Hartford, Connecticut has the dubious distinction of appearing on lists of cities with superlatives like “most dangerous” and “most-distressed.” Despite its proximity to some of the country’s most prestigious universities, Hartford’s statistics on poverty and drug use are bleak. This isn’t the typical environment for a riding school complete with dressage team, saddle club and equine-assisted therapy center, but defying expectations is nothing new for Ebony Horsewomen.

Located in Hartford’s 693-acre Keney Park, surrounded on all sides by residential housing, Ebony Horsewomen is well positioned to serve the community. Each year, through its various horse programs, the non-profit has become an oasis for more than 400 youth in need of respite from their surroundings. Despite circumstantial challenges, many of these young riders go on to achieve advanced degrees, pursue fulfilling careers, and become community leaders.

A horse that changed everything 

For Ebony Horsewomen founder and CEO, Patricia Kelly, horses have been a lifelong source of comfort and motivation. When she was a child, a kind neighbor changed the course of her life when he introduced her to his backyard horse. Grooming led to riding, and as one of the few black children in a predominantly white neighborhood, the time Kelly spent with her neighbor’s horse was refuge from the exclusion and prejudice she experienced.

She had caught the horse bug, an affliction that followed Kelly through her service as a U.S. Marine and beyond. Experiencing firsthand the positive and powerful impact of horses, Kelly was inspired to bring their abilities to others in her community.

“In the inner-city, African-American and Latina women didn’t have a lot of activities,” Kelly says. “I realized the peace and serenity that I got out of riding, and I thought others could experience the same thing.”

In 1984, just a few blocks from where she first rode her neighbor’s horse, Kelly and her youngest daughter established Ebony Horsewomen, one of the first African-American all-female equestrian organizations in the country.

How horses are helping youth

  Shortly after its creation, Kelly’s vision for the program shifted to helping children of all genders, as the city’s conditions deteriorated and her concern for the future 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.”

[READ MORE: Denver’s urban youth find healing through horses]

With that goal in mind, Kelly designed Ebony Horsewomen’s programs and facilities to optimize learning, leadership and character-building opportunities for her students. Children and young adults are often referred to Ebony Horsewomen by schools, clinical agencies and the court system. Once housed in a single barn, the program now boasts a 6,000-square-foot heated indoor arena, an Equine Therapeutic stable and offices, multiple outdoor arenas, a dining hall, classrooms, library and more. A robust program roster includes equine-assisted therapies using multiple modalities, summer camp, young ladies dressage team, 4-H club, Junior Mounted Patrol team and more.

A team of volunteers and staff—including certified mental health professionals and horse specialists (along with 16 horses and a Shetland pony)— help guide children toward successful lives. 

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

Learning and character-building through horses

One of Ebony Horsewomen’s largest programs is their after-school program. STEM education–science, technology, engineering, and math—is a key element of the program, and students are able to apply their knowledge through real-world barn 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. In addition to dressage schooling and competing at shows, team members are encouraged to practice leadership, problem-solve and network within the horse industry.

Ebony Horsewomen also offers a unique program for young men: The Junior Mounted Patrol. Guided by the “cowboy code,” patrol members serve their community as mounted park rangers under the guidance of male mentors. They also do ranch chores, receive specialized horsemanship training and provide security for community events.

[READ MORE: How horse are helping first-responders]

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 Ebony Horsewomen programs have on youth is undeniable.

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

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

“It’s all about 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 and change a life.” 

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