Students learn how to care for horses in new program at Horse Park

Zack Friedman, foreground, and Matthew Kennedy led horses to the stables as part of their morning routine at the Kentucky Horse Park.
Zack Friedman, foreground, and Matthew Kennedy led horses to the stables as part of their morning routine at the Kentucky Horse Park. Lexington Herald-Leader

Mist rises over silent green fields and white-painted fences curving into the distance at the Kentucky Horse Park, early morning sun just kissing the treetops as horses nibble sweet grass wet with dew.

Time for school.

At The Stables, a new program that the Fayette County Public Schools opened this year on the horse park grounds, students head for distant paddocks to round up horses and take them to the barn.

Meanwhile, their classmates are busy at the barn, mucking out stalls, mixing up tubs of feed, and putting down fresh bedding and hay so all will be ready when the horses arrive. Some other students at The Stables are in class, but they'll get their turn with the horses later.

This is not your typical school. The Stables is based at the headquarters of Central Kentucky Riding for Hope, a nationally accredited center for therapeutic riding, which is located at the horse park.

The Stables program is intended to offer new opportunities for kids in grades seven through 12 who, for various reasons, haven't been successful in traditional classrooms. Some needed academic intervention, others required individualized help or discipline, some simply needed a smaller, closer-knit school environment.

The Stables provides all that and more, staffers say.

Students in the program can take core content academic classes, plus various vocational classes, all on site. But they also can get a taste of various jobs around the horse park — from clerical work and events planning to food planning and preparation — to see if any might match their interests and skills as future careers.

Finally, every student spends part of the day taking care of about 30 horses at Central Kentucky Riding For Hope. Those tasks — feeding, grooming, cleaning stalls — are a keystone of the entire Stables program.

It's not to prepare students for equine careers, though some are interested in such work. Rather it's to instill more basic things: being responsible, being punctual, taking ownership of a job and finding pride in doing it well.

The idea is that lessons learned around the horses will apply in the classroom and, ultimately, in life.

"We want these kids to consider that, if you're not here and available to help, the horses might not get fed, they might not get groomed. The horses are relying on you," says Brian McIntyre, academic dean at The Stables. "That's a sense that a lot of them haven't had before."

When school began last month, many of the students had never been around a horse before. Some were afraid to even take hold of a lead rope.

"Most of them were in culture shock the first week," McIntyre said. "Now they're pitching right in, team building, relying on each other. That's a valuable tool for life; if you can be a team player you can be successful."

Roughly half of the 35 students now attending The Stables are on Individualized Educational Programs. Some plan on college, many do not. McIntyre says the program's aim is to help each find his or her own niche.

While the program is in its infancy, students say they like it.

Zack Friedman, 17, who was leading a horse named Annie from a paddock to her stall one morning last week, said he prefers The Stables to Bryan Station High School, which he used to attend.

"Over here, the teachers care a lot," he said. "I'd never been around horses, and I was a little bit scared at first. But you get used to them, and now I like it a lot."

Matt Kennedy, 15, said he took to the horses immediately and eventually might like a career in the horse industry.

"I just like coming out here and taking care of them," he said.

Connor Mitchell, 16, doesn't plan a horse career, he wants to go into video design, but likes the overall Stables program.

"I had some problems in school, but I definitely think being here has helped me," he said. "The classes are small, so the teachers have more time to pay attention to us. If you need help, they'll give it."

The school also is giving students other ways to pursue interests.

When Kentucky Education Television sent a crew to film a story about Central Kentucky Riding For Hope last week, school officials arranged for Datonik Edwards to work with the crew and tell about The Stables. Datonik, who is interested in journalism, said she was excited about the opportunity.

The creation of The Stables dates back about two years when Brian McIntyre, then an employment trainer with the Fayette Schools, began bringing a few students to work around the stables at Kentucky Riding For Hope. Soon more students wanted to come.

Riding For Hope, which has been in operation more than 30 years, had long wanted to do some kind of school program. Serious talks began and The Stables was born.

"It evolved out of a lot of conversations, and as we began to see benefits students were getting, it grew into the program we see have today," said Denise Spittler, program director for Central Kentucky Riding For Hope.

Winston Churchill supposedly said that "the outside of a horse is good for the inside of a man." Spittler says she believes that, and that The Stables proves it.

"There are so many life lessons that can be learned from interacting with horses," she said. "You can see that when you're out here at 7:30 in the morning and the kids are here motivated and actively engaged."

Right now, The Stables is working on a new way to engage students, according to McIntyre.

The plan is to take a large pond adjacent to Central Kentucky Riding For Hope, clean it up, stock it with bass for fishing, and make the entire effort a science project, he said. Students could take and study water samples, learn about the biology of algae that grows on ponds and the growth of fish, he said.

To help make the learning fun, McIntrye also plans a bass fishing team made up of Stables students (bass fishing is a high school varsity sport in Kentucky starting this year). Some students already are interested.

Rachel Baker, who oversees The Stables program as the Fayette Schools' high schools administrator for special education, acknowledges that it's still a work in progress.

"But we feel like we're seeing pockets of success," she said. "I don't think I've ever walked into classrooms where kids are this engaged. Some people see alternative programs as negative. But these kids are gifted. These kids are going to make it."

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