Horses help group stress lifelong skills
10:00 PM, Jul 2, 2012 Written by
Addie Powell takes her horse through exercises at Ponies and Kids on Wednesday near West Lafayette. Ponies and Kids is a nonprofit organization for children and young adults using horse assisted activities. / By Michael Heinz/Journal & Courier
The executive director of a new not-for-profit organization says the group is helping increase confidence and leadership skills in local disadvantaged and lower-income children through horseback riding.
Between 30 and 50 children per week currently are attending daytime summer programs at Ponies and Kids, which is located in West Lafayette at Pony Brook Stables. They participate in riding activities as well as grooming, crafts and games.
Since the group received its not-for-profit status in April, participating children have improved their leadership and interpersonal skills, said executive director Wilene Gillim, a certified riding instructor and former Purdue Equestrian Team assistant coach.
“They grow out here,” Gillim said. “Something happens. Once you start riding, it gets in your blood.”
Gillim said she has enjoyed seeing how the children have changed since their first day at the stables.
“The horses help the kids realize that you’ve got to work through your fears,” Gillim said. “When something clicks, there’s nothing to compare it to.”
Gillim said she hopes to work closely with disadvantaged children as well as children with autism or injuries.
“Horses know kids. Bonding with an animal helps fill in an empty spot in a child,” Gillim said. “And the movements of the horse help with balance and train the muscles.”
Even though the Ponies and Kids staff is committed to getting kids off the couch and outside in the country air, Beth Plantenga, director of youth services, said children who participate in the programs during the school year will be required to work on their homework before getting on a horse.
Plantenga, who previously was an elementary educator, said she got involved in the organization because she wanted to develop a program in which kids would learn to associate fun with responsibility and be positively rewarded for getting their work done.
Gillim relies on more than 10 teen counselors — some who have taken lessons with her for years — to help plan activities and be role models .
Counselor Alexis Pearson, 16, said she is still working on overcoming some of her fears, but helping younger participants has made her more self-aware.
“When we’re going good, we’re going good,” Pearson said. “I learn something new every day.”
The Ponies and Kids staff said they have big plans for future growth.
Where outdoor fences stand now, Gillim said she imagines a large indoor arena and a barn to house the not-for-profit’s 14 horses.
She also hopes to increase competition opportunities for her kids, which she said further hones leadership skills.
Gillim said in her former role as a for-profit riding instructor, she was discouraged by the number of children who showed potential but could not afford to take part in $200 competitions.
That led her to form the not-for-profit, which Gillim said has been financially challenging because she was forced to essentially close Pony Brook Stables while investing time and money into Ponies and Kids.
Although the organization is still in “desperate need” of supplies, money and volunteers, she said it was worth it.
“Ponies and Kids is my baby,” she said. “These kids need to be out on the horses and that’s what it is about.”
Addie Powell, 10, said with Gillim’s help, she overcame her fears after she was bopped from a horse.
“I just got scared,” Powell said. “Then, later, I jumped. When I’m cantering or jumping, I feel like I’m flying.”