[Note: this story has been modified since its original posting.]
On a muggy Monday evening, Kelly Deline got on a horse for the first time in 25 years. Her desire to find a new activity connected her with a summer group that helps all types of people get back in the saddle.
Tucked back on the east end of the Stephens College campus on Old 63 is the Stephens Equestrian Center. Even though many Stephens students leave the stables when the school year ends, the center remains active for others.
The reason each rider comes is different. Some, such as Deline, haven’t touched a saddle in years and are looking to recapture an interest. Others, such as 9-year-old Grant Maledy, have a couple of years of riding under their belts and are building on their experiences.
The four week-long sessions offered by Stephens give students plenty of time on horseback while teaching the basics of horse safety and maintenance.
But it’s more than that. Besides learning how to bathe, clip and ride a horse through obstacles, riders build confidence, said Michelle Smith, chairwoman of Stephens’ equestrian department.
Stephens College, which has earned national recognition for its equine studies since 1926, began offering the summer riding program in the early 1940s. The program has continued to attract both adults and children ever since. The center features an indoor and an outdoor arena, seven turn-out areas, stables and a cross-country course.
On these 18 acres, the summer programs’ 112 participants are learning valuable things on and off their horses.
Megan Holle, 13, is the youngest participant in her adult riding group. This is her second year. She lives in Arizona and comes to visit her father in Columbia. “She does this three hours a day for a week,” Dave Holle said. “It works well for us since she is only here for a short while.”
The start of the program proved to be a rough lesson when Bergen, the horse she was riding, startled and Megan fell off. After she had a moment to collect her thoughts and Bergen, who had trotted away, she was right back on again.
“Of course I’ll be back tomorrow,” she said.
Julee Johnson, 33, trotted around in an English saddle on a black horse named Indi. “You’re never too old,” said Johnson, a Stephens graduate who said she returns to the stables occasionally to go riding.
Grant, who lives in Columbia, is in his second summer in the riding program and attended daytime lessons. He found that in just three days he became more comfortable around horses.
“I was really tense around Ozzy,” Grant said of the horse. “But I’m not anymore. I can handle him better now.”
Smith said the riding program builds character for adults and children.
“They’re learning self-esteem and self-confidence,” Smith said, “especially when they’re handling a 1,000-pound horse.”
After being away from horses for so long, Deline, 42, has found herself re-learning the basics. The last time she was on a horse, she was a teenager. Deline reviewed proper handling procedures as instructors Ashley Budde and Allison Mather guided her and other evening program students through an exercise.
“Let him know you’re there,” 12-year-old Chloe Casteel, who helps out at the stables, said as she reminded Deline how to walk around the horse.
The summer riding program has 20 to 25 horses, Budde said. They were donated by various people, including Stephens alumnae, and all are professionally trained.
That makes things a little easier for 8-year-old Jessica Porter, who sometimes struggled putting the heavy saddles on the horses, “because they’re so big!” she said. But through a little teamwork with instructors and the other students, it wasn’t hard.
Instructors also work to pair each rider with a horse matching the rider’s ability and skill in order to increase comfort with the animal. “Finding the right horse that fits them helps build their confidence,” Budde said.
Smith said the summer riding program is not only great for children, but also for those who rode earlier in life and have a desire to return.
“We’re here to give them an experience,” Smith said. “We want to get them involved (in riding) and to see what it’s all about.”