to deal with their own emotions as well as discover a way to work as a team. As each team of four – horse, rider, instructor and leader – navigated the ring the character trait was subtly woven into the conversation.
For example, prior to working with the horses the students participated in a discussion about courage; learning the meaning and spelling of the word. Students were also encouraged to discuss a time when they showed courage in their lives. Once on horseback, the students were challenged with an obstacle course learning to maneuver their horses through a variety of obstacles. The obstacles also represented the challenges the students face in their lives.
Morgan Murphy – a staff member from RFK noted that her student, Rodney, looked forward to Wednesdays. “When the kids are here with the horses they are really well behaved,” Morgan said. “Rodney is from Dorchester and this is his first time on a horse. He loves this program and waits all week for it and then when Wednesday arrives he says, “It’s Wednesday which means we are going YEE HAWING!” Morgan said Rodney would absolutely return if the program was offered again and noted that his definition of courage has changed since he first came to the program. “He had never been on a horse before, and now he is comfortable. He knows that takes courage.”
Along with teamwork, communication and trust, the students are also learning to develop a positive loving relationship with a living being by receiving unconditional and non-judgmental acceptance from the horse. Rodney has clearly fallen in love. As he dismounted Geronimo with a big smile and a sadness that reflected his desire to remain on the horse all day he said, “Is it possible to ride two times today?”