When Danielle Garcia was a young girl, she loved horses but couldn’t afford lessons. Her mom was single and worked two jobs just so they could have food on the table. Horses were out of the question. But then Danielle discovered Taking the Reins, a non-profit organization in the Atwater section of Los Angeles, Calif., where underserved girls living in the inner city can learn how to ride. At Taking the Reins, Danielle not only learned to ride and care for horses, she also discovered a whole world outside her regular life.
Now an adult, Danielle earned a college degree in sociology, and is an instructor at Taking the Reins. In a recent interview with a local television station, Danielle said that Taking the Reins gave her the confidence to talk to people about her passions, and this led to scholarships that helped her pay for college.
“It changed my life,” she said.
The History of Taking the Reins
Taking the Reins started back in 1998 as a small riding program for at-risk girls in L.A. When it began, the program consisted of five rented stalls at a boarding facility. The program’s horses lived in four of the stalls, and the fifth stall was used as a classroom.
Over the past 24 years, Taking the Reins has grown to a one-and-a-half acre working farm with a state-of-the-art equestrian center and learning facility. During that time, the program has helped more than 4,000 girls learn to ride and care for horses—and taught them life skills in the process.
While Taking the Reins staff and volunteers are dedicated to helping girls learn and build confidence in themselves, the true heroes of the program are the horses. Taking the Reins currently has 13 horses, two Minis and a donkey in its barn, each with a unique personality and special skills that help the girls learn.
Horses Helping Girls
“All of our lesson horses are very well trained, and most have been successful show horses,” says Jane Haven, Taking the Reins executive director. “Currently, we have Arabians that have been Top Ten, National and Reserve National Champions in western pleasure, hunt seat pleasure and country English pleasure. Our Quarter Horses came from the reining, ranch riding and western pleasure disciplines. Our Irish Sport Pony was a jumper and equitation pony.”
The horses who work at Taking the Reins are mostly retired show horses being leased to the program.
“The horses are on loan to us from their owners,” Jane continues. “We provide for their care and feeding in exchange.”
For a horse to become part of the program, Jane says it must have the right personality.
“All horses coming into our program go through a 30 to 60-day evaluation period,” she explains. “During this time, our instructors and most advanced students work with the horse in a variety of situations to test their suitability as a lesson horse.”
The horses who are the best teachers are accepted into the program.
More Than Riding
Although Taking the Reins is focused on teaching girls to ride, program participants learn a lot more than just skills under saddle. The organization has different programs for girls of different ages and interests.
For girls ages 8 to 11, Cowgirl Corner is a pony-sized version of Taking the Reins’ larger weekend core program. With the help of the program’s Miniature Horses, girls learn how to move safely around horses, as well as how to halter, groom and feed. They also learn how to care for the farm’s chickens, ducks, rabbits and goats. Creating art and building projects around the farm is included, along with working in the farm’s garden.
Older girls from 12 to 18 learn how to groom horses, the nutritional needs of each horse, how to tack up and how to bond with a horse. They start out with basic western lessons, and as they progress, can be part of the show team.
Participants also learn hippology—the study of the horse, including behavior, anatomy, nutrition and reproduction. Girls who really get into the subject can become part of the judging team. The judging team travels to horse shows and learns about different breeds. Girls who perform well on the judging team have gotten scholarships from Taking the Reins to help them pay for college.
Girls in the core program can also be part of the Seed-to-Skillet gardening program, where they learn to grow fruit and vegetables, harvest them, and cook some them in the facility’s outdoor kitchen. They also study animal husbandry, interacting with and learning to care for the goats, rabbits, chickens, ducks, horses, ponies, dogs and cats who live on the property.
Making Giant Strides
In the decades Taking the Reins has been in existence, thousands of girls who never would have had the chance to learn about horses discovered this passion. Of the girls who spent at least two years in the program, 100 percent of have graduated from high school on time.
Of the girls who spent four years or more with Taking the Reins, 98 percent were the first in their family to attend college. And of all the girls that participated in the program, 83 percent have shown an increase in self-esteem and leadership skills. All this is proof that horses have the power to teach even more than we realize.
For more information on Taking the Reins, visit www.takingthereins.org.