It was a wild idea - letting Lexington inner-city kids work with wild mustangs. Many people said it wouldn't work, but thanks to the efforts of caring people and the simple magic of "kid-meets-horse," the program is a wonderful success story.
On a brisk January day in 1997, eight uniformed young riders of the Kentucky Horse Park Mustang Troop, mounted on sleek bay horses, passed in review before President Clinton in his second inaugural parade. Clinton smiled and gave them an approving thumbs up. It was a fitting gesture, because the presence of these particular horses and youngsters in the parade was proof that a most unusual experiment was working.
Less than three years earlier, in 1994, the troop was just a wild idea -- as uncertain as the 12 wild mustangs rounded up on the open ranges of Wyoming and relocated in the beautifully manicured surroundings of Lexington's Kentucky Horse Park. And as uncertain as the group of inner city kids who arrived at the Horse Park one day with no clue as to how to approach a horse, much less ride in parades and musical drills.
"People said we were crazy," says KHP riding instructor Todd Waronicki, who has directed the Mustang Troop from the beginning. "The program was the brainchild of the Park's past executive director, Lee Cholak. It started with a Buffalo Soldiers exhibit [honoring the African-American cavalry regiments in the late 1860s which performed an invaluable service in taming the American West.]
"Mr. Cholak came up with the idea of adopting wild mustangs from the Bureau of Land Management and training at-risk African-American youngsters to ride them," says Waronicki. "The Mustang Troop grew from that idea. I say 'at risk' because these are kids who have not gotten into trouble -- but without positive outlets like PAL and the Troop, they might."
It took a rare collaboration among federal, state and local agencies to bring Cholak's idea to fruition. In 1994, the federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM) gave the Kentucky Horse Park (a state-owned facility) the mustangs. The Police Activities League (PAL) of the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Division of Police (a municipal entity) volunteered to select inner-city children, transport them to the Horse Park and supervise them.
Connie Davis, the officer who has been in charge of the PAL portion of the program since its inception, says "I had reservations at first, but this has become one of our most prestigious PAL programs. Everything about it is positive reinforcement for the kids. Being in the Troop has made a world of difference in so many lives. It's remarkable that three agencies, instead of being territorial, are working together for the good of the children."
The troop, which consists of riders aged 10 to 18, is much in demand for musical drill team performances and parade appearances across the country (see schedule). Eight to 12 riders are used in each performance and Waronicki makes a point of rotating the leaders so that everyone shares the responsibility.
The Troop has come a long way, he says. "At first, if a horse sneezed, the child would drop the lead rope and run," he recalls. "New kids are still sort of scared, but very determined to learn. And the confidence level overall has risen tremendously. Many of the kids are quite talented. I would certainly hire them to work horses for me. It's not like they just get by; they know what they're doing.
"They have so much pride," he adds, "during performances, of course, but also when visitors to the Park show an interest in their horses. The kids will dash to open their stalls and bring their horses out to be petted. Little kids who hardly spoke a word when they first came here now talk freely with strangers about their horses."
Early on in the program, enthusiasm sometimes overshadowed accuracy, Waronicki recalls. "Before the mustangs had been schooled enough for the kids to ride, we started them on an experienced lesson horse named Berger, who is a Lippizan. One day I overheard one of the kids telling visitors that the horse was Burgler and he was a Leprauchan."
Early on a balmy summer morning, a PAL van pulls into the Horse Park and a dozen kids pour into the Big Barn. It is a scene that now seems as natural as the other daily functions at the 1,200-acre Park, which is home to nearly 50 breeds of horses and two outstanding museums dedicated to the horse and horsemen. The youngsters prepare their assigned stalls with straw, hay and water, then bring the mustangs (there are 19 of them now) in from their paddocks. The riders groom and tack up their mounts and practice riding or drill team routines for several hours, with a break for lunch. At 3 p.m., when the horses have all been bathed and turned out and the stalls and aisles are spotless, the PAL van takes the children home. This scene is repeated every weekday during summer and on Saturdays during the school year.
"It can be chaotic when we have 13 kids and horses milling about, but now we have a lot of return troopers who help teach the newer ones," says Jodi Dickey, a University of Kentucky student who began working with the Troop as a volunteer in 1994 and for the past two summers has been an intern paid by the BLM. "The kids earn merit points for the work they do and good behavior, which lead to cash awards at the end of the year."
The program has several success stories - children who are now in college or employed in horse industry jobs. One of them works for the Horse Park. Many of them continue to come back to help in the program.
"When the kids argue now, it is about what kind of horses they are going to have on their farms," says Waronicki. "I doubt that they thought about those possibilities before, when they were always on the other side of the board fences that enclose the beautiful farms in our area."
"We aren't going to make their lives perfect or change all the other issues they have to deal with, but the Mustang Troop is something positive in their lives and something they can be proud of," says Margi Stickney, the Horse Park's acting education director. "They have an opportunity many youngsters would love to have, and it gives them boundless self-esteem and self-confidence."
"We thought we were pioneering a program that would spawn others working with the BLM in a similar way," says Waronicki. "We do get inquiries and we still hope this will happen. However, it took a tremendous investment and show of faith by the Horse Park before it was obvious that the program was a success. Then donations came. The Kentucky Horse Park Foundation manages the funding, through which we are able to provide more kids with this wonderful chance."
For more information on the Mustang Troop, visit the Kentucky Horse Park website, www.kyhorsepark.com.