A group of young Black men confidently guides their horses through the streets of Hartford’s North End. They smile and wave to friends and residents as they ride through the neighborhood. As surprising as it may sound to encounter horses in the capital city, this is no anomaly: the young men are members of the Junior Mounted Patrol Unit at Ebony Horsewomen, Incorporated, a non-profit equestrian and therapeutic organization located within Keney Park.
The patrol is a familiar sight on the trails that wind through the 693 acres of the largest municipal park in New England. They report trail hazards to the Keney Park Sustainability committee, help with trail maintenance, permanently mark trails, and provide hospitality for visitors on their weekly Sunday patrols.
Ebony Horsewomen and the myriad of programs they offer have been a vibrant part of life in the North End for over 36 years. Ebony Horsewomen is well-known for their youth programs, but the services they provide extend to a wider population and address mental health issues across all ages through their certified Equine Assisted Psychotherapy services. Staff members receive training and continuous education through The HERD Institute, a National Board for Certified Counselors-approved continuing education provider that offers training and certifications in equine facilitated psychotherapy and learning, and through the UConn Equine Extension program.
Growing up as a Black youth in Hartford can be stressful, challenging, and dangerous, says Patricia “Pat” Kelly, the founder and CEO of Ebony Horsewomen. Ebony Horsewomen provides a point of connection, a safe place to learn, a home, a family, and guidance during the critical early years in the lives of young people.
The Ebony Horsewomen programs become a catalyst for participants to help them find their voice, their path, and reach their full potential. The impact of Ebony Horsewomen’s programs is larger than the number of youths served, or hours of programming provided. It’s about the individual lives that have transcended the circumstances that they were born into to achieve success, Kelly says.
“There are so many intricacies to what we do,” Kelly says. “We are a herd here. When we all come together people understand there is a level of responsibility. It’s about training our participants to handle the situations they’re going to encounter in the rest of their lives.”
The Healing Power of Horses
Equine therapy is a widely accepted form of therapy. Young people and adults can work through their trauma in a safe place during equine therapy. The format allows the individual to open up on their own terms. A licensed clinical therapist works with participants, and sessions can be covered by health insurance providers.
“Most of the clients at Ebony Horsewomen are people of color,” Kelly says. “To better connect with the audiences that we serve, all of the therapists at Ebony Horsewomen are Black and Brown. It’s easier for a Black or Brown therapist to provide therapy to a white client than the reverse.”
During a session, participants may go for a walk in the park or brush a horse: the session is based on whatever works for the participant. It helps them open up to the therapist and talk through the issues they’re having. Equine therapy is a healing process so the participant can meet the challenges of the society they live in.
“The horse becomes the instructor and our staff serve as guides. The horse is the master teacher,” Kelly says. “Some of these are young men that could be dead, but the horses have provided them a path and made an impact. Equine therapy changes how the participant manages and approaches society. It is the horse that offers that healing. When they walk out of here, they still have to worry about being targeted but their mindset isn’t reactionary. They have learned to manage an 1,100-pound horse that’s misbehaving. Later, if they’re stopped by a police officer, they know how to handle the situation from a calm mindset.”
Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the program has seen an influx of new families and individuals participating in the equine therapy sessions. A recent study from the National 4-H Council found that 81% of teens cite mental health as a significant issue in their lives, and the pandemic is intensifying the problems many face. Some participants can attend therapy as much as two or three times per week. But it isn’t only adolescents: Veterans and first responders also participate in the equine therapy programs at Ebony Horsewomen. Another course was offered to the Hartford Police. Since the the start of the pandemic, the sessions at Ebony Horsewomen have been tailored to adhere to social distancing guidelines.
“Mental health is the bottom line of what we do – it’s one of the greater challenges these kids have living in America as a Black person,” Kelly says. “We have three boys that are old enough to get their drivers’ licenses now. It’s a rite of passage for young people but it scares me to death. Now, I’m not just worrying about them getting home safe, but about them driving while Black. That daily stress is layer after layer after layer.”
Positive Youth Development
Addressing those daily stress levels is one of the focal points of the youth-oriented programs that Ebony Horsewomen offers. Some young people in their programs would never be in trouble, but they want to experience equestrianism. Ebony Horsewomen offers something for everyone, and all participants and horses are treated as individuals.
Positive youth development is a cornerstone of all programming. They offer mentoring, financial, and life skills. Youth opportunities include the Junior Mounted Patrol Unit, the Young Ladies Dressage Team, the Saturday Saddle and 4-H Club, the Extended Day Program, and the Summer Day Camp. Most participants are from Hartford, although some are from Bloomfield and Windsor. There are 15 to 20 young people participating in each program. The numbers are being kept lower during the pandemic but will increase again when guidelines can safely be eased. Summer Day Camp serves between 80 and 100 participants each year.
“4-H Positive Youth Development is built upon the essential elements of belonging, independence, mastery and generosity. Ebony Horsewomen programs provides youth the opportunity to be a part of a community, demonstrate decision making through independent thinking, master experiential hands-on tasks and to demonstrate generosity in caring for animals as well as their peers,” says Jen Cushman, Hartford County 4-H Extension Educator.
Ebony Horsewomen has programs and partnerships with other members of the community as well. The Milner Elementary School had an afterschool program three days a week before the pandemic. Students learned safety and life skills and worked with the horses. When the pandemic started, the program transitioned to a virtual environment with a Friday riding club that follows social distancing guidelines. A kindergarten class comes every Tuesday for small animal and agriculture activities. Partnerships exist with other agencies and organizations throughout the greater Hartford area.
“Many youths that participate have been through traumatic experiences and being at Ebony Horsewomen gives them a sense of hope and belonging,” says Chaz Carroll, mentor for the Junior Mounted Patrol and the facilities manager. “They are a part of something that is empowering.”
Youth are also forming bonds with the staff and their fellow participants. “It’s amazing to see the connection kids can make with each other when they’re given a chance,” Kelly says. “They’re learning about life and the differences of people regardless of their color or what the media says they are. It’s more than just life skills.”
Ebony Horsewomen participants have longevity with the program. For example, two recent high school graduates have been participating in programs since they were six years old. Carroll is an alumnus of the program. Dominique Bourgeois started as a program participant and is the director of programs now; she’s been working for Ebony Horsewomen for 18 years.
A Catalyst for Change
Program participants are a testament to the impact of the Ebony Horsewomen programs. Having a place to belong and a community that becomes a family is the catalyst for change for the youth and adults that participate in programs.
One student started with Ebony Horsewomen by stopping to visit daily. He hadn’t visited in a while when Kelly received a phone call from the local psychiatric hospital that one of her students was requesting to see her. She didn’t have any missing students, but went to the hospital. The young boy that had been stopping to visit the horses had attempted suicide and was there. Kelly continued visiting him during a lengthy hospital stay. When he finally got out of the hospital, he came to the barn every day.
“Chance, one of our horses, saved that boy’s life,” Kelly says. “He received a full scholarship including housing, to the Cornell University Farrier Program. He was scared to go, but we pushed him. He didn’t think he was smart enough. He excelled there. Now he shoes horses up and down the East Coast. It’s about more than a youth program – there are so many layers to what we do here.”
Many of the youth refer to Kelly as Mom, and her husband as Dad or Pop. Some youth are looking for a connection. Some have deteriorating thoughts about themselves and the horses tell those youth that, no, they are pretty smart. Some kids find their voice at Ebony Horsewomen. Others learn to better control their mouth. Each youth is treated as an individual and receives the support they need to reach their full potential.
Cushman notes that the 4-H Study of Positive Youth Development concludes that “Effective youth development programs . . . are . . . focusing on three important areas: positive and sustained relationships between youth and adults; activities that build important life skills; opportunities for youth to use these skills as participants and leaders in valued community activities.” Ebony Horsewomen’s programs accomplish all three of these goals.
“The education system is an atmosphere of testing and evaluation, it’s not about critical thinking, it’s about data collection,” Kelly says. “Kids come out not developing their minds and we’re changing that here. We have kids that have graduated from Harvard University, attending on full scholarship, Howard University, Boston University, to mention a few, and many Black historical colleges, finding their voice and pushing through to their dream to their involvement with the horses.”