(Feb. 8, 2019) Stephen Decatur Middle School Riding Club members are learning more than just how to ride a horse.
“It kind of teaches you that responsibility … and just knowing you can make [an] impact on whatever you’re trying to do,” said seventh grade student Kira Knappenberger.
Seventh grade social studies teachers Anne Cook and Heather Hand oversee the after-school club, which is now in its fourth week.
Cook got the idea for the club when she heard a Wicomico County school had received a grant for an equine therapy program. Her daughter, Skylar, rides horses at Autumn Grove stable in Berlin and she thought Decatur Middle School students would benefit from a riding club.
“I just thought it would be a fun after-school program,” Cook said.
For Hand, she said her riding journey was a personal one that started five years ago when she “wasn’t in a good place” and “wanted to do something crazy and brave,” despite the fact that she hadn’t really been around horses.
Her decision to ride horses has had a lasting impact on her life, and she said she wanted to pass that same feeling of camaraderie onto the members of the school’s riding club.
“I made so many friendships at the barn that I ride in, and already I see this with the girls and it’s really, really special,” Hand said. “I might shed a tear every time we go.”
The 11 members of the riding club and staff head to Autumn Grove on Sinepuxent Road in Berlin each Wednesday afternoon. The club organizers extended invitations to male students, but females appear to dominate.
Assistant Principal Theresa Torpey said the riding club is part of the school’s After School Academy. The club received $1,000 from Hertrich Toyota of Pocomoke, who ran a Cash for Class campaign to help fund the program. The donation covered the stable fees.
The club provides an opportunity for its members to experience horseback riding at a discounted cost.
Cook said the farm models its sessions after lessons, and the girls are often split into groups between doing tasks and riding the horses.
She expressed her gratitude to Principal Lynne Barton, as well the Naughton family, who own the stables, for their support in turning this dream into a reality.
Amidst the tranquil environment of the barn, several of the members agreed they enjoy the work, with tasks ranging from spending time with the horses, grooming them and mucking their stalls.
“It’s better than cleaning your room,” said seventh grader Brooke Fitzgerald.
Other members, including Knappenberger agreed, preferring to “get down and dirty” at the barn.
Fitzgerald said she appreciates how some of the new would-be equestrians “trust us [experienced riders], like we’re not just going to let them go.”
The after-school program has a few veterans, while others had never gotten on a horse before this club.
For seventh grader QuaMeerah Oliver, that was the case, but she used verbal communication to conquer that fear.
“What helps me not be scared is [that] I talk,” Oliver said.
Cook noted talking helps boost Oliver’s confidence, and she sets goals for herself during the sessions, such as wanting to ride a horse without being led.
Responsibility and trust were key points Hand wanted to hit home when interacting with animals.
“The love, the responsibility, the trust that you have to have when you are standing behind this most-of-the-time gentle giant,” Hand said.
Hand also stressed the importance of the girls learning to trust each other.
Life can get tough at any age, and Hand wanted to make sure the members of the riding club have the tools to succeed inside or outside the barn.
“I really wanted to push this patience, this build of self-esteem, self confidence, because that’s honestly what it did for me as an adult, and I certainly want my girls to feel happy and safe, but obviously responsibility, and trust at times that aren’t so easy to do,” Hand said.
Hand said she loves when she enters a barn that her “stress and anxiety melts away.” These stables, just a four-minute drive from the middle school, can serve as a safe space for these girls in need of refuge.
“I feel like you could count the barn for some people as like the happy place to go to,” Knappenberger said. “If you’re struggling, or you’re really stressed, going to the barn, you just kind of relieve all of that. You’re just having fun with the horses.”
Seventh grader Adelaide Weber recently moved to Worcester County from Pennsylvania. Weber noted similarities between horses and humans – specifically girls her own age.
“I love how they’re nice and peaceful and they’re tough and strong like a teenage girl,” Weber said. “She can be sometimes tough and strong, and then sometimes she can be nice and gentle.”
Seventh grader Grace Kline said she believes the horses have a special intuition.
“They care. They know what you’re feeling. They honestly know how to help that,” Kline said. “They can either make you feel comfort[ed] or just happy.”
Cook said she looks forward to heading to the stables each Wednesday afternoon.
“It’s definitely the highlight of my week,” Cook said.
The program aims to teach its members skills that they can take with them long after they leave the barn: responsibility, confidence and friendships. Several girls also said they’ve gotten to know each other better since joining the group.
“Many girls have gone to school together over the years and are now becoming friends because of the program,” Hand said.
But sometimes, it’s simply about lending a hand to a fellow equestrian-in-training.
“Even if it doesn’t seem like that big of a deal, even if you do a small little thing to help, it may go a long way for someone else,” Knappenberger said.
Cook said she thinks the girls learn something new every time they meet. As for any future equestrians in the club, several expressed interest.
The Stephen Decatur Middle School Riding Club is seeking funding through grants for its next session, slated to begin April 2. Those who would like to contribute to the program can contact the school at 410-632-3400.