Ebony Horsewomen Inc. uses horses to heal, teach, inspire, and shape tomorrow’s leaders.

You wouldn’t expect to find a ranch offering equine-assisted learning, a dressage team, and a young men’s mounted patrol in the middle of urban Hartford, Connecticut, but defying expectations is nothing new for Ebony Horsewomen Inc. (EHI).

EHI has become an oasis for youth living in a city plagued by poverty, drugs, and crime. More than 400 youth per year participate in EHI activities, which include an after-school program, a summer camp, a dressage team, a junior mounted patrol, and a 4-H club. The ranch is located in Hartford’s 694-acre Keney Park, surrounded on all sides by cities.

Horses have been a source of comfort and joy for Ebony Horsewomen Inc. founder Patricia Kelly throughout many stages of her life, from growing up in the only African-American family in a white neighborhood to serving in the U.S. Marines. Riding later became a way for Kelly and her daughter to reconnect after Kelly’s time in the military. She soon realized that her friends would also benefit from the therapeutic power of working with horses.

“There were times within the inner city when African-American and Latina women didn’t have a lot of activities. I realized the peace and serenity that I got out of [riding] and I thought that some of my girlfriends could experience the same thing,” says Kelly.

Ebony Horsewomen Inc. was founded in 1984 as one of the first African-American female equestrian organizations in America. Within three years, Kelly’s vision for the program had shifted to helping children of all genders, as inner city conditions deteriorated and her concern for the futures of local youth grew.

“When young people are trapped in a negative environment, they quickly experience that negativity and it can kill their souls,” says Kelly. “We are about healing them and making them whole again.”

With that goal in mind, EHI has designed its programs and facilities to optimize learning, leadership, and character-building opportunities for its students. Their facilities have grown from a single barn to two stables, a 6000 square-foot heated indoor arena, outdoor arenas, a country store, a commercial kitchen, a dining hall, science classrooms, and a library.

Kelly leads the volunteers and staff, which includes several Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association instructors and Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International instructors. Sixteen horses and a Shetland pony round out the team.

EHI founder Patrica Kelly with members of the Junior Mounted Patrol.

EHI founder Patrica Kelly with members of the Junior Mounted Patrol.

EHI helps youth heal from past traumas and gain confidence in themselves through equine-assisted therapy and psychotherapy. Although they offer therapy for everyone, from veterans to families, the majority of their clients are youth. Children and young adults are often referred to EHI by schools, clinical agencies, and the court system.

Since EHI is located in the middle of five schools, the after-school program is one of their largest. STEM education—science, technology, engineering, and math,—is a key component of the program. The students experience real-life applications of math and science through activities such as measuring feed, learning how vaccines work, and calculating medicine doses based on an animal’s weight.

Another popular program is the Young Ladies Dressage Team and Leadership Academy (YLLA). In addition to dressage training and competing at shows, YLLA members receive opportunities to practice leadership and problem solving through an educational aspect of the program.

Ebony Horsewomen Inc. also offers a unique program for young men. The Junior Mounted Patrol (JMP) provides a chance for young men to serve their community as mounted park rangers under the guidance of male mentors. Members of the JMP do chores on the ranch, patrol Keney Park and local neighborhoods, and even provide security for community events.

The unique combination of hands-on learning and character-building through working with horses is invaluable, especially in an area where youth are surrounded by opportunities for high-risk activities. The positive influence that EHI programs have on youth is undeniable.

“We’ve had 100-percent graduation from high school and 82-percent graduation from college,” Kelly says.

Ebony Horsewomen Inc. has developed leaders, enhanced students’ educations, and provided mentors for youth in an area where positive role models are desperately needed. Thirty-three years after starting EHI, Kelly finds that watching children’s lives change is still her favorite part of running the program.

“[It’s] seeing the children grow,” says Kelly. “Watching them come into their own, seeing them understand and learn, and able to use the information that we’re giving them; that is always something special for me. To see how we have helped to develop a life.”